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6 Iconic Uses of Color in Pre-Digital Films


By using digital color tech, O Brother, Where Art Thou? changed the world of cinematic color grading. Here are a few colorful classics that stood out in the pre-digital era.

Top image: O Brother, Where Art Thou? via Touchstone Pictures

Film was traditionally color corrected and graded in post-production to a very limited degree, in that the level of luminance, red, green, and blue could be individually adjusted. Because of this, filmmakers of the time were forced to mind their film temperature according to their set and to pay significantly more attention to lighting.

O Brother, Where Art Thou? was the first film to use digital color-adjustment technology for its entire duration, which has since become an integral part of cinematic post-production. While this has made many new things possible, it’s still interesting to look back at what filmmakers were able to achieve without this creative crutch. Let’s look at some 20th century classics that pushed the limits of their time.

1. The Wizard of Oz (1939)

Great Use of Color in Pre-Digital Films: Wizard of Oz

Image via Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM)

Probably the most obvious pick on this list, The Wizard of Oz was known for stunning audiences with its transition from the dull, muted plains of Kansas to the fantastic, vivid world of Oz. While at the time, due to the sheer novelty of color, it was especially impressive to audiences, it still remains a great film to look at. Featuring a diverse color palette that feels tangible, but out of this world, this classic holds up very well.

2. Three Colors Trilogy (1994)

Great Use of Color in Pre-Digital Films: The Color Trilogy

Image: Three Colors: Blue via MK2 Distribution

In this French-Polish trilogy, color is a dominant motif that changes with each of the three chapters. The chapters — Blue, White, and Red — reference the colors of the French flag. Surprisingly, the flamboyant, largely monochromatic aesthetic of each film never gets old.

3. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Great Use of Color in Pre-Digital Films: 2001: A Space Odyssey

Image via Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM)

This Stanley Kubrick masterpiece is rather obligatory to mention, with a psychedelic look that remains captivating even today. Rather fitting within the awe-inspiring setting of the sci-fi classic, the colors of 2001: A Space Odyssey  burst with life at moments of significance, enhancing already extraordinary moments. Check out this “Movie Bar Code,” which compiles each frame of the film to show its most dominant colors from beginning to end.

Great Use of Color in Pre-Digital Films: 2001: A Space Odyssey MovieBarCode

Image via MovieBarCode 

4. Fight Club (1999)

Great Use of Color in Pre-Digital Films: Fight Club

Image via 20th Century Fox

David Fincher’s films have a unique and easy-to-identify visual style that is perhaps at its most intense here. Like some of Fincher’s other work, Fight Club favors green and blue hues that are selectively accented with warmer colors to draw the eye when needed.

5. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)

Great Use of Color in Pre-Digital Films: Umbrellas of Cherborug

Image via 20th Century Fox

Most notable for its choice in color rather than its strategic use of it, this French-German musical drama favors variations of pink, blue, and yellow that are extremely suggestive of the 1950s and 1960s.

6. Vertigo (1958)

Great Use of Color in Pre-Digital Films: Vertigo

Image via Paramount Pictures

Alfred Hitchcock’s landmark thriller is regarded by many as a general masterpiece of film, and its use of color is no exception. Usually sticking to a conservative (but nonetheless captivating) look, Vertigo transitions to surreal, odd hues that are eerie and unnatural when necessary. As if Hitchcock weren’t already skillful enough at generating suspense, he managed to further instill unease in his audiences by purposefully skewing the colors away from reality.