Considering cinema’s origin in black and white, it’s not surprising that many filmmakers have an obsession with color in films. From wardrobe choices and color gels to post-production filters and fonts, movie color schemes play a vital role in a director’s vision.

More...

The importance of color in film

Lewis Bond’s color theory video, Color In Storytelling, posted on Channel Criswell, is not only a practical analysis of how movie color palettes enhance storytelling, but also an engaging historical recap on the maturation of color in film.

Before we begin, check out the video below to understand how filmmaker David Fincher uses color to create emotion.

How can color tell a story?

Simply put, color can affect us emotionally, psychologically and even physically, often without us becoming aware. Color in film can build harmony or tension within a scene, or bring attention to a key themes. When telling a story, colors can…

  1. Elicit psychological reactions with the audience
  2. Draw focus to significant details
  3. Set the tone of the movie
  4. Represent character traits and more
  5. Show changes or arcs in the story

As filmmakers, we must choose our film palette carefully to maximize emotional and visceral effect.

Concept Art vs. Storyboards

Determining what colors your project will use is a key part of the pre production process. What’s no obvious, however, is at what stage you should loop in your creative team on your color selections.

Generally, concept art and moodboards will showcase color palette ideas, while storyboards showcase the motion and shots we’ll see. If you’re ambitious, you can do both at the same time. While colored storyboards are harder to produce, they place the color with the action side by side.

Not to mention, it’ll help your producers get on board. With software like StudioBinder, you can easily generate color storyboards and plop in inspiration images that can easily be turned into a slideshow.

Introducing Storyboard Template Builder - Change Layout

Download our free e-book "How to Use Color in Film"

To learn how to choose the right color scheme for your project, download our ebook on color theory right now.

The psychological effect of color in films

When chosen carefully, a well-placed movie color palette evokes mood and sets the tone for the film. The three main components of a color are hue, saturation, and value.

Hue – the color itself.

Saturation – intensity of the color.

Value – The darkness or lightness of a color.

3-How to Use Color in Film - Example of Movie Color Palette and Schemes - Color Theory Film - Balanced Colors-min

As Bond mentions in his color theory video, many viewers will have predictably similar reactions to certain colors. A strong red color has been shown to raise blood pressure, while a blue color elicits a calming effect.

A beautiful video by Lilly Mtz-Seara illustrates the psychology behind specific colors in film:

When chosen carefully, a well-placed movie color palette evokes mood and sets the tone for the film.

For example, in The Sixth Sense, M. Night Shyamalan uses the color red to represent fear, dread and foreshadowing whereas in Pleasantville, Gary Ross uses red to represent hope, love and sensuality. Color theory norms should be understood by filmmakers, but never seen as a limitation.

"Color theory norms should be understood by #filmmakers but never seen as a limitation." #indiefilm #filmmaking

Click to Tweet

Balanced move color palettes

2-How to Use Color in Film - Example of Movie Color Palette and Schemes - Color Theory Film - Monochromatic Complementary Analogous and Triadic-min

Although single, recurring colors can hold a deeper meaning, a more fleshed out film palette of colors (aka “color scheme”) is most effective in communicating the thematic context. Balanced movie color schemes refer to the harmonious relationships of colors on a color wheel.

A balanced movie color palette creates unity and promotes a cohesive tone. The four most common types of color schemes are described below.

3-How to Use Color in Film - Example of Movie Color Palette and Schemes - Color Theory Film - Balanced Colors-min

Monochromatic

How to Use Color in Film - Example of Movie Color Palette and Schemes - Monochromatic - Grand Budapest Hotel-min
How to Use Color in Film - Example of Movie Color Palette and Schemes - Monochromatic - Grand Budapest Hotel2-min

Monochromatic color schemes come in shades of a single color such as red, dark red, and pink. They create a deeply harmonious feeling that is soft, lulling and soothing.

The Matrix is a good example of a monochromatic movie color scheme. Nearly every scene set within the world of the matrix has a green hue. Shades of green permeate everything in the frame to create an unnatural, “lulling” effect (representative of those “asleep” inside the Matrix).

How to Use Color in Film - Example of Movie Color Palette and Schemes - Monochromatic - Matrix1
How to Use Color in Film - Example of Movie Color Palette and Schemes - Monochromatic - Matrix2

Monochromatic colors in film create a soft, lulling effect like in The Matrix or The Grand Budapest Hotel.

Complementary

How to Use Color in Film - Example of Movie Color Palette and Schemes - Monochromatic - Matrix2

Amélie (2001)

How to Use Color in Film - Example of Movie Color Palette and Schemes - Monochromatic - Matrix2

Contrasting drama (i.e. warm vs. cool). Complementary colors live opposite each other on the color wheel. For example, orange and blue are complementary colors commonly used in many blockbuster films. The dueling colors are often associated with conflict, whether internal or external. No matter the color selection, complementary colors combine warm and cool colors to produce a high-contrast, vibrant tension in the film.

Orange and blue are complementary colors used in many blockbusters. The dueling colors represent conflict.

Analogous

How to Use Color in Film - Example of Movie Color Palette and Schemes - Analogous - Children of Men1-min
How to Use Color in Film - Example of Movie Color Palette and Schemes - Analogous - Children of Men2-min
How to Use Color in Film - Example of Movie Color Palette and Schemes - Analogous - Children of Men2-min
How to Use Color in Film - Example of Movie Color Palette and Schemes - Analogous - Traffic-min

Traffic (2000)

Analogous colors neighbor each other on the color wheel (i.e. red / violet or yellow / lime green). Since the colors don’t have the contrast and tension of the complementary colors, they create an overall harmonious and soothing viewing experience. Analogous colors are easy to take advantage of in landscapes and exteriors as they are often found in nature.

One color can be chosen to dominate, a second to support, and a third (along with blacks, whites and grey tones) to accent.

Triadic

How to Use Color in Film - Example of Movie Color Palette and Schemes - Triadic Colors - A Woman Is a Woman-min
How to Use Color in Film - Example of Movie Color Palette and Schemes - Triadic Colors - Pierrot le Fou-min
How to Use Color in Film - Example of Movie Color Palette and Schemes - Triadic Colors - Superman-min

Superman (1978)

Vibrant and colorful, Triadic colors are three colors arranged evenly spaced around the color wheel (i.e. red, blue and yellow). One color should be dominant and the others accented. Triadic is one of the least common movie color schemes, but it can be striking and vibrant even when the hues are unsaturated.

Discordant movie color palettes

Discordance is a deliberate choice by the director to deviate from the balanced movie color schemes mentioned above to refocus attention.

Discording colors can help a character, detail, or moment stand out from the rest of the film. For example, the color blue in Amelie, or the color red in the Sixth Sense.

How to Use Color in Film - Example of Movie Color Palette and Scheme - Discordance Definition

Amélie (2001)

How to Use Color in Film - Example of Movie Color Palette and Scheme - Color Discordance - Pleasantville-min
How to Use Color in Film - Example of Movie Color Palette and Scheme - Color Discordance - Schindlers List-min
How to Use Color in Film - Example of Movie Color Palette and Scheme - Color Discordance - Sin City-min

Sin City (2005)

How to Use Color in Film - Example of Movie Color Palette and Scheme - Various Discordance Examples-min

Enhancing the symbolism in your film color palette

Associative

How to Use Color in Film - Example of Movie Color Palette and Scheme - Associative Colors in Film Definition-min
How to Use Color in Film - Example of Movie Color Palette and Scheme - Color Discordance - Pleasantville-min
How to Use Color in Film - Example of Movie Color Palette and Scheme - Associative - Godfather-min
How to Use Color in Film - Example of Movie Color Palette and Scheme - Associative - Inside Out-min

Inside Out (2015)

How to Use Color in Film - Example of Movie Color Palette and Scheme - Associative - Kill Bill-min
How to Use Color in Film - Example of Movie Color Palette and Scheme - Associative - Star Wars-min
How to Use Color in Film - Example of Movie Color Palette and Scheme - Associative - Vertigo-min

Vertigo (1958)

When a recurring film palette or color represents a character or larger theme in the film.

Transitional

How to Use Color in Film - Example of Movie Color Palette and Schemes - Transitional Colors in Film Definition-min
How to Use Color in Film - Example of Movie Color Palette and Scheme - Transitional - Film and Cinema-min
How to Use Color in Film - Example of Movie Color Palette and Scheme - Transitional - Luke Skywalker-min
How to Use Color in Film - Example of Movie Color Palette and Scheme - Transitional - Up-min

Up (2009)

Like this post? Share it!

twitter-bird-bue-gray

How to Use Color in Film: 50+ Examples of Movie Color Palettes #filmmaking #indiefilm #filmmakers

Click to Tweet

Wrapping Up

While many movie color schemes can exhibit a “universal” effect on audiences, there’s really no magic bullet or “right” answer when it comes to selecting your movie color palette. Ultimately it’s up to the filmmaker to define the implications of the film palette. With that said, looking to universal color theory is an all important first step.

To view more examples of color in films, check out Movies in Color. For another deep look on the big impact of small visual choices, check out our essay 6 Ways To Turn Props Into Iconic Characters.

Solution Icon - Shot List and Storyboard

Visualize your film color palettes with storyboards.

Create robust and customizable shot lists. Upload images to make storyboards and slideshows.

Learn More

StudioBinder Shot List Template and Storyboard Template - Shot List Software