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A guide to color theory in film

The Boords Team
The Boords Team
|
12 min read
12 min read

When cinematographers pick a color palette for their movie or animation, it's about more than aesthetics. In fact, they're probably using color theory to stir up your emotions as you watch the images onscreen.

Back in olden tymes, filmmakers didn't have to worry about their use of color—everything was black and white. But when color films took over (starting with The Wizard of Oz in 1938), every director's technicolor dreams suddenly became a reality. (And Wes Anderson rejoiced.)

In modern-day filmmaking, the choice of color can have a huge effect on your reaction to what you're watching. The color red, for example, tends to raise people's blood pressure—while a blue color can have a calming effect.

Hollywood pros often employ color theory in their choice of color palette or color schemes, using a color wheel to get the effect they're aiming for. Which leaves you, the viewer, like putty in their hands. Genius!

  1. 1) Color theory in storytelling
  2. 2) Picking your color palette
  3. 3) The psychology of color
  4. 4) Examples of how to use color in film
  5. 5) Types of color schemes
  6. 6) Other color schemes

Color theory in storytelling

Picking the right color palette for your project can be a big help in telling your story. Colors can:

  • Make people feel a certain emotion
  • Draw people's attention to specific details
  • Set the tone of your film or animation
  • Represent character traits
  • Show a change or development in your story

The video below from Criswell gives a great introduction to color in storytelling.

Picking your color palette

When it comes to choosing a colour palette for your project, it pays to give it some thought. One way to get started is to create a mood board. It's an easy way to collect some images together that represent the feeling of your movie.

Then, you can bring your movie colour palette ideas to life with some storyboard software—like Boords, for example. Throw in some screenshots and videos from your mood board to start setting the tone of each shot or scene.

The psychology of color

Now for a small science lesson. Every color has three main components: hue, saturation, and value.

  • Hue is the color itself
  • Saturation is how intense the color is
  • Value is how light or dark the color is

When you think about it through the lens (pardon the pun) of cinematography, your choice of one specific color—its hue, saturation, and value—can have a huge effect. Lilly Mtz-Seara is an expert on the psychology of color. In this short film, she gives a good introduction to how it works.

Examples of how to use color in film

We've rustled up a few film color palette examples from Hollywood blockbusters so you can see how different colors work on the screen.

You might also want to check out this infographic from StudioBinder: The psychology of color in film.

Red

Represents: anger, passion, rage, desire, excitement, energy, speed, strength, power, heat, love, aggression, danger, fire, blood, war, violence.

The Incredibles

Ex Machina

Pink

Represents: love, innocence, healthy, happy, content, romantic, charming, playfulness, soft, delicate, feminine.

Frozen

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Yellow

Represents: wisdom, knowledge, relaxation, joy, happiness, optimism, idealism, imagination, hope, sunshine, summer, dishonesty, cowardice, betrayal, jealousy, covetousness, deceit, illness, hazard.

Minions

Waltz With Bashir

Orange

Represents: humor, energy, balance, warmth, enthusiasm, vibrant, expansive, flamboyant.

Fantastic Mr. Fox

Traffic

Green

Represents: healing, soothing, perseverance, tenacity, self-awareness, proud, unchanging nature, environment, healthy, good luck, renewal, youth, vigour, spring, generosity, fertility, jealousy, inexperience, envy.

Shrek

The Matrix

Blue

Represents: faith, spirituality, contentment, loyalty, fulfillment peace, tranquility, calm, stability, harmony, unity, trust, truth, confidence, conservatism, security, cleanliness, order, sky, water, cold, technology, depression, calming.

Corpse Bride

The Dark Knight

Purple / violet

Represents: erotic, royalty, nobility, spirituality, ceremony, mysterious, transformation, wisdom, enlightenment, cruelty, arrogance, mourning, power, sensitive, intimacy.

Tangled

Brown

Represents: materialistic, sensation, earth, home, outdoors, reliability, comfort, endurance, stability, simplicity.

Chicken Run

Stepmom

Black

Represents: no, power, sexuality, sophistication, formality, elegance, wealth, mystery, fear, anonymity, unhappiness, depth, style, evil, sadness, remorse, anger.

Persepolis

White

Represents: yes, protection, love, reverence, purity, simplicity, cleanliness, peace, humility, precision, innocence, youth, birth, winter, snow, good, sterility, marriage (Western cultures), death (Eastern cultures), cold, clinical, sterile.

The Huntsman: Winter's War

Silver

Represents: riches, glamorous, distinguished, earthy, natural, sleek, elegant, high-tech.

2001: A Space Odyssey

Robocop

Gold

Represents: precious, riches, extravagance. warm, wealth, prosperity, grandeur.

The Lion King

The King


Types of color schemes

Directors use different techniques to make sure they've got a balanced movie color palette. In this section, we'll introduce you to four different color schemes: analogous, complementary, monochromatic, and triadic.

As we've learned above, single colors can represent certain feelings or emotions. But a more developed film color palette helps you get across all of the themes in your story. Each of the color palettes below refers to the relationships between colors on a color wheel.

  • Analogous color schemes are kindred, like-minded, and sympathetic.
  • Complementary color schemes are tense, embattled, and reflect duelling tension.
  • Monochromatic color schemes are totally harmonious, undivided, and lulling.
  • Triadic color schemes are vibrant, but balanced and evenly matched.

Analogous color schemes

Analogous colors are groups of three colors that sit next to each other on the color wheel. They're made up of one dominant color (usually a primary or secondary color), then a supporting color (a secondary or tertiary color), and a third color that's either a mix of the two first colors, or an accent color that pops.

When it's all combined, you get an analogous color scheme with a rich, monochromatic look. It's best used with either warm or cool colors, creating a look that has a defined temperature as well as tasty color harmony.

Complementary color schemes

Complementary colors – or 'opposite colors' – are pairs of colors that cancel each other out when they're combined or mixed. Orange and blue are complementary colors that you see used in the color palettes of lots of blockbuster films.

Directors use complementary colors to represent conflict, both internal or external. Whichever colors you pick, complementary colors combine warm and cool colors – making for a high-contrast, lively tension in the film.

Monochromatic color schemes

A monochromatic color scheme is when you extend a single base 'hue' with shades, tones, and tints. You get tints by adding whites, and shades by adding black. You can use all these contrasting tones to create a harmonious feeling of color #synergy.

Just think about Wes Anderson's flagrant use of pink in The Grand Budapest Hotel. Or the sickly green color scheme that's all over The Matrix. Monochrome, baby!

Triadic color schemes

A triadic color scheme is when you use three colors that are evenly spaced around the complementary color wheel. You pick one color in the triadic color scheme to be the dominant one, then use the other two as complementary colors.

Triadic color schemes aren't as common as the others, but you often see them in superhero films like Superman. When the scheme's used well, it gives a comic book feel.

Other color schemes

Discordant color schemes

Some directors choose to walk on the wild side, skipping more conventional color schemes for a bit of discordance instead. It's not just for giggles, though. Picking a high-contrast color can help a character, detail, or moment stick out in the film.

For example:

  • The color blue in Amelie
  • The color red in The Sixth Sense
  • The girl's dress in Schindler's List
  • Splashes of primary colors in Sin City

Associative color schemes

Associative colors in film are when a director uses a recurring color or scheme to represent a particular theme or character. This combines a memorable visual cue with emotional storytelling, for a more powerful watch.

You can see it in The Dark Knight, where Christopher Nolan gives associative color palettes to two main characters: Batman (dark blacks, greys) and the Joker (muted purple and green). This color clash represents the tension between the two characters' personalities.

The Godfather also uses associative colors. In the film, orange is associated with death – so when we see the color onscreen, we know violence is imminent.


Put your color theory to the test with Boords

Once you've decided on your color palette, it's time to make a storyboard. Boords is the online storyboarding app for creative professionals. Simplify your pre-production process with storyboards, scripts, and animatics—then gather feedback—all in one place. Creating storyboards has never been simpler.

Thanks to The Beat, No Film School, and StudioBinder for their helpful posts on color theory.

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