A filmmaker is a visual artist. To be a great visual artist you need mastery of the color palette. Many of the greatest Directors, Cinematographers, and Production Designers have extensive backgrounds as visual artists themselves. Ridley Scott, for example, cut his visual teeth as the Royal College of Art.
There are many ways to use color in film. We’re going to break the key approaches down in this post as well as offer you a free E-book. The ebook is an excellent tool for better understanding the use of the color in film, and beginning to master it. There is a lot to cover, and a lot of cool images to look at. So download your free ebook below, and we’ll get into it.
color in film
Before the color palette there was...
Black and white.
For years movies were shot entirely in black and white. Powerful symbols and contrasting ideas were created in those images.Color tinting and versions of the two and three strip technicolor process happened in fits and starts. But in 1939, considered a landmark year for Hollywood for many reasons, color photography in film truly came of age.
With the explosion of color in film, a new approach to the movie color palette had to be created.
The artists who’d used light and shadow to tell stories now had far more tools at their disposal.
It was what you might call a game changer.
color palettes in film
The importance of color palettes?
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.
There are a lot of great resources that cover the way color in filmmaking developed. It’s a fascinating story.
Speaking of story...
Using color in film
How can color tell a story?
Color can affect us emotionally, psychologically and even physically, often without us becoming aware.
Check out the video below to see how filmmaker David Fincher uses color in film to create emotion:
Color in film can build harmony or tension within a scene. Bring attention to a key theme. And that’s just the start.
When telling a story, colors:
- Elicit psychological reactions
- Draw focus to significant details
- Set the tone of the movie
- Represent character traits
- Show changes or arcs in the story
So choose your color palettes wisely! Because with great power comes…
Visualize with Storyboards
Your movie color palette starts here
You don’t just start picking colors for your movie color palette out of a hat.
Well… I guess you could…
What you should probably do instead is start putting together some concept art by creating a mood board. Using a free mood board template is a great way to get started, and you should really think of this as a brainstorming session at first.
Creating a mood board is just one of many early ideation steps in the pre-production process. If you want to learn more about the others, this is a great pre production process resource.
If you’ve done some work now with mood boards, we’d recommend that you take your movie color palette ideas and bring it into storyboard software to bring it to life there.
You don't need to be an artist to create storyboards. If you're using software, simply upload screenshots from other videos to help convey the mood and tone of the shot or scene you want to communicate.
Want to convey a sickly, claustrophobic tone? Use shots from The Matrix.
Something somber? Man of Steel.
It can then easily be turned into a slideshow and shared.
There is much more you can do with storyboarding software, we could go into enough detail on the steps to fill another post…In fact, we already did in this how to make a storyboard post.
Once you have a storyboard, look at it closely. Ask yourself:
- What’s working the way you thought it would?
- What isn’t working?
- What is happening that you didn’t even predict.
This is a very visual part of a visual medium.
psychology of color
The psychology behind colors in film
A well designed 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.
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. (more on this when we discuss lightsabers later on…)
Watch our video essay on Film Color Theory to see exactly how adjusting Hue, Saturation, and Brightness creates a mood. Also be sure to check out the this Filmmaking Techniques Video Master Class that it's a part of to study topics of Film Tone, Camera Movement, Blocking and more.
You can already see how choosing the right colors for the right spots can create emotions your audience may not even be aware of.
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.
Red creates an experience in the viewer, so target its presence in your film color palette carefully.
Infographic: The Psychology of Color in Film
How color scheme choices effect your audience
Balanced movie color palettes
What are the types of Color Schemes?
There are a few different ways to achieve a balanced movie color palette.
The complementary color scheme, monochromatic color scheme, analogous color scheme, and the triadic color scheme are all methods we will discuss:
Although single, recurring colors can hold a deeper meaning, a more fleshed out film color palette (aka “color scheme”) is most effective in communicating the thematic context.
A balanced movie color palette and scheme refers to the harmonious relationships of colors on a color wheel.
Movie Color Scheme Cheatsheet
What scheme did your favorite movies use?
color schemes in films
Color schemes examples in film
So creating a balanced color scheme might be trickier than initially thought. You can’t just have every image on your shot list be red.
Hopefully you didn’t start by doing that…
If you did, not to worry!
While it doesn’t necessarily SOUND “balanced” to have a movie where everything is blue and orange, those colors are complementary on the color wheel.
So that would in fact be a very balanced use of color in film.
Let’s go over the types of color schemes you can employ to create a balanced movie color palette:
MONOCHROMATIC COLOR SCHEMES
We’ll start off with the Monochromatic color scheme.
A monochromatic color scheme is when a single base “hue” is extended out using shades, tones, and tints. Tints are achieved by adding whites, and shades by adding black.
As you can see in this image from The Grand Budapest Hotel, Wes Anderson and his team utilized a monochromatic color scheme. Light pink gives way to deeper purples. The result keeps the chosen color tone intact, but it allows you to create contrast within it.
So that all red color palette? Add some tint here and some shade there and suddenly you have a monochromatic color scheme!
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 another good example of a monochromatic movie color scheme. Nearly every scene set within the world of the matrix utilizes a green color palette. Shades of green permeate everything in the frame to create an unnatural, “sickly” effect.
Monochromatic color schemes don’t require that your film be homogenous in its look.
It just gives you a color hue within which to create contrast.
COMPLEMENTARY COLOR SCHEMES
Complementary color schemes are when two colors from opposite sides of the color wheel are used in conjunction with one another to form the color palettes.
The effect of this is to create a visual ‘life’ in the frame. Red and green, in the instance of Amelie cited below, both pop more in the presence of their complementary color.
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 the color palettes of many blockbuster films.
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.
ANALOGOUS COLOR SCHEMES
Analogous color schemes utilize colors that are next to one another on the complementary color wheel. They tend to occur in nature and create a harmonious feeling that is pleasing to the eye.
Children of Men’s analogous color scheme seemed to match the dangerous state of its world; there were no more men being born.
Did the harmonized tones match the harmonizing of gender as part of the 'apocalyptic' tale?
Good examples of neighboring colors that can create analogous color schemes are red / violet, yellow / lime green.
Since the colors lack the contrast and tension of the complementary colors, they instead create a kind of visual unity.
In Traffic, analogous color schemes end up creating a different kind of complementary color scheme.
Sounds weird? Well, take a look at the image cited above.
The scene featuring Michael Douglas is a analogous color scheme of blues. The scene feature Benicio Del Toro is an analogous color scheme of oranges.
Crafty work from Director Steven Soderbergh to give different story lines within his drug traffficking epic their own color schemes, that when juxtaposed would create a different color scheme.
No doubt, this master plan was aided by a complex mood board and storyboarding process. The result is an excellent example of color in film.
In general when creating an analogous color scheme, one color is chosen to dominate, a second to support, and a third (along with blacks, whites and grey tones) to accent.
TRIADIC COLOR SCHEMES
A triadic color scheme is when three colors that are evenly spaced around the complementary color wheel are used in conjunction.
One color in the triadic colors scheme is chosen to be the dominant one with other two used in complementary fashion.
Triadic color schemes are somewhat less common.
But they tend to lend themselves to a “comic book” type of color palette.
Discordant movie color palettes
Discordant color examples in films
Discordance is a deliberate choice by the director to deviate from the balanced types of color schemes and color palettes we’ve mentioned to refocus attention.
Well, for one by creating discordance you create a pretty obvious symbol.
A movie color palette could all be one way, learning towards one direction, but then suddenly one element sticks out like a sore thumb.
For example the girl’s dress in Schindler’s List.
Not all examples of discordance in movie color palettes are so clear cut. But when a director and design team make a choice like this, they make it for a reason.
It's one way to create symbols with the use of color in film.
Discordant use of color in movies can help a character, detail, or moment truly stand out from the rest of the film. For example, the color blue in Amelie, or the color red in The Sixth Sense.
As noted earlier, the girl’s dress in the otherwise black and white Schindler’s List is a clear symbol.
In Sin City the sudden discordance within the color palette is a reflection of graphic artist Frank Miller’s style. It also helps make certain elements “pop”.
A movie's color palette is yet another place where storyteller’s can create conflict and drama.
All it takes is mismatching the colors a bit in the right places.
Enhancing the symbolism
How to use color schemes effectively
There are many ways to create symbolism in a film, but using different types of color schemes might be one of the most effective.
Even if the audience isn’t entirely conscious of the symbolism coming from the color palette (like maybe they are with discordant color schemes) they will be affected by it.
We’ll cover a few different wants to creating powerful connections between ideas and themes through the use of your color palette here.
ASSOCIATIVE COLOR SCHEMES
Associate colors in film refers to when a recurring color or scheme represents a theme or character in a film, thereby connecting visual spectacle with emotional storytelling.
Christopher Nolan’s beloved comic-book epic The Dark Knight gave both key characters in the drama their own associative colors palettes.
Contrasting with Batman’s dark blacks and grays were The Joker’s slightly muted clown colors of purple and green.
The clash between them came to represent a clash between the simple order of dark tones and the fun-house horror chaos of the joke’s mismatched colors.
One of the most famous associative uses of color in movies was the role of orange in Francis Ford Coppola’s all-time classic The Godfather.
Orange is associated with death in the film, often as a precursor to sudden and messy violence.
Unlike the gangster films that had come before, The Godfather approached violence in a more brutal and ugly fashion. So it made a kind of sense that in a world of crushed blacks and desaturated tones, a bright incongruous orange tone would indicate the coming violence.
Quentin Tarantino loves to play with different types of color schemes, and in Kill Bill: Vol. 1 he gave his central character “the bride” her own color; bright yellow.
Of course, a lot of the time blood red was also her color...
The Empire Strikes Back uses associative colors both with the characters, but also their position in the story’s main conflict.
Darth Vader is black, with a bright red lightsaber, contrasting to Luke’s lighter earth tones and whites, along with his blue lightsaber.
These colors combined to convey an emotional state from the character. Black and red are violent and menacing where blue and white are cool and comforting.
When a recurring film palette or color represents a character or larger theme in the film.
In Vertigo, the bright green is used as a callback to when main character Scotty first became transfixed with the woman he was supposed to be investigating.
Much later, after the woman’s death, he spots a look-alike and begs her to try and look more like the woman he first fell for.
Using color palettes to create powerful connections between your characters and meaning is a tool no filmmaker should ignore.
The more examples you study the better
TRANSITIONAL COLOR SCHEMES
Transitional color usage is when a change in colors and color palette indicates a shift of some sort.
Over the course of the series Breaking Bad, Walter White lives a double life as alter ego Heisenberg.
The Walter White color palette is lighter, softer and has a use of cooler primary color palette. Heisenberg as a much darker, yet still analogous color palette.
The transition of iconic character Luke Skywalker was less obvious, but still well reflected in a major shift in his color palette.
Originally he was clad in lighter earth tones. This both reflected his ‘farm boy’ upbringing, but his place on the ‘light side’ of the force.
Once Luke has gone through his jedi training, and learned of his true identity as the Dark Lord Vader’s son, Luke shows up in all black.
It both reflects the serious and adult quality the ‘kid’ is now imbued with, but also that he has a dark streak in him, and a potentially dangerous connection to evil.
In the case of Up, the shift in color palette represents a change in story tone. A happy gleeful time has given way to a dark depressing reality.
The darker reality is shown in shadow, with a bleak drab color palette.
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Shot Listing: A step-by-step guide
Making your visuals work in a coordinated effort with your story need not end with types of color schemes. You can bring the same thoughtful approach to camera angles in your shot list, lens uses, set design, and even props.
The best thing you can do as a filmmaker is get to know all your options, and truly understand the visual power of the medium. From there you can begin to shot lists and storyboards to test out some of your color scheme theories. Next up, check out our post where we walk you through the process of creating a shot list.