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Color Theory in Film: A Video Producer’s Guide

Picture of a man's face that the use of color theory evokes the emotion of panic.

Do you watch movies and break them down into their elements? Intrigued why some films elicit strong emotions? The use of color to create an emotion or set the mood is color theory. Different colors elicit different emotions and many film makers understand this. There are set schemes to color theory and film. Each one has a different purpose. A movie maker will start by picking an overall color palette based on the emotion or mood they want to set. Color helps tell a story, define a character or create a reaction by the audience. Color is powerful, especially in the creation of films.

What is Color Theory in Film?

Color in film is about more than aesthetics. The use of color can evoke a mood or set the tone for a film. There are three main components of color, they include hue, saturation and brightness.

Hue – the color itself. The combination or degree to which a color is of the primary colors red, blue and yellow. Secondary colors include green, orange and purple which are created by the mixing of primary colors.

Saturation – the intensity or purity of the color or the amount of grey that is mixed into the color.

Brightness or Value – how dark or light a color is. A color’s luminance.

What is the Color Wheel?

A color wheel is a circular swatch of color hues that shows the relationship between primary, secondary and tertiary colors. The color wheel allows the viewer to discern the different color combinations, complementary, monochromatic, analogous, triadic, and tetradic. The color wheel is also divided into warm and cool colors. The warmth or coolness of color is also known as the color’s temperature. Different color temperatures evoke different emotions. Warm colors run from red to yellow and cooler colors run from blue to green and purple.

Primary Colors – a set of primary colors is RYB, or the colors that can’t be mixed by any other color. They include red, yellow and blue. Another set of primary colors include the RGB colors which become white light when added together. These primary colors are red, green and blue.

Secondary Colors – the colors that are a result of the mixing of primary colors.  On the RYB color wheel, the secondary colors are purple, orange and green.

Tertiary Colors – colors made by combining a secondary color and primary color together.  On the RYB color wheel, there are six colors. They include red-orange, yellow-orange, yellow-green, blue-green, blue-purple, and red-purple.

Picking an Overall Color Palette

Picking a color palette is not randomly done, a film’s color palette should be carefully picked based on the mood or tone for each scene. During the pre-production process, a movie maker should create a mood board.

Some film color palettes will stick with one reoccurring color (monochromatic) to offer a primary theme throughout the film, however it is important to create a deeper meaning with each scene, so a diverse set of colors is best. A film’s color must be balanced. This balance can come with the use of complementary, analogous, triadic and tetradic color palettes. Other color schemes include discordant, associative, and transitional color sets.

Monochromatic Color Palette

A single base hue with shades, tones and tints. Shades of colors are darker, and tints are lighter. Examples of words that define monochromatic color sets include deeply harmonious, undivided and lulling.

Analogous Color Palette

A group of three colors that are next to each other on the color wheel. Analogous color sets are made up of one primary color, a supporting color and a third that is either a mix between the two or an accent color. Examples of words that define analogous colors include kindred, like-minded, and simpatico.

Complementary Color Palette

Opposite colors on the color wheel represent conflict, like purple and yellow, blue and orange, or red and green. These colors offer high contrast in the films representation of characters and themes. Examples of words that define complementary colors include dueling opposition, embattled, and tense.

Triadic Color Palette

Three equally spaced out colors on the color wheel. One color is the dominant, and the remaining two are complementary colors. Red, blue and yellow are a simple triadic color set. Examples of words that define triadic color sets include vibrant yet balanced and evenly matched.

Tetradic Color Palette

Four colors that are evenly spaced on the color wheel. Tetradic colors are bold with the use of one primary color and three accent colors. The more colors used in the palette, the harder it is to balance that color palette.

Discordant Color

A diversion from the film’s original color palette. This color technique can help the viewer focus on an important aspect of the film. For example, the use of a red rose on a white background or an article of clothing in color on a black and white backdrop.

Associative Color

The use of reoccurring color to connect a character or theme in order to build an emotional reaction to the color.

Transitional Color

The shift of a color theme over the course of a film’s story, to show an evolution in the character or theme. A character who originally wears a white outfit, but later in the film wears a black outfit can symbolize the journey from good to evil.

Color Theory in Story Telling

The color palette used in a film can help tell a story. This helps the viewer feel certain emotions, such as the use of red blood in a horror movie, or a shade of green for jealousy. Color in film also helps draw the attention of the user to a specific detail, like a red handle on a white door. Color can set the overall tone of the film. For example, the use of purple to create a sense of fantasy. Color can help the film identify character traits, such as having a greedy businessman wear green or a melancholy character wear yellow. Color can also be used to show the evolution of a character or story.

What Does Each Color Represent?

Each color has many different meanings. They can elicit different emotions or shape our concept and reaction to them based on historical and global meanings. Different cultures have different emotions or meanings for each color. These cultural, historical and religious meanings shape our response to color used in film.

Red

Red is a color of extremes. In film, red is the color of love, passion, excitement, desire, violence, blood, danger, anger, fire, war, heat, and rage. Red captures a viewer’s attention and is one of the most visible colors. This is why red is used on fire trucks and stop signs. The color red focuses behind the viewer’s retina which forces the lens to grow more convex to pull it forward. This allows the viewer to perceive red as moving forward and captures their attention.

Pink

Pink is a combination of red and white. In film, pink is the color of innocence, romance, charm, sweetness, femininity, playfulness, empathy, and beauty. Historically, in almost every culture, the color pink is associated with girls, and the color blue represents boys.

Orange

Orange is a polarizing color and is very vibrant. The color orange, like the fruit symbolizes health and wellness. Orange is also the color of life rafts and hazard cones. Orange is a complementary color to blue and a triadic color with green and purple. In film, purple is the color of humor, warmth, sociability, friendly, happiness, exoticness, and youth.

Yellow

Yellow is the most luminous color on the color wheel. It captures the viewer’s attention more than any other color. The human eye processes yellow first on the color spectrum. This is why yellow is used for cautionary signs and emergency rescue vehicles. In Japan, the color yellow represents courage. In China, adult films are referred to as yellow films. During the Inquisition, those that committed treason wore yellow. In traditional film, yellow is the color of wisdom, knowledge, sickness, insecurity, obsession, idealization, naivety, cowardice, deceit, and hazard.

Green

Green has become a symbol of ecology. Some see green as a holy color and others see it as a lucky color. On most traffic lights, green is the color for go. There are also more shades of green than any other color. A small number of people are green/red color blind. In film, green is the color of nature, healing, perseverance, health, envy, immaturity, corruption, and ominousness.

Blue

One of the most sighted favorite colors, blue is the color of nature, from the water to the sky. Blue is as cold as red is hot. Blue has a complementary color in orange. It is also one of the primary colors. In film, blue is the color of coldness, isolation, cerebral, melancholy, passivity, calm, faith, spirituality, loyalty, tranquility, harmony, unity, trust, and water.

Purple

Purple is a rarity in nature and the most powerful wavelength on a rainbow. It is the most powerful visible wavelength of electromagnetic energy. Purple is therefore the hardest color for the eye to discriminate. Purple is made up of hot red and cool blue. Historically, the cost of purple dye was expensive and was primarily used by royalty. In film, purple is the color of fantasy, the ethereal, the illusory, eroticism, mysticism, mystery, nobility, and royalty.

Final Thoughts

Color is sometimes an arbitrary decision for those making a film, but it is important to understand the historical, cultural and emotional significance of color. Films tell us stories, we learn from films, we have emotional adventures and loose ourselves in films. Next time you watch your favorite movie, think about the way color was used and what emotions it elicited in you as you enjoyed watching it. Film is a powerful medium and with the right color use it can be even more powerful for those watching.

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