Artist Spotlight, Pro Tips

How Guillermo del Toro Uses Color for Thematic Effect


Ever since Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro made his feature debut with 1993’s Cronos, one of the touchstones of the director’s work has been a vivid use of color. With a particular panache for steel blues, blood reds, and sepia yellows, his moviemaking is not just aesthetically rich, but representative of the full thematic potential of color. With his latest film, The Shape of Water, garnering rave reviews and racking up award nominations, we decided to take a look at some of the notable ways del Toro has used color to help tell his remarkable stories.

Differentiating Worlds

No film Guillermo del Toro has made has been untouched by the otherworldly – whether it’s via vampires, ghosts, or monsters — and most of those worlds are made to look otherworldly through a heightened use of color. The director even likes to attribute different colors to different parts of the worlds in his movies in order to distinguish them.

Pan’s Labyrinth is a perfect example of that. Whenever the film’s protagonist, Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), moves between the post-Spanish Civil War world she lives in and the fairytale world she escapes to, the color palette shifts. The “real” world is often cold and blue, and the other world is warm with crimsons and yellows — as seen in this shot where Ofelia enters a fantasy throne room. On the one hand, it provides a visual cue to let us keep track of which world we’re in. On the other hand, it reflects its nature: gentle, warm, and promising of safety that Ofelia can’t find elsewhere.

'Pan's Labyrinth'
Ivana Baquero as Ofelia in Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)

Representing Characters’ Relationships to Their Environments

In the hands of del Toro, colors can not only reflect a place, but also a character’s place in it. Take this moment in The Shape of Water where Elisa (Sally Hawkins) and Zelda (Octavia Spencer) are cleaning a men’s bathroom in the secret government facility they work in.

Given their profession as cleaners, men like Strickland (Michael Shannon) can be prone to seeing them as almost invisible – simply background noise in human form. Del Toro cleverly symbolizes that by choosing a hue for Elisa and Zelda’s uniforms that matches the bathroom’s color scheme and makes them almost disappear into it.

Sally Hawkins, Octavia Spencer and Michael Shannon in 'The Shape of Water'
Sally Hawkins, Octavia Spencer, and Michael Shannon in The Shape of Water (2017)

Conveying Character

Del Toro has said that “color should tell you about the character,” and his films demonstrate that philosophy at work. A good example is a scene in Crimson Peak where Edith (Mia Wasikowska) wears a golden dress while exploring the bowels of the gothic home in which she finds herself.

As seen in Pan’s Labyrinth, del Toro likes using yellow to convey warmth. Here, he uses it with Edith’s dress to reflect who she is: kind, good, and even wealthy (which we later discover is what her husband covets from her). The director also boosts that color-driven representation by juxtaposing the dress with the blood-red of the vats that Edith is investigating. Not only does the red make the gold dress pop more on the screen, but it also provides an added story effect: it makes Edith seem all the more vulnerable and threatened by the ominous substance beneath her.

Mia Wasikowska in 'Crimson Peak'
Mia Wasikowska in Crimson Peak (2015)

Symbolizing a Character’s Journey

Edith’s innocence is perpetually threatened throughout Crimson Peak, but is arguably not fully lost until the film’s final confrontation. Given that white is a widely recognized symbol of innocence, it’s no accident that del Toro puts Edith in that color here as evil descends on her. But the director also accentuates how the character is losing her innocence by providing the stark contrast of the blood red on her hands. That whole journey is conveyed using nothing more than one piece of clothing and shrewd use of color.

Mia Wasikowska in 'Crimson Peak'

Visualizing Life and Death

Del Toro often uses red to symbolize life and death. The Shape of Water is no exception, notably in this particular moment where he captures both meanings in a single shot. Death comes in the form of the Amphibian Man’s bloody handprint on a movie theater poster, while life is found in the red wall of the ticket booth — since, for the director, cinema is life, as it is for Elisa, who lives above the theater in this shot. In that way, del Toro has introduced a charming bit of character and director symmetry here – each sharing a perception of a ticket booth as the gateway to the passion that makes them feel, respectively, alive. His color uses don’t always appear to be quite so personal, but in this case, it’s a pleasant reminder not just of his passion for movies but, in a way, our own, too.

Sally Hawkins in 'The Shape of Water'
Sally Hawkins in The Shape of Water (2017)

Stacking Multiple Meanings Into a Single Moment

If it’s not already apparent, del Toro isn’t hesitant about using color to achieve several thematic effects. Sometimes he can get particularly ambitious — as he does in Pacific Rim. Watching that film, it can often seem as if a rainbow has exploded onto the screen like confetti, which is what makes this moment – a flashback to the childhood of Mako (Rinko Kikuchi) – stand out. The color has been sucked out and reduced to muted blue-grays.

'Pacific Rim'
Mana Ashida as young Mako in Pacific Rim (2013)

That choice can be interpreted in a few ways. Similar to the Pan’s Labyrinth example, it visually indicates we’re in a different place (in this case, the past); and like the Crimson Peak shot, it evokes something of the character’s feelings of trauma in that moment. There’s also significance to be found in how, among the dull colors, we get a sharp burst of red in Mako’s shoes, and the bold blue of her coat. Functionally, those choices make it easier to zero in on Mako as a point of focus, but it also works symbolically. The melancholy blue of her coat evokes the pain she’s feeling, and the red once again represents life and death. Specifically, the death caused by the film’s kaiju (monsters), and the life the character is trying to cling to as one descends on her.

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Want to learn more about the creative use of color in film? Get color tips directly from renowned cinematographers or explore the thematic use of color in the world of Star Wars.

Top Image: Still from Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008)