Film color schemes - how to use color to visually tell a story

Behind the scene. Actor in front of the camera

Film is a powerful medium for storytelling and artistic expression. Watching a film can be an emotional and thought-provoking experience, as films often have the power to influence our way of thinking, to deepen our understanding of ourselves and the world around us, to make us feel real emotion and connection to the moving pictures on the screen. Apart from this, film is fascinating because it gives us the unique opportunity to escape our realities and to immerse ourselves in different worlds and in different stories.

Being a visual medium, color is a very powerful tool in a filmmaker’s arsenal. Color sets the mood for the film and is used in a symbolic way to emphasize certain aspects of the plot, to create conflict and tension or to paint a character’s journey and evolution throughout the film. Film color theory states that colors in film trigger certain emotions for the viewers. A film’s use of color is also very important to support the message of the story and the filmmaker’s vision. To create visually appealing movies that convey powerful stories, directors work together with art designers, cinematographers, costume designers, etc. to craft the aesthetic of the film. Color is not only how a certain scene is filmed, it’s the sets and costume choices as well.

SAINT PETERSBURG, RUSSIA - JULY 22, 2017: Film Crew On Location. 4K Camera Cinematographer. Filmmaking. Set, scenery of

Some examples of emotions associated to colors, rooted in the psychology of colors: RED - anger, desire, power, passion, love, violence, danger; ORANGE - enthusiasm, energy, warmth; GREEN - youth, perseverance, renewal, jealousy, healing; BLUE - calm, truth, harmony, trust, depression, order, security, peace; YELLOW - optimism, hope, sunshine, betrayal, deceit, insecurity, naive; PURPLE - royalty, mystery, arrogance, cruelty, intimacy, transformation, nostalgia; PINK - love, romantic, happiness, soft, innocence; BROWN - home, earth, comfort, stability, simplicity.

Color theory placard. Colour models, harmonies, properties and meanings memo poster design

There are three main types of color schemes or concepts used by filmmakers:

Monochromatic color schemes are built on shades of a single color like blue, dark blue and turquoise. They create harmony and balance which we perceive as comforting. Monochromatic color schemes can also have the opposite effect, depending on how they are used. This is the case of The Matrix Trilogy - the scenes are tinted with green to enhance the dystopian atmosphere of the Matrix. The green used in The Matrix Trilogy is also a reference to the computer monitors in the early days. It’s interesting that the color palettes in The Matrix films are symbolically used to depict the two worlds: green symbolizes the Matrix while blue stands for the real world.

Complementary color schemes rely on complementary colors that are situated opposite to each other on the color wheel, like orange and blue. Warm and cool colors, in high contrast to each other, are combined in complementary color schemes to illustrate tension. Complementary color schemes are one of the most used in cinema because they express conflict: external (plot) or internal (protagonists). In Titanic, the sinking of the ship takes place in the night, a scene in which shades of dark blue dominate the frame. The golden lights of the ship make it stand out of the background, immediately catching the viewer’s attention, while also setting the mood for the night and the tragedy that will take place.

Analogous color schemes are built on analogous colors that are situated next to each other on the color wheel such as red and orange. As opposed to complementary color schemes that express contrast, opposition, tension, analogous color schemes create harmony and offer a comforting viewing experience. The use of analogous color schemes is connected to a very specific feeling or atmosphere. Such color schemes are often used in film scenes to highlight a change or to mark the evolution of a character. For example, in the film Lost in Translationsome of the scenes are composed in cold chromatic ranges that express the sadness and loneliness of the characters.

Another very effective way to use color in film is to associate a color or a color scheme to a person, to a place or to a theme over the course of the entire story. Using this recurrence becomes symbolic. An example is the color orange (expressed through the orange fruit itself) in The Godfather which becomes an omen for violence and death. In an iconic scene in the film, Vito Corleone buys oranges moments before he is attacked. As he is shot, the fruits fall on the sidewalk. The Godfather’s general color palette contains hues of orange, amber, mahogany and other earthy tones which offer a sense of warmth to attract the viewers and make them feel like they are part of the family.

Another example of the use of color association are the Star Wars films - the colors of the lightsabers: green for Jedi like Yoda and Luke Skywalker and red for Sith and dark Jedi like Darth Vader, Darth Maul and Kylo Ren. The color red is thus strongly associated with the Dark Side in the Star Wars universe.

There are a lot more examples of famous color associations in films and color palettes that define certain films. Could you think of any examples that you particularly like? Why? Share your thoughts in the comments!

Photo credits: Arseniukoleksii, Guruxox, Kriscole.

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August 05, 2020


Interesting concepts and something to consider in the future

August 05, 2020


Very useful, informative and interesting. Puts Scandi Noir TV and movies into perspective.

August 04, 2020


Very interesting concepts that we don't really see on the surface, but our brains process subconsciously. Great article! William 

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