The color palette and lighting of a film are two elements that are often overlooked in storytelling. Similar to how color and light affect the mood of a room, they also set the tone of a film. A very good example would be Lost in Translation by Sofia Coppola which depicts the relationship of two Americans in the city of Tokyo. This film is one of my favorites for two main reasons; first, because of the heartwarming story and realistic characters, and second, due to the amazing cinematography by Lance Acord.

Color

The film has a myriad of color palettes that shift depending on the characters. Charlotte, the female protagonist, has a color palette consisting of soft pastels. This is apparent in the scenes of her alone in her room, practicing ikebana, and solo-traveling in Kyoto. Shades of cream and light pink are prevalent in the shot above. This is symbolic of her youth, naivety, and femininity. She’s a young college graduate who is married to a photographer on assignment in Tokyo. She joins him in Japan but is eventually ignored, leading her to wonder about the entire point of their relationship.

Lost in Translation (2003) ©  Focus Features

Bob, the male protagonist, has a palette that is darker and consists of blue, black, and amber. You can see these especially in the scenes of him alone in his car, in the elevator, and in his bedroom, as seen above. These dark hues are symbolic of his maturity and masculinity. Bob is an actor going through a midlife crisis due to his waning career and failing marriage. His life is clouded with uncertainty and he is losing himself amidst all the problems in his life.

Lost in Translation (2003) ©  Focus Features

If you watch closely, you also notice that the entirety of the film has a hazy tone to it. This represents the disillusionment in both characters’ lives. They are in a dream-like state; present, but distracted by their longing for something more. Their lives as they know it are both empty and lack human connection. Certain tones and colors have the ability to evoke a particular emotion. Sepia evokes nostalgia, warm yellow evokes happiness, and in this case, whitish-grey tone used in the film evokes dreaminess.

Lighting

Acord’s stunning cinematography is largely credited to his use of lighting. Lighting is always important when setting the tone and atmosphere of a scene. It represent the emotional state of the characters throughout the film. The film revolves around the two characters who seek comfort in their friendship with one another, which is why the colors and lighting are warmer in scenes where Bob and Charlotte are together; this is exemplified the most in the bar scene where the two first meet and speak. The warm lighting literally translates to their friendship while the cool lighting when they are alone (or confiding in one another) indicates feelings of loneliness.

Lost in Translation (2003) ©  Focus Features
Lost in Translation (2003) ©  Focus Features

One notable use of lighting is the contrast between light and shadow. You can see this in the scenes of Charlotte looking over Tokyo. The scene shifts its focus from the city on the background to Charlotte, leaving Tokyo behind her in a shadowy blur. It symbolizes the uncertainty about her life, both in her career and in her relationship. She’s engrossed in the unknown possibilities about her future, and the doubt she is trying to confront is represented by the vast city of Tokyo in the background. Shadows give character to a setting because it adds an element of mystery, making the shot much more alluring.

Home

“Home” is depicted in this film as an emotional connection between two people despite their physical distances from their respective hometowns. Bob and Charlotte are both Americans who stumbled upon Tokyo for their personal reasons. Their state of detachment from Tokyo mirrors their detachment from their own lives. They yearn for friendship and warmth and found it in each other; they sought solace in one another, relishing in that feeling of familiarity despite the unfamiliar setting, literally and figuratively. The concept of home in this sense is not merely a physical one but an emotional one. They feel at home, comfortable and happy in their own friendship.

Lost in Translation (2003) © Focus Features

Conclusion

Lighting and color are important in film because they help enrich the story. They say a lot about the characters and their emotions throughout the course of the film. Similar to interior design, these elements set the mood of a scene. Each tone has a specific meaning, which is why they are often allotted to a certain scene or character. One of the reasons why I consider Lost in Translation to be on of my favorites is due to of the masterful use of these elements. Without them, the film would simply fall flat.

Kai Lauridsen
Author

Kai is a university student who loves travelling and learning about new cultures. His interests lie in the visual arts such as film, photography, and design. He also practices ashtanga yoga.

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