Several Disney films use green flames or lighting, usually paired with evil people or creatures. In Sleeping Beauty, Maleficent often has lots of green flames accompanying her and the creatures dance around a green fire. Ursula takes out Ariel's soul in green light from green flame hands. Scar's song to the hyenas is bathed in green smoke or steam. Hades fell into his own glowing green pit of souls. In Brave, the potion in the hut gives off green light. Mother Gothel beckons Rapunzel while holding a green lantern. I believe there are more.

Why does Disney use green light for evil characters and why especially from green flame? Do they have a convention for that in-house and where did it come from?


1 Answer 1


It is not just a Disney thing. Green fire is traditionally associated with magic, because fires do not ordinarily burn green. The portion of the electromagnetic spectrum that we perceive as the color green is actually quite narrow—much narrower than the bandwidth our visual systems allocate to the other cardinal colors. You can see that this is the case by looking at a rainbow; the green band is quite narrow compared to the others, and unless the rainbow is fairly bright, the green may not even be distinguishable at all. (It is a bit difficult to demonstrate this with a picture, since the good rainbow photographs that you find online are typically color enhanced, but here is a reasonable example.)

Rainbow at Yellowstone

(There is a good evolutionary reason that the green band is so narrow. By mapping a small part of the visual light spectrum to an oversized band of our perceptual color space, we gain the ability to distinguish extremely fine gradations of color in that region. Green is the color of chlorophyll, and thus the color of most plants, and having very good color discrimination in the green part of the spectrum makes humans capable of identifying different types of plants.)

Just as there is very little green light in a rainbow, there is very little green-hued light coming from a thermal source like an open flame. Hot objects (including the hot gas that makes up licks of flame) emit a broadband glow, with emission at all wavelengths. However, as an object gets hotter, the peak of the emission spectrum moves to shorter and shorter wavelengths (the red to blue direction). At room temperature, the peak of the spectrum is the far infrared, so we cannot ordinarily see it. Hotter objects glow red, then orange, then yellow, but when the peak reaches the green, things are a bit peculiar. Because the green range is so narrow, the aggregate emissions in the yellow and blue bands on either side of the peak overwhelm the green of the peak; that makes objects at this temperature look white or blue-white, rather than green.

The only way to get a distinctly green flame is to burn a substance that has a prominent green line in its emission spectrum. Such elements and compounds certainly do exist. The easiest way to make a green-hued flame is to use a substance with copper (II) ions, as in this example.

However, there are not many practical reasons to burn a substance with a lot of copper in it. So there is a natural traditional association of green flames with alchemy, or magic.

Because magic (to the extent that it was even distinguished from alchemy) is the other obvious way that you could imagine getting such an unusually colored flame. So if you want to show a fire that is immediately indicative of something eldritch, green is an excellent choice.

(Many of the elements mentioned here also apply to purple. It is not possible to get fires to burn purple without mixing in unusual elements, and so purple light is also used as a standard visual cue for expressing that something is magical.)

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    No practical reasons, but I have this stuff that you're meant to throw in a camp fire just to make it burn green. That's all it does... make it burn green... but it looks really cool.
    – T.J.L.
    Oct 30, 2019 at 14:17
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    I know it's not just a Disney thing, but why does Disney do it? They did it before most films were in color, since at least Snow White's apple, so I don't think it's just due to a film convention (unless they started it). Red is also an "evil" color, but Disney seems to use it as a character motif (Lady Tremaine, Jafar, and Scar) rather than something that spans the movies, since several good characters are associated with red (Prince Phillip, Ariel, and Sebastian). "Magic" isn't good enough of a reason without evidence: the creatures in Sleeping Beauty, Scar, and Gothel do not use magic.
    – gormadoc
    Oct 30, 2019 at 14:59
  • I'll say that I do agree this probably explains at least part of the motif, but right now there's not enough evidence to support it.
    – gormadoc
    Oct 30, 2019 at 15:01
  • The green band doesn't look at all narrow to me in that photo. (If anything, in that photo it's only blue that is hard to make out; the rainbow appears to me to go from green almost straight to violet.) Nor has it looked narrow to me when seeing rainbows in person. If you divide the spectrum into "ROYGBV", the range from about 570nm to 495nm falls into the perceived-more-as-green (than yellow or blue) slice. That's not particularly narrow, compared to yellow (590nm-570m) or orange (620nm-590nm).
    – Jacob C.
    Oct 30, 2019 at 17:22
  • Didn't somebody mention at one point that it had to do with green being associated with greed? Dec 17, 2019 at 18:26

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