The popularization of limited color palettes and how they convey meaning

By Brenda Odria

Wes Anderson has been active in the film world since ‘96 and he is attributed with popularizing the use of a deliberately limited color palette. In other words, Wes Anderson uses color in a way that caught the attention of film critiques and the public. This generated a shift from color being used for realism to color being used for dramatic purposes. In that this use underlines the psychological meaning for the drama.

The question arises of how do certain colors convey a certain psychological meaning?

Though color is capable of being exploited for different stylistic intentions. For Wes Anderson he has commented on the fact that his use of color allows his films to be seen as their own “self contained worlds.” Today the use of color is subject to cultural connotations, where trends with color involve monochromatic schemes, color blocking and pastels. Wes Anderson is only an example of how this appears in cinema, like in his film The Royal Tenenbaums.

This depiction of color has since been used in series’ like Black Mirror, specifically the first episode of season three titled Nosedive, directed by Joe Wright. Here, like in a Wes Anderson film, the colour pallette is limited to pastels in order to create a self contained world; for Nosedive a futuristic upper class reliant on social media ratings. Nosedive reflects the pastel trend with the use of millennial pink in the episode to create a false sense of tranquility within the dysfunctional macrocosm, where the inhabitants must behave to increase their rating.

Color while being pleasing to the eye of the audience, it also functions as a device for the plot of the movie. There is importance in color in that it communicates a certain meaning for the audience. This generation has developed what film makers refer to as “color consciousness”, an understanding of color patterns and their associations. These past years has seen the release of other films with deliberately limited color palettes, such as Call me By Your Name directed by Luca Guadagnino and Lady Bird directed by Greta Gerwig. For the look of Lady Bird, writer/director Greta Gerwig worked alongside cinematographer Sam Levy and colorist Alex Bickel in order to create the film in a way that the audience is a viewer connected to the film but strictly as an outside viewer, to create the look of a memory. To create this they began to colorcopy old yearbook photos, the distressed images became the aesthetic of a memory of the early 2000s.

For Call Me By Your Name it is costume designer Giulia Piersanti, also knitwear designer at Céline with previous work for Balenciaga, that made the clothing in the film capture the 80s fashion nostalgia so present in 2018. The film is filled with moments where the shot lingers on the button ups, and bright colored shorts that contribute to their dreamy summer in Italy. Piersanti conducted research through magazines and photos albums of the 1980s in Italy to find vintage pieces for each character, specifically the heavy clothing pieces of Oliver’s different colored shorts and the shirt he gifts to Elio. These were significant because the changing colors of the shorts are used to reflect the changing emotions in Oliver, and the “billowy” shirt that is much looser on Elio. Both these pieces are also frequent in appearance in the wardrobes of the films audience, specifically the younger generation.  

In Paul Coates’ Cinema and Color: The Saturated Image the author investigates the connotations associated with certain colours and how it may vary by location, citing the example of blue as energetic in Spain and Portugal but in Italy a symbol for joy. Coates is successful in communicating that films have different colour schemes that serve specific purposes.

A resource for understanding why colours evoke certain sensations is Canva, it explains colour theory and how artists use it to create colour harmony. Try it out on

All these directors have successfully used limited colour palettes that appeal to the color consciousness of the younger generations lense. Either by stylistic influence or the use monochromatic shots that appeal to the eye. Thus contributing to their significant success in the world of cinema and inspire style choices and trends for Millennials and Gen Z, to create wardrobes with a limited colour palette of pastels and early 2000s fashion. The color theory in these films create nostalgia for different eras- 80s and early 2000s- that are resonant within the younger generations in 2018.