His Dark Materials and Its Brilliant Use of Color

When I heard that HBO was going to do His Dark Materials, my response was a combination of joy and relief. Joy, because, well, Lyra’s tale is perhaps my favorite story of all time, and relief because it meant I could erase from my mind that travesty of a film from 2007 staring Dakota Richards and a marshmallow-faced abomination of CGI that was supposed to be Iorek Byrnison. And don’t tell me that CGI just wasn’t that good back then, there was plenty of computing power in 2007 to do the Panserbjorn in a way that didn’t make them look like bloated Peeps. The movie Reign of Fire came out in 2002 and those CGI dragons still hold up today. I digress.

The television show as produced by HBO is lovely. The casting is brilliant, with Dafne Keen as Lyra and Ruth Wilson as Marisa Coulter. Of the secondary characters, I think the absolute best casting choice was Ariyon Bakare for Lord Boreal. He absolutely possesses each scene like a vapor.

Okay, to the point: from my perspective as an artist, the use of color in this series is to die for. The entire art department clearly had a cohesive idea of what they wanted to do from settings to costumes, and how they wanted to manipulate those color choices to fit within the tone and context of each scene. I tweeted about this during the season, but wanted to capture it here, if for no other reason than I needed all the images in one place to gaze upon them.

The best way to describe the color wheel employed by the show’s art department is to characterize it as using the ‘minor keys’ of color. Basically, take good old ROYGBIV (Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, and Violet) and turn each one up or down a notch. All images credited to HBO.

From blue you get teal or aqua, from yellow you get gold, you get it. Some colors just GO. And the art folks in production had Ruth Wilson, upon whom to drape lush shades of blue-green. Her scenes are pure cocaine, by the way.



One way to set off those blue-green tones like a firecracker is to toss in a little orange, which the show does from time to time. Here, with one of Ms. Coulter’s illicit spy-flies.


I noticed that sometimes they pulled the teal tones from wardrobe and put them into the setting, freeing Ms. Coulter to don some of red’s hot aunt, burgundy. See, blue-green and burgundy are the kissing cousins of royal blue and red (who, if you think about it, don’t really go that well together outside of sporting uniforms, and even then, not really).


Teal-Burgundy-Orange (even though he’s a “golden” monkey)

When Ms. Coulter is presented in the midst of the would-be daemonless kids, the various “coultertones” are purposefully desaturated. Green-blue/burgundy and blue-green/gold both take on a dusty appearance to go along with the somber setting.

Desaturated Coultertones

I really liked that approach. Muted tones aren’t anything new when trying to make setting and theme jive, but I simply love the carry through here.

The coup de grâce was the shot right before Ruth Wilson does that big slobbery scream. They give it to us all at once. Burgundy, teal, gold, orange. Better, of course, on the television than as a screen grab.

Anyhow, I wanted to record this here because I think that these were very deliberate choices made by the show’s art department and they should be recognized for their effort and execution. They created a beautiful bit of cinema.

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