What is a complementary color scheme? How can it be utilized in your filmmaking efforts, why does it matter and how is it different from other color palettes? We will be answering each of these questions and taking a look at the psychology of color in storytelling and showcasing some of the best complementary color schemes found in movies.

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Split complementary color scheme

Complementary colors

The complementary color palette is one of the most popular and frequently used color schemes employed by directors and production designers working in the cinematic arts. We’ll focus on traditional complementary colors but we’ll also take a look at the split complementary color scheme and the double complementary color scheme as well.

To learn more about the different types of color schemes at your disposal as a filmmaker, be sure to read our articles on monochromatic, analogous, and triadic color schemes as well.


What is a complementary color scheme?

Complementary colors use one main color and that color’s complement. Colors found on opposite sides of the color wheel are complements of each other. The main color is considered dominant while the complement serves as an accent. Complementary color schemes exist not only in film but in all artistic disciplines.

Variations on this scheme include the double complementary color scheme, which matches two base colors with their complements, and the split complementary color scheme, which uses the two colors adjacent to the base color’s complement instead of the direct complementary color.

Complementary Color Combinations

  • Red and green
  • Yellow and purple
  • Orange and blue

Complementary scheme

How does a complementary color scheme work?

Complementary colors are extremely popular in film and other visual arts because they are pleasing to the eye. Complementary colors are called such because they complement each other when appearing side-by-side. Complementary color combinations can be made using any base color.

A color’s complementary color will always be found on the exact opposite side of the color wheel.

Complementary color chart

Complementary color chart

Complementary schemes are some of the most popular in filmmaking. Check out the mood board below, made using StudioBinder's storyboard creator, to see a collection of complementary color pairs in action. Make sure you click the image link to download a copy for future reference.

Complementary color pairs mood board  •  Download a copy

One of the most popular complementary color combos in Hollywood is the teal & orange color scheme. This color scheme has found extensive use within films and, perhaps even more so, within film advertising, with posters frequently relying on teal & orange color schemes.

Teal and orange abound

Teal and orange abound

Color has a massive impact on the way in which viewers perceive any given image. The impact can be aesthetic in nature but can often be a subconscious, psychological effect as well. To learn more, download our free E-book about how to use color in film.

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How to Use Color in Film

Hue, saturation, brightness — the three elements of color that make all the difference. In this book, we'll explain the aesthetic qualities and psychology effects of using color in your images. Topics include color schemes like analogous and triadic colors and how color palettes can tell stories of their own.

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Complementary colors

Why use a complementary color scheme?

The psychology of color can hold significant influence over the response to an image. Certain colors can evoke particular subconscious reactions when utilized properly. To understand this subconscious relationship and learn how to make the best use of these psychological effects in storytelling, we need an understanding of color theory.

In this video, pay attention to how Stanley Kubrick uses bold color choices, often with complementary colors. And then consider how those colors might be influencing the characters, their psychology, and our perceptions.

Stanley Kubrick Loves Complementary Colors  •  Subscribe on YouTube

When utilizing colors for their psychological effects, a filmmaker can determine their own color associations as established within the film, or they can rely on the pre-established associations for particular colors. Whether you realize it or not, certain colors evoke certain psychological responses in the human brain at a subconscious level.

These pre-determined associations have been reinforced throughout generations of storytelling for both the subconscious associations and for the thematic relevance. Refer to the helpful chart below for some of the most common responses associated with particular colors.

The psychology of color visualized

The psychology of color visualized

The limits of color in storytelling are boundless. While it is true that there are plenty of films that disregard color as a creative choice, either not bothering with this facet of storytelling or opting instead for a color scheme that purely represents our real-world and nothing more, there are also countless examples of excellent films which make color a key element of their overall style and meaning. This tribute to color in storytelling showcases the power of meaningful color scheme choices.

Cinema Cartography examines color in storytelling

Be sure to pay color the attention it deserves when making your own movies. Our script breakdown software is a great tool for identifying all of the production design elements in a screenplay that can be geared toward a meaningful color scheme. You can get started for free today.

Complementary color scheme examples

Complementary color schemes examples in movies

Now that we know what a complementary color scheme is, let’s take a look at a few examples of great complementary color palettes found in films across different genres.

Amelie’s striking production design makes use of a complementary color scheme. The film is a visual feast for the eyes and uses complementary colors to imbue the film with a sense of warmth and comfort.

Amelies use of complementary colors

Amelie’s use of complementary colors

Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo makes use of the same red & green complementary color scheme as Amelie but achieves a drastically different result. Since Vertigo is a thriller, rather than a fun, sunny time like Amelie, the colors lack the warmth of the prior example but retain their strong visual appeal. See where Vertigo ranks amongst Alfred Hitchcock’s best films.

Vertigos complementary color scheme

Complementary color scheme examples  •  Vertigo

The orange & teal complementary color scheme has been popular for a long time. Even Stanley Kubrick made use of it in his final film Eyes Wide Shut. Learn more about how he used color in our article about how to use color like Stanley Kubrick.

Complementary color scheme example in Eyes Wide Shut

Complementary color scheme examples  •  Eyes Wide Shut

There are so many creative ways in which to use color in cinema. Explore the thematic and psychological effects of color in your own film projects, and continue learning about color theory with the rest of our articles on color schemes.


Monochromatic Color Schemes

Now that you can answer the question, “what is a complementary color scheme?” you can continue your color education by reading our article about monochromatic color palettes. Knowledge of both complementary and monochromatic color schemes is essential for any type of visual artist.

Up Next: Monochromatic Colors →
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