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Colour Theory in Seamus McGarvey’s Filmography

Updated: Feb 16, 2022

Seamus McGarvey is a cinematographer from Northern Ireland, who has worked on a plethora of films, such as; The Greatest Showman (2017), Avengers Assemble (2012), and We Need To Talk About Kevin (2011). He has received two Academy Award nominations, for his cinematography on Atonement (2007) and Anna Karenina (2012). McGarvey believes that the essence of cinematography is evoking emotion for the narrative, and he states that he particularly loves storytelling through the use of colour, specifically through the juxtaposition of different colours, in order to create a subconscious psychological impact on the viewer as they watch a film. Red is his favourite colour to use for this effect, and this is evident across his work.

Colour theorists describe what connotations particular colours have, and red is typically associated with; love, desire, and passion, as well as violence, war, danger, aggression, and power. The colour red also has physical effects on the human body, as it is shown to enhance metabolism, increase respiration rate, and raise blood pressure, meaning it is an extremely effective colour to use in film. Other colours can be implemented to create very different effects, for example, blue can signify peace and calm, as well as sadness or coldness, whereas orange connotes warmth, enthusiasm, and happiness.

In Nocturnal Animals (2016), directed by Tom Ford, red is the most notable and prominent colour, used as an indicator of danger and revenge, both of which are prevalent themes throughout the film. When captured on film, as opposed to with a digital camera, red creates an effect which makes it appear as though the colour is almost vibrating, making it extremely striking and attention-grabbing to a viewer. In Nocturnal Animals, the character of Tony Hastings, portrayed by Jake Gyllenhaal, and the colour red, are often shown to go hand-in-hand. At the beginning of the film, this relationship between character and colour is extremely overpowering, with red signifying impending doom, and foreshadowing the upcoming bloodshed. Tony is shown bathed entirely in red, and he is almost drowning in it, suggesting that he is incapable of preventing the violence that is about to ensue. However, as the film progresses, Tony is shown wearing a red flannel shirt, suggesting that he has embraced this aggression, and he is no longer governed by it, rather, he is weaponizing it for his own means of revenge against those who attacked his family.

Similarly, in We Need To Talk About Kevin (2011), directed by Lynne Ramsay, the inclusion of the colour red is an ongoing theme throughout the duration of the film, used as a harbinger of doom and a signifier of anger and unease. These constant reminders of danger and violence serve to foreshadow the murders that will unfold at the end of the film, indicating to the audience that something dreadful is going to happen, thus creating an incredibly tense atmosphere, and engaging the audience. Red seems to follow the character of Eva, portrayed by Tilda Swinton, everywhere she goes, implying that she is haunted by the horrific actions of her son, and that the guilt that she feels for being unable to control him makes her feel as though the blood is on her hands.

In Bad Times At The El Royale (2018), directed by Drew Goddard, different colours are used as a photographic signature for each character, as a way to separate their identities, while also indicating what kind of person they are. The use of red is most prominently used during the introduction of the character of Billy Lee, played by Chris Hemsworth, whose arrival signifies the coming of death and destruction, emphasised through the shot of him drenched in red light, almost basking in violence. Rose Summerspring, the young girl who got caught up in Billy’s cult, played by Cailee Spaeny, wears a muddied white dress, signifying her corrupted purity, and her descent from innocence to brutality.

Daniel Flynn, portrayed by Jeff Bridges, wears black and white, signifying his two-sided nature, and the contrast between the truth of his criminal past and his lies about being a priest. Darlene Sweet, played by Cynthia Erivo, wears yellows and greens, indicating warmth and kindness, showing that she is a pure and radiant person, and immediately informing the audience that she is a protagonist. This film is a perfect example of the way in which colour can be used to evoke emotion and tell a story, as the audience are able to infer so much about the characters, through aesthetics alone.


This post was written by Molly as part of her participation on Kingston Film Festival's Work Experience this July. For more information on upcoming work experience and other events, keep an eye on our website and 'Arts Emergency'

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