Colour had well and truly arrived in cinema by the time The Last Emperor (1987) was released, but its use in the film’s costumes and cinematography was Oscar-winning.
The film follows Pu Yi’s transition from the last emperor of China to ordinary citizen, and colour is essential to his journey. Deep crimson and orange hues capture both the majesty and the innocence of his childhood in the Forbidden City, while grey saturates his moments in jail later in life.
These costumes, by James Acheson, enliven the Imperial court with rich reds that bring grandeur to the screen, a sense that’s reinforced by 9,500 extras who appear to be draped in delicately embroidered silk thanks to screen-printed rayon.
As such a strongly visual medium it should not be surprising to learn that filmmakers have been experimenting with colour since the first moving pictures were invented. It has even been estimated that 80% of films made between the 1890s and the 1920s were coloured through hand-painting and dying individual frames similar to the earlier application of colour on magic lantern slides. Filmmakers such as Georges Méliès, quickly realised that by using colour as a storytelling tool they could heighten an audience’s reaction to a scene or a character. Red might be used to suggest passion or love, with blue evoking a more sombre mood whilst green suggested vibrancy and life. Colour could also be adopted to assist audiences with complex narratives involving multiple timelines and characters. D.W. Griffith employed four different colour tints for each of the four time periods in Intolerance (1916) giving the audience a clear visual cue of where they were in the narrative.
Similarly, colour can also be used to chart a character’s journey within a narrative with alterations in colours visually expressing shifts in mindset or life stage. In The Last Emperor, Bernardo Bertolucci uses colour as a transitional device, the colour palette moving from reds to oranges and yellows and finally to greens and greys. This represents Pu Yi’s journey from his life of tradition and naivety in the forbidden palace to his life as an ordinary citizen in the beginning of the Cultural Revolution. As his awareness of the world around him grows, the colour transitions a full 180 degrees on the colour wheel representing his completely altered position from the start to the end of the film.
– Curator Chelsey O'Brien
In our new exhibition, The Story of the Moving Image, we explore the art of costume design and the role that costumes play in storytelling. Costume conservator Marion Parker helps costumes last longer.
Our collection comprises over 40,000 moving image works, acquired and catalogued between the 1940s and early 2000s. As a result, some items may reflect outdated, offensive and possibly harmful views and opinions. ACMI is working to identify and redress such usages.
How to watch
Stream, rent or buy via
Not in ACMI's collection
On display until
16 February 2031
ACMI: Gallery 1
The Story of the Moving Image → Moving Pictures → MI-05. Sound and Colour → MI-05-C01
Silk screened rayon fabric