Color matters in storytelling, but this is especially true in Star Wars, which is often referred to as “silent film” in that that visuals tell you everything you need know. This is done through music, of course, but it is done in color as well.
Here are the 10 best uses of color in the saga so far (and one cheat):
Honorable Mention- The Last Jedi marketing
You cannot have a conversation about the use of color in Star Wars nowadays, some three months away from the release of Episode VIII, without talking about all of the red in the marketing for The Last Jedi, which missed making the list on technicality alone (marketing is not a part of the story, blah blah). If for nothing else, all the red created all the questions: Why the red? Red is associated with Sith lightsabers, so does that mean we will see a return of the Sith? Does red represent the bleeding heart of our heroes, be it physical or metaphorical? And on, and on.
Without seeing the film, and knowing absolutely no spoilers, it is hard to tell what all the red means. For that we have to wait for December. But for now, we know Star Wars uses colors as a means of visual storytelling, so let’s delve into my very “scientific” exploration of the use of color in everyone’s favorite galaxy far, far away.
10- Luke’s Outfits
George Lucas at his best tells simple stories. That is what the original trilogy was and is. A simple story of good vs. evil at its very core. A story about how that good can overcome that evil. One of the main critiques, in fact, of the prequels is that it may have been trying to tell to large of a story, which is why The Clone Wars is essential Star Wars viewing.
Nothing is simpler than the visual storytelling done with the attire of one Luke Skywalker. Luke starts out a naive, but pure, farm boy, wanting to get off of Tatooine. Tatooine itself is an example of color used to tell a story: tan, plain, and boring. No color, no spice. Nonetheless, that is where we met Luke, in a state of purity, untouched by the temptations and trials the galaxy holds, decked out in white to show his simple and pure nature.
Move onto The Empire Strikes Back and we see Luke at a point of transition, ergo his grey attire. In his training he is battling the inner demons that seem to come with being a Skywalker, and his pure white has been turned to a muddy and stained grey. He is no longer purely good, yet he is not evil. He is learning his way, and along that way the grey gets torn more and more, showing the transition to where we meet up with him in Return of the Jedi.
The black outfit. Legendary seems apropos when speaking of this outfit in particular, and it just might be Lucas’s finest point of visual storytelling. We start out seeing Luke in his black outfit, but covered by a hood and cloak. Then, the hero emerges from the darkness, promising to bring peace back to the galaxy. However, the trials on Jabba’s sail barge leave him broken (his robotic hand being blasted open is a metaphor for his spirit at this point) so he must go deeper into the darkness that gives him the strength he needs to become the warrior he thinks he needs to be; the black glove he puts on serves metaphorically to reinforce the point. Finally, we see Luke on the second Death Star in his black, his dark side fitting in with his surroundings. It is important to note that the only other significant amount of time Luke’s outfit fits with his surroundings is on Dagobah. His white in A New Hope clashes with the Death Star as well as Tatooine. His grey in Empire clashes with the white of Cloud City. Even in Jedi, his black clashes with Tatooine’s sands.George Lucas is conveying in this moment, foreshadowing if you will, the choice Luke has to make.
And a choice he does make. In the final moments before throwing away his lightsaber, Luke looks down at his black, gloved, mechanical hand. He looks to Vader. Finally, he sees the path he is walking. Most importantly, he sees the end of said path. He decides that he would rather die a good man than live forever as the evil he has been fighting. Luke’s white interior. His purity. His goodness. The heart that lead the farmboy on Tatooine to save a princess on a planet killer. Shown by the opening of his shirt, revealing the white, pure, good, inside.
9- Han’s Outfit
Once again, we see George’s simple use of color be a means of storytelling. While not as deep or complex as Luke’s outfit story, what Han wears speaks a lot to his character, particularly in A New Hope.
White shirt, black vest. Good and evil. Hero and scoundrel. Lucas is telling the audience right from the get go that this man has both within him. It is quite intriguing, and particularly noteworthy, that the white is closer to his heart, to his very being, than the black. The black vest, the harshness, the war-torn part of Han is an exterior that he puts on. What is really within is the good man, symbolized by white.
While not as obvious in Empire, Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens use this storytelling method with Han as well. In Jedi, now General Solo wears a camouflage jacket. He has changed his outer shell to reflect more who he is; he is a good man who fits, blends, perfectly with the other good people of the Rebellion. When we meet him once more in The Force Awakens, that white shirt is still closest to him, but his outer shell has changed once more. Now it is brown, dark but not as dark as he once was; with the turn of his son Ben to the dark side, Han has tried to “go back to what [he] does best,” which is being a scoundrel and smuggler. But the truth is that is not who he is anymore, which is why the exterior color he wears is not as dark as it was in A New Hope. It is a shell that he puts on to mask his pain, which becomes even more prominent when considering the jacket covers more of him than the vest ever did. Finally, when he dies, it is not the shell that is punctured, but rather the white shirt. The good man, not the scoundrel but the good man who had always been there, is killed by his son.
8- Vader vs. Leia in A New Hope
The entrance of Darth Vader in the original Star Wars film is arguably the greatest villain entrance of all time (although he may have to fight himself for that honor when considering his awe inspiring entrance onto the rebel ship in Rogue One). We know instantly that this man is a bad dude. He is the black, the evil, coming into the white, the good, through brute force.
Later, we see Vader juxtaposed to Princess Leia, covered in white, meant to appear almost like an angel. Heaven and hell. Good and evil. Dark and light. Vader and Leia.
If George Lucas’s ultimate goal was to create fairy tale of good and evil with the original trilogy, one need look no further than his use of color.
7- Hoth’s Hue
While established with Leia, Vader, Luke, and Han in A New Hope, Lucas’s use of color as a means of storytelling, as we have seen, did not stop with the first film. Going into Empire, it was important to re-establish the good vs. evil narrative. To remind fans that this is what the core of Star Wars is about.
On Hoth, we see Luke, Han, and the whole of the Rebellion surrounded by white. They are the good guys, don’t you remember? However, this white is different from that of Luke or Leia in Episode IV. This white is cold, icy, and will break easily, which it most certainly does. With the probe droid, a dark colored beacon of evil, there is the promise that even though the rebels are our heroes, they are going to shatter like ice hit with a pick ax.
The wampa attacking Luke promises this as well, albeit inversely. The white of the wampa should represent good, but instead it attacks the hero of our story. It bloodies our knight in shining armor. Here, instead of darkness breaking the surface in the form of a probe droid, Lucas is foreshadowing what we will see during the remainder of Luke’s journey: just because something appears pure and good, doesn’t mean that it is; such is the case with Ben and Yoda. The two Jedi Masters are well intentioned in telling Luke he must confront, and most likely kill, his father. But these good men are wrong, just like the white wampa doing evil tasks is wrong to our sensibilities. Luke finds another path: redemption.
6- Kyber Crystals
Of late there has been a lot of discussion about kyber crystals and their place in the galaxy. Their exploration in Rogue One, the novels, and other areas of canon has added depth to the Force, the Jedi, and particularly the dark side.
For one, kyber crystals commune with Force users. First explored in the youngling arc of The Clone Wars, it is important to note that this commune comes when a crystal is in its purest form. It is white, and comes from nature, a powerful combination promising its use as a means of enhancing good across the galaxy.
Which the Jedi did, for a time at least. The flip side of this story is the Sith, and the dark side as a whole. Instead of having the crystals call to them, as the Jedi do, dark side users “bleed” their crystals, causing them to turn red (side note: this adds a lot of intrigue, in my opinion, to what caused Kylo Ren’s saber to not only be red, but to have a cracked crystal). The red is a manifestation of the evil within the user (which is another reason the campaign towards TLJ using all red is interesting).
Good news: the crystals can be restored. As we learned in the Ahsoka novel, the crystals can be restored after they are bleed, which Ahsoka does when taking the crystals from the Inquisitor for her new sabers. She restores them, turning them pure white. Ahsoka, the pure Force user who created her own path when no other Jedi had the strength or courage to do so.
5- Mace Windu’s Lightsaber
The conversation of kyber crystals and their being bleed has to lead to Mace Windu, wielder the only purple saber.Purple. Red and blue mixed makes purple. Red, bleeding crystal, symbol of evil. Blue, a color considered good (more on that in a minute) and the color of the “good guy” Jedi’s lightsaber.
It may be nothing more than a happy accident, as we know the reason behind the scenes for Mace having a purple saber was a request by Samuel L. Jackson, but the idea adds depth to Windu’s character. He is supposed to be good, using the light side of the Force. Yet when he fights, or deals with Anakin, he is arrogant and stubborn, qualities of the dark side. They are mixed within him, just like the red and blue are mixed in his lightsaber.
Blue is often interpreted as being associated with depth and stability. Moreover, it is meant to stand as a symbol of trust, loyalty, wisdom, confidence, and intelligence. On top of that, blue is used as a color to calm, having beneficial effects for both mind and body in that regard.
All of these attributes can be attached to one character in particular, Grand Admiral Thrawn. Thrawn provides stability for his troops with his confidence and intelligence, therefore calming them in the midst of battle. Whether it is or isn’t part of the plan, Thrawn is like a teacher trying to teach in a circus. Just pretend it is on the lesson plan.
Thrawn is trusted by his troops perhaps more so than any other Imperial. This is true for both canon and Legends, Eli Vanto and Pallaeon. That trust comes from his calm demeanor in the face of adversity, his intelligence of battle tactics, his wisdom, and most importantly his confidence.
Nonetheless, there are those red eyes. The fire within that burns. The fire to do what needs to be done when others won’t; the exterior may be calm, but Thrawn has a fire inside him unparalleled in the Imperial ranks. A fire to protect his people, and to protect the galaxy. A fire within spouting out from the calm, that makes him such an fascinating villain.
3- Transition in the Chamber
Empire Strikes Back, when considered as the second act of a three part drama, should be thought of the climax of the story. It is the place where things are the most difficult, the most daunting, for the heroes.
This is portrayed in Luke’s outfit. It is portrayed in the shadowy muck of Dagobah. It is displayed in the invasion of evil onto the pure snows of Hoth. It is displayed in the carbon freezing chamber on Cloud City.
Cloud City itself is much like Hoth in that it is pure white, promising safety and sanctity for Han, Leia, and the rest of the crew. But it is plagued by the darkness of Vader, and the darkness of the carbon freezing chamber. When looking at the chamber, consider it in juxtaposition to the Emperor’s throne room. The throne room is pure black, darkness; the carbon freezing chamber is dark, but there is still hints of light. All hope is not lost. The orange hue remains, promising that maybe, just maybe, our heroes can escape.
Alas they cannot at that moment and cannot fully until Luke accepts his inner light in those final moments of Return of the Jedi. But that orange hue is representative of more than just a burning hope. It represents a burning love. The love between Han and Leia.
Before delving into that, consider the much maligned fireside scene in Attack of the Clones. Here we see Anakin and Padme by the fireside, covered in orange, a color associated with joy, enthusiasm, and most importantly attraction. Orange should be the promise of of all of those things, all features of love. Instead, Anakin and Padme sit bathed in the orange of a fire, a fire that promises to burn their joy and enthusiasm, their love, to the ground.
Now when looking back (or forward?) at Empire, we also see two lovers bathed in orange.Whereas Anakin and Padme are in a moment of peace, Han and Leia are in a moment of trial and terror. But their love remains, and it permeates the whole room. Anakin and Padme are not in a room shaded by orange. The color from the fire focuses primarily on them. Selfish love. Han and Leia are surrounded. Selfless love. Hope.
2- “I never knew there was so much green in the whole galaxy.”
Everyone loves Rey. From her first moments on screen, something about the character got to the core of what it means to be human. Despite not knowing her whole journey, as we do with Luke and Anakin, we all still love Rey.
In telling us the first part of her story, JJ Abrams acted very much in the stead of Lucas with his use of color. Rey starts out, like Luke, on a bleak planet that holds no hope. For Luke it was no hope for excitement and adventure; for Rey is it is the lack of hope in her family returning. She may believe they are coming back, but the landscape tells us otherwise. Things on Jakku are plain, and they will stay that way.
As Rey ventures on, she is taken first to Takodana, and proclaims, “I never knew there was so much green in the whole galaxy.” She is both literally and metaphorically in a whole new world. Later, Rey ventures through the depths of Starkiller Base. She is, if one were to consider the hero’s journey narrative, in the belly of the beast. What surrounds her is the darkness of how man has altered nature, and the jaggedness of the dark rocks promising that nature will have its say (Which it does when Starkiller is blown up by the Resistance. The Resistance struck at the technology on Starkiller, but is was the natural part falling apart that lead to its ultimate destruction).
Finally, consider the last moments of The Force Awakens, and the planet of Ach-To. What is present? Light, hope promising, natural green, and dark, jagged rocks. A promise of the future?
1- Shadows of Your Sister
The ewoks may have their haters, but when it comes to the end of Return of the Jedi, no one can argue that the scenes in the Emperor’s throne room are almost, if not completely, flawless. George, in his visual storytelling via color style, is flawless as well.
There is, of course, the story told by Luke’s outfit. There is the story of darkness and shadow told by the room itself. And then there is the shadow. This shadow.
Light and dark, black and white, evenly split. Foreshadowing the choice that Luke has to make. Promising that the battle between good and evil will continue within Luke until he chooses a side. From this moment forward, we see Luke go deeper into the darkness, into the black that he wears, until finally finding his true self, in the light that reveals itself through the innards of his shirt.
The battle between the light and dark is there throughout the whole saga, but this moment in particular is powerful for a special reason. Unto that point Luke is saying that he does not want to fight his father, but yet goes back and forth between fighting him and not fighting him. The split on his face tells us that the moment to choose is coming. And come it does when Vader finds out about Luke’s twin sister. This draws him back into the fight. His relationships, his friends, what the Emperor deems his weakness, is the final straw the leads Luke to fight back in full. Later, it is also relationship that leads Luke to make the choice not to slay his father. To take a new path. To choose the light.
All of this was foretold by a simple, but powerful, shadow.
Since the dawn of storytelling, color has meant something. It speaks to the core of who we are. Star Wars also speaks to the core of who we are. So it is no surprise that the two have had a 40 plus year happy marriage. Now, about all that red….
2 thoughts on “Words of Color: The Best Uses of Color to Tell the Star Wars Story”
The ST seems to use red much more strongly than the OT or the PT did. I think partly, it symbolizes the aftermath of violence (blood), but also passion, anger, suffering, and eventual rebirth. Lots of fairy tales use the color red as representative of the duality of life and death. Red Riding Hood experiences temptation, violence, death, and rebirth. Red is also the color we use to represent romance and love. Red has military connotations of courage and sacrifice–as in “redcoats” and red poppies. I think in the ST, it shows us that the story is dealing with more primal matters of life and death rather than the more metaphysical, spiritual matters that we’ve seen.