Art evokes the mystery without which the world would not exist.” – René Magritte
The fact that Wes Anderson understood the concept of colors. Colors are an example of evocation of emotional reaction. Let’s first break down the conceptual classification of color.
Hue, saturation, and brightness
Before we go into Anderson’s filmography, it’s important to have a basic understanding of how to present colors in the film. This comes down to knowing your HSB, which can also be known as the DNA of color. If you look at our post on how to use color in film, then you’ll find that different colors correlate to different moods. These associations we have with color come down to the levels of HSB.
Hue is the color or shading. An example of a hue could be red or bluish-green. Your typical Wes Anderson color palette will have a lot of primary colors, such as red, blue, and yellow.
Saturation is the degree to which something is absorbed or dissolved compared to what’s possible at the maximum. It’s typically defined as a percentage.
Therefore, if red is a hue, then saturation relates to how red it is. You can have a muted red or something much more vivid. For Wes Anderson, his saturation tends to be as high as possible. So when you see a red beanie or jumpsuit, it stands out.
Brightness is how light or dark a given color appears. It’s the perceived intensity of how much light color gives off on the screen.
Wes Anderson likes to keep things as bright as can be when possible. But when he decides to go dark, he goes all in there, too. You can see this at play in his film, The French Dispatch, which has large portions of the film in black and white. For a complete breakdown of Wes Anderson’s directing style, including his fantastic use of color, we’ve got it all in this video.
Wes Anderson’s sophomore effort may appear more muted as well, but his color choices are still distinct and defining. Let’s look at this frame, which is encapsulated by blues.
In basic color theory terms, red is often associated with anger or passion. Yellow can communicate naivety. And blue is often used to point to calmness and intelligence.
It’s made clear that Max’s grades aren’t the best, but Max’s intelligence still shines. Anderson associates the color blue with Max frequently; from his trademark blazer to the production design surrounding him.
Blue comes up frequently in the film. After all, it’s part of the school uniform. But by making Max’s jacket more saturated than his peers, it helps him stand out and shine brighter and more adroit.
The blue blazer is often paired with red; be it his tie, or this beret.
Not only does this combination communicate Max’s desire to be seen, but it also underscores his passion, as the color red so often does.
The Royal Tenenbaums – 2001
There are many reasons why The Royal Tenenbaums is generally considered to be Wes Anderson’s best film. But one of the main reasons is how he uses color in it.
Yellow has an idyllic quality to it. And in this sequence, when Margot steps off the bus, there’s an appropriate response from Richie. It tells the audience how special she is even before she’s said a single word.
The Royal Tenenbaums is really where the correlation between color and character comes into play. In addition to Margot’s yellow, Chas’ red jumpsuit is prominently displayed throughout the film. And as we’ll see in another Wes Anderson color palette, red comes to mean something very specific.
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou – 2004
In The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, the crew wears blue uniforms. But their red beanies really catch the eye. Why include them?
In Anderson’s films, red is often associated with deep pain. Chas in The Royal Tenenbaums wears a red jumpsuit after being abandoned by his father and losing his wife. In The Darjeeling Limited, the brothers drive a red car after their father dies. And in The Life Aquatic, Steve Zissou reels from the death of his friend and a declining career.
All these characters have past trauma. As a result, they’ve all kind of regressed into almost child-like states. It’s a common theme in Anderson’s work, and he uses red as a signifier for that motif.
Wes Anderson uses color to cue us into key details about his characters. Making his reds highly saturated allows us to really hone in on whenever characters don this color.
Moonrise Kingdom- 2012
When Wes Anderson went from an animated film to a live-action one, he took his cartoon-ish sensibilities with him. From this point forward in his films, his saturation and brightness become far more prominent.
Much of the film has a muted yellow saturation. And the bright colors help give the film a more nostalgic feeling. In modern clothing and architecture, grays have overtaken everything. Making buildings and clothing more lively helps make the film feel nostalgic. It almost gives it a timeless quality.
And yellow is an appropriate color to paint his film. It has a more playful nature and is often associated with childhood. Considering how the film is about first love, yellow adequately emphasizes the naivety of the characters, both children and adults.
The Grand Budapest Hotel- 2014
It feels like Wes Anderson’s proclivity for color was all leading up to this. The Grand Budapest Hotel contains an assortment of colors. Red, yellow, blue, pink, purple, and so much more are on display. Every frame feels like a storybook picture, and it helps tell a larger-than-life story.
With such vivid saturation and hues, Anderson creates a movie that doesn’t feel quite real. This affords him various narrative luxuries. When he wants to be fanciful with a plot device, he can do so effortlessly.
The color palette throughout the film has been greatly exaggerated. Therefore, it allows Anderson to exaggerate other aspects of the film. When we see a silly prison escape occur where the prisoners climb a rope over the guards, we accept it more readily. After all, this is the same universe where an entirely pink room exists and no one bats an eye.