Colour palettes in historical movies

In 2000, the Coen brothers released ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou’, a film set in depression-era Mississippi. The film was a landmark, in that it took advantage of colour correction techniques. Previously this had been used for, well, colour correction. However, in the George Clooney flick, it was used to wash colour from the entire film, giving it a largely sepia-toned appearance.

Oh Brother, Where Art Thou

This was seen as a positive step by film studios, to the point where pretty much every film studio used this technique to reduce their films to just two colours: teal and orange. There are many reasons for this, but largely it’s because these two contrasting colours look good together. And, I suspect, if you live in an arid state like California, these are colours that you are used to seeing.

Back to the sepia tone, though. This is actually a very popular palette for historical media. In the UK, for example, all signs for historical places are brown (technically all tourist signs are brown, but that might undermine my argument somewhat, so please ignore it).

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My theory is that this is inspired by archaeology. Bones, mud, and terracotta are all part of the sepia spectrum. Add in elements like wood, leather and parchment, and our lazy assumption is that the past must have been a browner time. Forget seeing things through rose-tinted spectacles, our view of the past is plain muddy.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in films about war.For example, while ‘Saving Private Ryan’ was released a couple of years before ‘O Brother…’, it overwhelmingly uses a palette of greys and browns.

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You might expect war films like this to make more use of reds, with blood, fire, and explosions. In fact, these are kept to a minimum, with the colour only used for shock value. The ‘desaturation’ of colour is regularly used in war films, and those set in communist-era Eastern Europe to suggest a grim reality, devoid of the colour of normal life.

In contrast, period dramas tend to use a combination of rich dark shades, and pastel highlights. This tends to suggest an opulent setting, with delicate features.

danish girl

Of course, the biggest issue with colour manipulation in this way, is that it doesn’t always reflect historical reality. True, palettes have changed throughout history. As new dyes became available, so new colours became fashionable. However, there simply wasn’t the narrow band of colour that is presented today.

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