Star Wars films and animation series use colour with deliberate story-telling purpose. Let’s explore a little how that works.
A bit of Colour theory
Before we can talk about Star Wars’ use of colour I need to say something about colour itself. There are so-called “primary colours” but there is no real consensus about which colours these are. In fact there are many different combinations of three colours that you could choose as primary colours as long as they allow you to make the remaining colours by mixing or combining the primary colours. The set of three primary colours that has a story-telling relevance in Star Wars are the following: Red, Yellow and Blue.
The next thing you need to know is that there are two ways of mixing colours: additive and subtractive. If you have three lamps that emit red, yellow and blue light then you can create other colours by mixing. For example if you add some yellow light to a blue light then the mix will appear some complexion of green depending on how much of each of the two primary colours is there. This is additive mixing. Now paints get their colour because of the colours that they remove from the light that falls upon them. If you shine white light upon a path of blue paint then the material of the paint removes all colours from the light and reflects only the blue parts. So by using some blue paint and and some yellow paint you will end up with a patch that looks like some complexion of green, because of the colours that were removed from the reflected light. This is subtractive mixing of colours.
Now of course in the real world paints are never producing colours that are that pure and neither do coloured lights. Furthermore the three types of cells in our eye that are responsible for colour perceptions are not attuned to one single colour each but rather to a broad range of colours each, whose ranges are partially overlapping. As a result when you additively mix the three prime colours you get something that looks some shade of broken white, while if you subtractively mix paint-colours you get a murky colourless or grey-brownish blob.
The Primary Colours of Star Wars
Star Wars uses colours to tell part of the story. In our world which is extremely verbal and puts most of the emphasis in communication on the written or spoken words this can sometimes go completely unnoticed. But traffic signs, traffic lights and products by interior designers usually do take into account that colours can be thought to mean something. We also often assign other qualities to colours, such as “coldness” to blue, “warmth” to red and “naturalness” to green. So let me talk about the primary colours of Star Wars and what they represent.
Yellow & Neutrality
Let me start with the colour that is mentioned least often as something special in Star Wars: Yellow. They best key to understanding what it means has actually come from Star Wars: The Clone Wars. Both in that series and in Star Wars: Rebels the Jedi Temple Guards featured utilizing yellow light sabres or staffs. These guards, although Jedi themselves. should evidently embody neutrality. As a group of Force-Users that are assigned the duty to settle, prevent and monitor conflict arising on the premises of the temple they must, very much like in our world the depictions of Justice, be ‘blind‘ or in other words neutral. In Star Wars yellow is the colour neutrality, which can be the detached neutrality of the judge in a courtroom, that of a surgeon in the operation theatre or the neutrality of opportunity in a situation that does not fix future destinies of characters. The neutrality of the Sun that shines her yellow light upon all lands and humans, whether evil or good, whether rich or poor.
Blue & Clarity
The colour Blue is seen often in Star Wars, most well-known as one of the iconic Jedi lightsabre colour. Pretty much the only time blue is used in an offensive weapon, is as the “stun” setting on a blaster. It refers to clarity. If you set your weapon to sun it means you are extraordinarily clear about what you wish to achieve and what the aims are you intend to deploy. It is not the default setting of weapons, except of the blue lightsabre. Perhaps the most iconic wearer of a blue lightsabre is Obi Wan Kenobi, a character that stands out for his clear-headedness, his clarity of thinking and purpose, his love of sensible procedure and thoughtful order. Blue has the clarity of clear water, which can be comforting as it shows you what hides beneath the surface but also the threat of drowning in its unfathomable depth.
Red & Passion
The colour Red is typically associated by people with the colour of the Sith lightsabres. As a result it is often identified with evil but nothing could be farther from the truth. In fact the key starting point of the Sith mantra is that there is nothing else but passion. It is passion that this colour represents. Just like the archetypal wielder of the blue light sabre wields clarity as a weapon, so does the wielder of the red light sabre wield passion as a weapon. But it is not only in angry or hate-filled passion that we encounter this colour in Star Wars, also in moments of great love or grief.
Decoding Star Wars colours
Now in this blog post I can only mention a few examples of how you can decode many story-telling elements in Star Wars by paying attention to the colours. So I will restrict myself but want to invite you to come up with many more examples in the comments. Often a scene can be set in a surprising perhaps counter-intuitive colour … until you start to think about it.
It all starts on sand planets
All three Star Wars trilogies start on sand planets. The most significant hall mark of sand planets is the overwhelming presence of yellow with a few specs of red thrown in. They are places of great neutrality: where Anakin, Luke and Rey grow up everything is still possible, their destinies are not fixed. As soon as they leave these oases of neutrality, passion and clarity will commence their battle for their destinies.
As we all know Anakin hates sand, one of the more reviled lines from the Star Wars dialogue catalogue. But in reality Anakin hates neutrality, he hates yellow. Because neutrality is coarse and rough. Being neutral doesn’t necessarily make you any friends, nor does it make you a champion of good. It is a double-edged blade. And neutrality has this infectious property of getting everywhere. Before you know it what you thought of as being your neutrality has actually made you stoic and cynical.
Yoda is our little green friend and not coincidentally does he display all the characteristics of being a mixture of yellow and blue, neutrality and clarity. Yoda very much seeks to be the one that analyses and tries to remain neutral and not get emotionally involved. It is no wonder that he seeks clarification, after the great disaster of Episode III, on a planet that is a green as he is. Dagobah is a planet of great neutrality and clarity. Light and Dark share equal space there but never in a confusing manner. Yoda’s lightsabre is a radiant green but his skin is green due to absorbing the other colours. So not only does Yoda excel at radiation clarity and neutrality, but he also absorbs passions calming those around him. His last words, when lit in a hue of yellow convey very neutrally what he knows about the Skywalker family.
Ahsoka’s lightsabres are white, but not because she is all of a sudden supposedly neutral towards light and dark, Jedi or Sith. Quite on the contrary, white being the mixture of all three primary colours suggests that her stance has become one of balance. The nickname “Ahsoka the White” that she was given by fans after the end of Rebels seems entirely appropriate. When Ahsoka leaves the Jedi Order the world around her is bathing in the yellow of a late afternoon sun with a tinge of orange. The destiny is open again.
Palpatine’s wall decorations
The office of the Chancellor is painted in a deep red. In his room Jedi, even powerful Jedi like Yoda, struggle to think clearly or see the future. The red paint symbolizes how this dark lord, when confronted in his lair, absorbs all clarity and neutrality. When you are with Palpatine there is no alternative to taking sides and passionately engaging in conflict. He does not need to radiate red outwards at that moment, it is enough to absorb yellow and blue. Through Palpatine’s wide windows it is visible how in the outside world there is still clarity enough, in Episode II, but it is in his offices that all that clarity and neutrality is absorbed by the Dark Lord of the Sith.
Anakin’s fundamental choices
Twice in the Episodes I through VI does Anakin face a choice of saving a loved one. In the first instance in Episode III his decision-making is riven by passions, fear and anger, he cannot think clearly and he cannot act neutrally but feels compelled to act. As a result we makes the wrong choice and tumbles the galaxy into decades of oppression and creates the circumstance which leads to Padme’s death. Three episode’s later he faces a similar situation. But note how he is bathing in blue. It is absolutely clear to him what the right choice is here. He might need a few moments to muster the courage, but he takes those moments and is not rushed into headless actions. He has finally recognised that it is sometimes a good thing if you can save the lives of others but not your own.
Luke’s and Obi Wan’s loss
When losing his Master Qui Gon to Darth Maul’s blade, Obi Wan responds with a passionate rage. Losing his blue lightsabre as a result of his brashness, clarity no longer is his weapon here. Only when regains some of this clarity and some degree of detached neutrality can he reach for Qui Go’s green lightsabre and stun Maul into lethal inaction.
When Obi Wan himself is the one to lose his life, his lightsabre now blue, in sacrifice the situation is bathed in blueish hues. The clarity of the situation is even emphasised further by Obi Wan looking at Luke just before his self-sacrifice. Obi Wan is entirely in the clear as to what he needs to do. Equally it is clear to Luke what has been happening here, irrespective of the grief that it causes him there is clarity all around.
Luke’s dress in Return of the Jedi is black on the outside … it absorbs all colours, clarity, neutrality and passion all speak to Luke. But on the inside it is white, reflecting all colours back at him … keeping his own clarity, neutrality and passions firmly in balance. His lightsabre is green because Luke, unlike Anakin, is not about bringing balance to the Force but his path is one of clarity and a good deal of neutrality … as some Star Wars fans only found out when watching The Last Jedi. But the last time we see Luke … he is wielding a projected image of Anakin’s lightsabre radiating out a symbolic act of pure clarity before he finds peace bathing in red and yellow on his little green world surrounded by blue waters.
I want to end this post by giving you a few examples to think about yourself. In all of these the colours tell part of the story!
Declarations of Love
Notice the use of yellow in both pictures and the use of red in the Episode II picture and blue in the episode V picture. None of this is a coincidence of course.
Powerful sabre wielders
How surprising is it really that Mace Windu has a purple lightsabre? Now some will argue that this is because the actor chose that colour … sure, but the power of colour affects actors also.
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