How Guillermo del Toro Uses Color, Objects, and Trauma in His Films

A look into the thematic filmmaking techniques used (and mastered) by Oscar-winning director Guillermo del Toro.

I distinctly remember the first time I saw a Guillermo del Toro movie. I was in high school and hadn’t been exposed to much “cinema” beyond summer blockbusters and what you might catch on basic cable television. Needless to say, watching Pan’s Labyrinth for the first time was quite a revelation into what movies could offer in terms of masterful storytelling, beautiful cinematography, and yes, even nightmarish trauma.

Del Toro is one of the most unique, successful filmmakers in modern cinema. His accolades include (but are certainly not limited to) Oscars, BAFTAs, Ariels, and a spot in the Fangoria Horror Hall of Fame. He’s found both critical and commercial success with original projects like Pan’s Labyrinth, Pacific Rim, and The Shape of Water, and he’s a go-to shepherd for global IPs like Hellboy (2004), Blade II, and The Hobbit.

At the heart of each of del Toro’s projects, many of the same filmmaking motifs exist. Del Toro puts a lot of himself into his films and often uses many similar thematic techniques from one project to the next. By going through some beautifully crafted video essays, let’s explore how the great Guillermo del Toro uses color, objects, and trauma in his films.

Guillermo del Toro’s Color Palette

Starting off, we’re going to look at how Guillermo del Toro uses color in his films. Like many directors, del Toro certainly has his preferences; many of his films employ the same dark, muted, earth-toned looks for his characters, creatures, costumes, and designs. 

However, despite adding a bit of normalcy to his fantastical creations, he still follows many of the rules of color theory by combining an array of associative colors, complementary colors, and triadic colors in his films and compositions.

These different color techniques are used for a wide variety of reasons—developing character, reflecting the inner spirit, and conveying emotion. He even develops themes of balance as these colors play off each other in every shot. If you’d like to learn more about how to use color in your projects, then these resources are for you:

The Use of Violence in Film

While it’s not really accurate to say that del Toro makes “violent” films, violence certainly plays a part in del Toro’s approach to storytelling, especially as a means to demonstrate power and evil. In the well-presented Screened video essay above, you’ll see examples and explanations of the many different types of violence found in del Toro’s work.

There’s a lot to say about violence in cinema, pro and con. Regardless, if you use violence in your own projects, look to del Toro as an example of how to do it with sophistication and in service of story.

Monsters and Character Design

Del Toro’s films are legendary for their iconic creatures, fantastic monsters, and uncanny characters, from the Judas breed in Mimic to the faun in Pan’s Labyrinth to the Amphibian Man in The Shape of Water. But, it takes more than eye-catching concept art to bring these creatures to life.

Del Toro puts it best in the above video essay from kaptainkristian: “If a monster stays the same throughout the film, there’s no sense of drama in the image.” And while production elements like wardrobe, color, and lighting “all exist to give oxygen” to a character’s design, these fantastic creatures only work because of how they’re woven into the story and themes of the film.

Using Objects to Tell a Story

As the YouTube channel Little White Lies points out, Guillermo del Toro’s fetish for symbolic talismans is an ever-present element of his storytelling. When these items are on screen, meaning abounds.

Whatever the object—be it a key, a suitcase, or, frequently, a clock—any item carried by a del Toro character is a vital glimpse into how that character operates both internally and externally. More accurately, it’s the character’s connection to the item, not the item itself, that symbolizes their best and worst qualities as they move toward liberation or doom.

Movies, by nature, are meant to be both fantastical and dreamlike. Del Toro is truly a master at understanding this and subverting our expectations when we sit down for one of his films. One of his greatest tricks is deceiving audiences into believing certain objects are more important than they appear.

As a filmmaker, in writing, direction, and editing, this is a solid case study into how we should build up and give power to different objects, characters, etc. within our own films. Del Toro seldom lets even the tiniest on-screen detail go by without developing its backstory and inertia in order to contribute to the greater narrative and theme.

Trauma and Other Themes

Many of the themes del Toro explores in his films are indeed at the heart of his own personal thoughts and feelings. In particular, del Toro has devoted a number of his films to exploring the repressed trauma from different wars, often focusing on the Spanish Civil War, in particular.

It’s impossible to say exactly how del Toro views himself as a filmmaker and how he might choose to develop his stories. But, it’s likely that—both consciously and subconsciously—his films are a way for him to work through his own personal trauma while exploring the collective ones we all share.

For more director profiles and general filmmaking advice, check out these articles:

Cover image via Netflix.

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