The Use of Colour in “A Single Man”

4 Mar

It is oddly satisfying (and somewhat reassuring) when a medium as universal as film retains the power to surprise and inspire in the artistic sense.

Earlier this week I watched Tom Ford’s directorial debut, A Single Man. Based on the 1964 novel by Christopher Isherwood, the film follows a single day in the life of a grieving single man.

Tom Ford is, of course, a leading fashion designer, best known for his designs in luxury clothing, accessories, fragrance and cosmetics—so you’d expect his first film to be aesthetically sharp. And it indeed it is.

Credit for the beauty and elegance of A Single Man must also go to production designer Dan Bishop (who is also responsible for design on AMC’s drama series Mad Men) and Spanish director of photography Eduard Grau.

While the production design is undoubtedly beautiful, it was the editorial use of colour that really left an impression on me. Throughout the film, colour creates its own subtext, with Ford and Grau creating a shifting palette: colour leaches out of George whenever he shuns the world and, inversely, bleeds in whenever he makes a human connection. The effect is like watching the sun emerge from behind a cloud.

Filmmakers have been manipulating palettes to accentuate a mood, convey a state of mind, or highlight action since the inception of colour in film. One of the earliest and most memorable examples would have to be in The Wizard of Oz (1939), where the sequences in Kansas were in black-and-white and the Oz sequences were in Technicolor.

But in the case of A Single Man, the thing that impresses the most is less the sense of novelty and more the deftness of each editorial flourish.

To shoot A Single Man, Grau used an older Kodak film stock, 5279, which is no longer generally available. As Grau told Variety, “it has very beautiful grain, and in a way, is timeless. It’s very saturated, beautiful and rich, especially the reds. We tested it along with other stocks, and Tom and I both decided this would be the one.”

The entire film was shot on 5279 35mm and the subtle colour alterations were made during the digital intermediate stage, when the film’s look was manipulated to Ford’s satisfaction.

The use of this technique is illustrated beautifully in the sequence where the lead character, George Falconer (Colin Firth), pays a compliment to a secretary who he works with. His world until that point has been dreary, but the camera closes in on the secretary’s lips and, as the parentheses of her mouth turn upward, the colour palette is saturated and the red of her lipstick is accentuated. You can literally feel the warmth of her smile.

Watch this movie.


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