A re-visitation of the the Lord of The Rings trilogy of films had me thinking in detail about subsidiary cinematic elements in only the way re-watching a film can; where the mind tunes out the obvious and focuses on making the other wise less obvious, psychological elements, more tangible.
What struck me as rather profound is the way colour and, in particular, colour grading of the image has its own 3act structure that re-enforces the film. Rather than just matching visual image tones and colours to the mood of the scene, the LOTR films seem to construct an over-arching dramatic journey of colour across all three films.
Act1 = A status quo of a rosy, idyllic world of innocence in which Hobbits live happily. All the colours are overly saturated, almost un-naturally - or perhaps, more accurately, hyper-natural. Grass is really GREEN, sky really BLUE, Rich bold chromatic primaries. Crisp highlights. This is a chromatically rich visual world that pushes into storybook and even cartoon visual territory. Then this world of saturated colour is invaded by BLACK - the absence of colour. All the bad things in the first film are all black - ring wraiths, black orcs, the black tower. The breaking of the colour status quo and a clear distinction between the bold colours of good invaded and penetrated by the evil of black.
Act2 = Here Colour and Black bleed together. As the film progresses ever downward into deepening drama. Colour is bled from the image becoming less and less saturated. The BLACK of ‘badness’ envelopes the colour of the otherwise GOOD world. Its a giant bleach by-pass. By the time the Hobbits are in Osgilieth the picture is virtually black and white, painted almost entirely in greyscale - grey stone, grey skin tones, grey orcs. Everything bleached. Contrast is punched right up to make harsh edges. Highlights are dulled. Everything getting darker and drained of colour, of humanity, invariably metaphoric of life in war.
Act3 = Moves through a big phase shift from ultra dark, deep blacks and cold tones in the dark (green and blue - shelob and the tower) through to a newly coloured world being forged by hope that the good guys might yet win if they can get their shit together. The journey in the third film brings the colour back as the darkness, drabness is beaten. But this newly colourized world is not the same as before. It’s got a sepia tone to it, and a glow of light diffused. It is as richly colourful as before but its not hyper-real colour. It is dreamy, whimsical, mythical, hazy.
The colours for the third act of the trilogy seem orientated on the colours and diffusion of sunset. Golds, yellows, browns and the red end of the spectrum as opposed to rich greens and blues of the first act. All this of course implies that colour is returned to the world but the world is not the same for the blackness having been there. An age has passed and ‘things’ have come to an end - directly depicted in the departure of the elves, Gandalf and Frodo on the ships into the west never to return; but also metaphorically in a general colour of sunset over the entire film.
Now, of course, within each film of the trilogy - and indeed within each act and scene of each film - there are other colour choices for all sorts of reasons but certainly each film has a particular broad colour pallete bias and it really is a superb example of colour in the mise en scene not just as a servant of image and meaning but of directly constructing story and narrative movement through colour and tone.