Features and Columns · Movies

Yellow, Stranger: The Color Theory of Zodiac

Because nothing says “obsession with an elusive killer” quite like the color of bile.
Zodiac Yellow Collage
Paramount Pictures
By  · Published on November 24th, 2021

Welcome to The Queue — your daily distraction of curated video content sourced from across the web. Today, we’re watching a video essay about the metaphorical role of the color yellow in David Fincher’s film Zodiac.

For all of its sunny connotations, the color yellow is actually pretty underrepresented in film. Yellow tones tend to carry a host of sinister connotations: shades of caution, sickness, toxicity, and barren landscapes.

But David Fincher, never one to shy away from committing his films to colorful motifs, isn’t one to shy away from a colorful challenge … especially when a story such as Zodiac‘s is begging for those bile-toned hues.

Released in 2007, Zodiac is based on James Vanderbilt’s 1986 non-fiction book of the same name, which obsessively details the manhunt for the serial killer who terrorized the Bay Area during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Unlike some of its cinematic true-crime peers, Zodiac‘s focus is. not on pathologizing the titular killer, but zeroing in on the consuming effect the case had on both San Francisco and the men attempting to catch the killer. Zodiac is a film about an obsession that is itself … obsessive. And Fincher’s commitment to historical accuracy is both technically impressive and metaphorically appropriate for a story all about chasing down the truth.

The dominance of the color yellow, then, is fitting for a film primarily set in the 1970s, a decade notorious for a certain “brownness.” A solid string of 1970s procedurals depict society as polluted and ambiguous. And Zodiac‘s emphasis on the era’s penchant for earthy, piss-colored hues reflects that. But, as the video essay below explains in further detail, yellow does double duty as both set-dressing and recurring motif. Yellow is at once the color associated with many of the killer’s crimes (a cab, a dry field in a part, etc.) but it is also the marker of the killer’s impact on the city and those obsessed with him. Characters in the case’s vice grip hold fast to their yellow vests, shirts, and book jackets. The city may abandon its mustard columns and amber lighting, but they can’t shake the murky mystery the Zodiac left in his wake.

Watch “Zodiac: The Hidden Meaning of Yellow”:

Who made this?

This video essay on the role of the color yellow in David Fincher’s Zodiac is by Adam Tinius, who runs the YouTube channel Entertain the Elk. They are based in Pasadena, California. You can follow them on YouTube here. And you can follow them on Twitter here.

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Meg has been writing professionally about all things film-related since 2016. She is a Senior Contributor at Film School Rejects as well as a Curator for One Perfect Shot. She has attended international film festivals such as TIFF, Hot Docs, and the Nitrate Picture Show as a member of the press. In her day job as an archivist and records manager, she regularly works with physical media and is committed to ensuring ongoing physical media accessibility in the digital age. You can find more of Meg's work at Cinema Scope, Dead Central, and Nonfics. She has also appeared on a number of film-related podcasts, including All the President's Minutes, Zodiac: Chronicle, Cannes I Kick It?, and Junk Filter. Her work has been shared on NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour, Business Insider, and CherryPicks. Meg has a B.A. from the University of King's College and a Master of Information degree from the University of Toronto.