The Color Palette of “The Matrix”
I’ve been mostly looking at specific scenes from this film on a shot-by-shot basis, but there also are many visual storytelling choices made in this film that carry all the way through. Most notably, the color palette: most everyone seems to recall the sickly greens used inside the Matrix, contrasted with the stark blues for the “real world.” It’s worth noting that this color palette works on a multitude of levels. First, as a basic device to make sure the audience isn’t confused. In a movie where some scenes cut back and forth dozens of times between characters inside the Matrix and characters in the “real world,” there absolutely needs to be an understood signal to clearly place the audience. Secondly, the color palette works on an emotional level. By setting up Neo’s normal existence as a sickly green, we understand the freshness that the real world offers. However, the color palette is also about the comfort of ignorance in the Matrix versus the adversity of the real world. In a scene where Cypher covertly meets with Agent Smith in restaurant with a relatively comfortable feeling orange/green duotone color scheme, we completely understand why he wants to buy his way back into the Matrix. Furthermore, when we cut to the following scene in the harsh blues of the real world, we wonder if the rest of them wouldn’t also be better off living a blissful ignorance in the Matrix as well.
Even within the green/orange color palette, there are a lot of variations. The strongest is the contrast between the desaturated, monochromatic greens of the office, versus the later, more saturated scenes. This seems to mirror Neo’s story of mastering his life: the affinity of tones between the environment and his skin in the office scenes shows the way in which he is an ingrained and controlled part of that system. Likewise, the contrast between his skin tones and the environment later in the film show how he has broken free of that control and now has some power over his surroundings, as well as his life.
At the end of the film, as Neo enters his new life as The One, there is a departure from the previous blue vs. orange/green color scheme, and we see a relatively neutral color palette (it still has some green in it, but it’s understated, and the highlights are a lot warmer). This seems to be the final note in the story of Neo becoming the master of his own life: he has transcended the oppression of the Matrix and the stark realities of the outside world, and created a new life:
Another technique that I have been using to look at color palette and progression is called a “slitscan.” When actually watching a film, it can be difficult to notice shifting color palettes, especially if they are subtly woven into the fabric of the movie. One can get caught up in the story and not see the “forest from the trees,” so to speak. I made a script to take a Quicktime movie file and sample it once every two seconds, and print out those frames in order. It reads right to left, top to bottom, like a book (click for larger version, may take a second to load):
I didn’t invent this technique. I ripped it off a guy named Frederic Brodbeck, who has a site called Cinemetrics where he demos this technique as well as a few others. (Also, for the record, I’m not even sure if he invented it in the first place either). I did, however, write my own custom Nuke (plus Photoshop) script that generates the slit-scan (email me if you’d like the .nk file to play around with; intermediate Nuke skills recommended). It can also be used to generate some pretty interesting artwork (which Frederic sells on his site as well).
Looking at “The Matrix” slit-scan, I’m not sure whether or not it tells us anything about the movie that wasn’t already apparent from watching it in a normal, linear fashion (I would be very interested in hearing others thoughts on this. Also, side note: the slitscans for movies like “Black Hawk Down,” which I will be looking at in the future, are much more revealing.)
A final note about color: a lot has been written lately about the orange highlight/teal shadows color scheme (filmmaker Stu Maschwitz comments frequently about about this phenomenon as well). This look, from a purely aesthetic standpoint, uses complementary color scheme to contrast the warmth of human skin tones with teal (or, sometimes more blue or green) shadows. The end result is that the skin tones “pop” right off the screen, and the overall look of the “world” seems vivid and graphic. A photochemical finish (instead of todays digital intermediate) prevented “The Matrix” from having a full blown orange/teal color scheme similar to very recent films, but it seems to be an early prototype for one, and is arguably one of the seminal films that introduced this palette for worldwide consumption. (Which is ironic because “The Matrix” actually accomplishes much of it’s color palette via production design, whereas with todays digital tools, major color palette adjustments are often an afterthought). Since then, orange/teal had a roller-coaster ride of popularity, going from a powerful, interesting storytelling tool, to an abused “go to” default look for any action, horror, or thriller picture, and finally ending up so ingrained in our visual grammar that it is now frequently used as a visual que to signal to a viewer that a action/thriller/horror movie is being parodied.
Another “Macro” Visual Choice
Another “macro” storytelling decision used throughout the entire film is the selective use of lens length. In general, the Matrix is photographed with wider lenses, while the “real world” is photographed with longer lenses. This is about showing the characters in the Matrix within the context of their oppressive environment, versus the selective focus of the longer lenses in the “real world” showing the characters as existing in their own right and not as as being defined by the world around them. This is done with enough subtlety that it isn’t something that can be really pinned down a shot-by-shot comparison. It’s more of a cumulative average of lens length for the different worlds over the entire film that creates this feeling.
For additional reading about “The Matrix,” I suggest checking out several articles online from the American Cinematographer April ’99 issue. The Matrix [Blu-ray] has some awesome commentaries. Also, a behind-the-scenes documentary (I found it on Amazon on-demand) called “The Matrix Revisited,” is a legitimate feature length look at the production. Finally, I did a breakdown of the story structure of “The Matrix” for my own internal use, which may be of interest.
I will be back soon with more scene deconstruction, this time from the “Terminator” movies. As always, if you enjoyed this article or have any thoughts, please leave a comment and/or Tweet / FB / Digg it! (There are buttons below).