Quick, now: What color is Jessica Rabbit’s dress in Who Killed Roger Rabbit? What color is the coat the unnamed little girl is wearing in the otherwise black-and-white Schindler’s List? What color is Michael Jackson’s leather jacket in the music video for “Thriller”?
They’re all red, naturally. The fact that they’re so immediately memorable says something about visual storytelling - and the stories costumers are telling without us even realizing it. But beware: The rest of this column is going to tell you things that cannot be unseen - even if they all seem perfectly obvious - and may affect how you watch TV and movies from here on out.
“Audiences are smart, and are affected by costuming, especially when they don’t notice the costuming,” says former president of the Costume Designers Guild Deborah Nadoolman Landis (who designed the costumes for “Thriller,” incidentally - more on that in a minute). “The frame is always designed. Color is an integral part of that frame, and it’s not an accident. We’re constantly painting a frame like a painter and looking at color, texture, silhouette.”
Story, we imagine, is about words. That’s true, but in TV and movies that definition expands - story is place and dialogue and character and a hundred other things, because the envisioned world is no longer in our heads, it’s in our line of sight. And the one color that will pop out better than any other on screen is, simply, red. For that reason, costumers are very particular about when they decide to deploy the red outfit (of course, they have to do it in concert with directors and production designers).
“Color works to draw your eye into the frame, and is a very strong use of point perspective,” says Landis. “If it’s important for the director - for whatever reason - to get the audience to focus on a character you’re going to want to dress that character in a bright color.”
It seems so literal to declare, but it’s one of those details most of us probably haven’t considered before. But if a character is done up in red - or, say, wears a red scarf - you may notice now that everyone around them will seem a little more muted and dialed back. It is a signal, a red flag if you will, telegraphing that this person is important, that this scene is critical.
Similarly, other colors and other color combinations matter. Look at the characters in a scene: Which character’s dress or suit clashes with the other outfits or the room itself? A garish lime green in a room of muted oranges and autumnal warmth is someone who is out of sync, presenting conflict. No surprise then when that character behaves or speaks in such a way as to actually cause trouble. More subtly, characters who are friendly or cooperative will often dress in complementing colors, as if to say on a sub rosa level that “we are together.”
In the case of Michael Jackson, Landis (whose husband directed “Thriller”), it wasn’t just about getting Jackson to pop. Landis had to take in a number of considerations: “I had Michael Jackson in the dark; I know I’m going to design all of these zombies coming out of the grave and they’ll be dusty, shades of the earth. We wouldn’t put Michael in a black jacket in an alley at night; in white he’d have been in a dancing suit. Green was not appropriate, and yellow - he would have looked like caution tape. But red - that’s the color of blood, associated with the devil. It’s a reductive process, like a jigsaw puzzle. Pull away everything that doesn’t match and use what does well.”
That said, costume designers are usually concerned with telling story that’s a little too “on the nose.” Yes, it is possible to put every temptress or bad boy into a red-hued outfit, but it’s also possible to overplay your hand. And once you’ve done that, says Landis, you’ve lost your ability to tell your story effectively.
“Anything that takes you out of the moment is bad for filmmaking,” she says. “It’s like when a movie has the most annoying music. As filmmakers, we depend on a suspension of disbelief. It’s just another storytelling tool.”
Landis spoke with me in 2012 for the Los Angeles Times’ Envelope; to read that article (also about the use of red in film storytelling, go here.
Contact Between the Lines here.