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Basic & Applied Color Theory: A Video Production Guide

Woman holding color wheel, studying color theory

The idea that the use of certain colors and combinations of colors affect how we take in and perceive a piece of media has been around for centuries.  If you’ve ever watched a film and observed that the overall look makes you feel a certain way, it is no accident! There are well defined and established ideas of which colors do and do not work together in order to achieve certain goals in design and media. This is known as color theory.

Basic Color Theory

The basics of color theory are heavily based on Isaac Newton’s color wheel, which includes primary colors, secondary colors and intermediate colors. Dating all the way back to the seventeenth century, it still forms the basis for color theory and color relationships.

Applying Color Theory to Your Video Work

Everything from the way you design a set to the clothing choices for talent will be taken into consideration in order to achieve desirable results. There are some main terms that you will want to familiarize yourself with as fundamental knowledge when it comes to utilizing color theory in your work.

The Primary Colors of The Color Wheel

Primary colors are those that can not be created by mixing other colors. For example, green is a mix of blue and yellow, which means green is not a primary color.  Blue and yellow are primary since they cannot be made by mixing other colors. Orange is a mix of yellow and red so it is not a primary color either.

Secondary and Tertiary Colors

Colors created by the mixing of two primary colors, such as green and orange, are referred to as secondary colors. When a secondary color is mixed with a primary color, the end result is referred to as a tertiary color. On the color wheel, examples of tertiary colors are yellow-green, blue-green, blue-purple, red-purple, red-orange, and yellow-orange.

Monochromatic in Video

The basis of monochromatic color is using a single base color and shades, tints and tones of that hue.  Picking a base color is the first step in creating a monochromatic color palette.   In using monochromatic, everything will stem from one main color choice but there will also be the use of neutral colors (black, grey, white). A simple and effective way to create a monochrome look in film is by using colored gels. These are colored, transparent pieces of plastic or other material that you can put over the lens of your camera in order to achieve your desired look.

Use of Complementary Colors

Complementary colors are ones that lay directly opposite one another on the color wheel. Some examples of complementary colors are blue/orange-yellow or red/green. This is a widely used color concept in film and television. While two colors opposite each other on the color wheel are very much in contrast with one another, using one of the colors as background and the other to call attention to important content for contrast is common.  

Analogous Colors Along the Color Wheel

Analogous in color theory refers to the use of colors that fall in sequence along the color wheel. When you see video that is working with variations of a main color, it is considered analogous. A good example in nature of analogous color is when you look at the leaves of a tree in autumn. You will notice that the various shades of reds, oranges, and yellows all seem to flow into one another. Recreating this can create a sense of harmony or nostalgia. The use of analogous colors in video demonstrates an understanding of this phenomenon.

Triadic Formation on The Wheel

Triadic is the utilization of three colors along the color wheel that form a triangular formation. The color harmonies are typically vibrant and carefully blended.  If you are looking at a color wheel and choose one color, you’d then skip three and pick the next color, skip three and then pick your third color. These three colors make up your triadic palette, with one being the dominant color. Examples of triadic palettes are orange/light-green/blue and red/yellow/turquoise.

Color theory can be applied to video production in a variety of different ways.  Some of our greatest filmmakers from Stanley Kubrick to Wes Anderson to Martin Scorsese have been masters of the use of color in their film to evoke mood, a sense of place, and to elicit emotion from the viewer. Working knowledge of how to apply color theory to your video is an important part of production.

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