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 film 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.

How to Use Color In Film - Oz - Studiobinder

The Wizard of Oz revolutionized movie color palettes

color palettes in film

What is the importance of color palettes 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.

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…

You know. 

Visualize with Mood Boards & 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.

The psychological effect of color In film

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.

  1. Hue – the color itself.
  2. Saturation – intensity of the color.
  3. Value – The darkness or lightness of a color.
1-How to Use Color in Film - Example of Movie Color Palette and Schemes - Movie Theory Film - Hue Saturation and Value-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. (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.

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Infographic: The Psychology of Color in Film

How color scheme choices effect your audience
Color in Film - Part 1

Balanced movie color palettes

What are the types of Color Schemes used in film?

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:

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

These four color schemes are employed to create a balanced movie color palette.

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.

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

Once again, four balanced color schemes using the appropriate sections of the color wheel

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Movie Color Scheme Cheatsheet

What scheme did your favorite movies use? 
Color in Film - Part 2

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.

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

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!

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 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.
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

The Matrix (1999) and it's green movie color palette

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.

How to Use Color in Film - Example of Movie Color Palette and Schemes - Complementary - Amelie-min

 Amelie (2001) is an example of complementary color in film.

How to Use Color in Film - Example of Movie Color Palette and Schemes - Complementary Orange and Teal-min

Complementary color palettes are at work in all these images from popular blockbusters

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.

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

Children of Men (2006) has analogous colors in it's movie color palette

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?

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

You can create contrast within analogous color palettes using tint and shadow

How to Use Color in Film - Example of Movie Color Palette and Schemes - Analogous - Tokyo Drifter-min

Tokyo Drifter (1966) The movie color palette here utilizes reds and purples

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

Traffic (2000) has a varied color palette

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.

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

A Woman Is a Woman (1961) utilizing triadic colors for it's color palette

How to Use Color in Film - Example of Movie Color Palette and Schemes - Triadic Colors - Pierrot le Fou-min

Pierrot le Fou (1965), another good example of the use of triadic colors

How to Use Color in Film - Example of Movie Color Palette and Schemes - Triadic Colors - Superman-min

Superman (1978) triadic colors helped manifest the story's comic book origins

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.

Why?

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

Pleasantville (1998) uses discordance in it's color palette to create symbolism

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

Schindler's List (1993) used color in film to create a powerful symbol

As noted earlier, the girl’s dress in the otherwise black and white Schindler’s List is a clear symbol. 

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

Sin City (2005) has a playful color palette

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”.

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

A movie's color palette is yet another place where storyteller’s can create conflict and drama. Just by mismatching the colors a bit in the right places.

Enhancing the symbolism in your movie color palette

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
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 - Associative - Batman Joker-min

The Dark Knight (2008) used colors creatively. Does it give you any color palette ideas?

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.

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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.
How to Use Color in Film - Example of Movie Color Palette and Scheme - Associative - Inside Out-min
How to Use Color in Film - Example of Movie Color Palette and Scheme - Associative - Kill Bill-min

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...

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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.

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

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.

How to use color in film - luke and vader - studiobinder

Luke’s transitional color scheme showed that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree...

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.

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

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 (and free template)

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

There is also no “right” way to select your movie color palette. There are tons of ways to approach using color from a design perspective. Hopefully reading this has helped you get some new color palette ideas.

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 create mood boards, 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. We also include a free Shot List Template to plan out your next shoot.

FREE Download: The Only Shot List Template You Need →
Solution Icon - Shot List and Storyboard

Showcase your vision with elegant shot lists and storyboards.

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

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