Color Theory – the Lifeblood of Filmmaking

February 16th, 2022 Jump to Comment Section 1
Color Theory – the Lifeblood of Filmmaking

As filmmakers we have the power to elicit real emotion from viewers using only images and sound, and colors play a significant part in that biological response. But why do humans react to certain colors? To get to the foundation of color theory in filmmaking, we have to look at the evolutionary reasons why some colors affect us differently than others.

In the MZed course “Directing Color,” educator Ollie Kenchington explains some of the innate reasons why humans respond to colors like red and green more than we do to blue. It turns out that it’s less to do with creating feelings of love and joy, and more to do with life or death evolutionary instincts.


Color Theory and Why Blues are Background Noise

Most mammals use scent to survive, partly because their eyes are far apart which makes them terrible for depth perception. But primates and humans have eyes closer together and in front of our faces, instead of snouts, so we rely on our binocular vision as well as red-green-blue color vision, also called trichomacy. (You can read more about this research here)

As a pure representation of color spectrum, a digital camera sees red, green, and blue wavelengths at equal distances from each other. The way a camera sensor records that color information is further explained in my previous article, An Introduction to ARRIRAW. But before it records the colors, a digital camera sensor perceives colors by comparing wavelengths to determine the difference between them, and it does so with equal values among the colors. Think of a camera sensor as a sort of perfect, idealistic human.

Image source: The red and green specialists: why human colour vision is so odd, Aeon

But real human color vision works very differently, in that the red and green wavelengths are much closer together, so more of our optical and brain power is used to perceive the differences between shades of red and green. Essentially, we prioritize reds and greens, whereas only 1% of the cones in our eyes are responsible for perceiving colors in the short wavelength, or blues.

In this lesson on Perceiving Color, Ollie explains, “[Blue] is the rarest color in nature, which means we haven’t evolved needing to really pay much attention to it. And in fact, quite the opposite because it surrounds us in terms of sky. It’s almost like background noise. We actually have tuned it out because we can’t eat the sky. We certainly can’t procreate with the sky. So from an evolutionary point of view, it’s not a necessity for us.

Life or death doesn’t hang on us perceiving that color.”

This certainly explains why we use shades of blue as our predominate background color in images, to set the stage for the warm hues to come forward. But why are reds and greens much more essential to humans?

Greens Give Us Life

As opposed to the Blue wavelength, our eyes are much more attuned to the slightest variations in red and green. In fact, our lives depend on it.

Green is the color of nature, and the flora and fauna that surround us is green. We’re able to see minute changes in the green foliage, to better sense when there are dangerous predators nearby.

Ollie adds, “If we’re searching for food or running away from predators in a jungle environment, being more sensitive to those greens gives us the ability to be more sensitive to shifting contrasts, and therefore more sensitive to movement in those areas.”

Screengrab from Directing Color – Image credit: Ollie Kenchington / MZed

In addition to avoiding predators, humans and primates also use the red-green sensitivity to pick out ripening fruit from green foliage, which is an essential survival skill when scent is not our strongest sense.

Green gives off a feeling of serenity and peace, nature and health. We also know green as the symbol for “go,” which is why a project that has been approved for production gets the “green light.” 

There are more shades of green than any color, and green is also the most luminous color, so it plays an essential role in our biology as well as our visual storytelling. So where does red come in?

Reds Are the Lifeblood of Humanity

Finally we get to red, which for us symbolizes love and passion, violence and danger, desire and anger, fire and war. As this color theory article describes, “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.”

From an evolutionary standpoint, red is the color of hemoglobin in blood, and also melanin in skin. As blood flow changes, we perceive the redness or paleness of skin as indicators of emotion and health. Simply seeing red can immediately increase our heart rate and blood pressure. And when we combine redness or paleness with facial expressions, we have a highly evolved way of communication between humans.

Screengrab from Directing Color – Image credit: Ollie Kenchington / MZed

“Your flight response is built in to that and of course blood and the danger that comes with that,” says Ollie. “So we have these responses to colors that are ingrained in our DNA. So once we start to understand that, we can start to build our color and the look around some of those decisions, and make some informed decisions on how we might use those colors to create balance to our images.”

It’s fascinating to learn about the ways we respond to colors, as well as other signals like light and dark, sound and music, and the sight of human emotion. Once we understand the foundations for those biological responses, we can make better use of them in our own creative decisions.

Learn About Color With MZed Pro

Want to learn more about color theory, color correction and grading, and how to master the use of color in your videos? MZed has several courses dedicated to the topic of color, including:


As an MZed Pro member, you get access to nearly 300 hours of filmmaking education, plus we’re constantly adding more courses. For just $30/month (billed annually at $349), here’s everything you’ll get:

  • 42 courses, over 500 high quality lessons spanning nearly 300 hours of learning.
  • Highly produced courses from educators who have decades of experience and awards, including a Pulitzer Prize and an Academy Award.
  • Exclusive access to ARRI Academy online courses.
  • Unlimited access to stream all the content during the 12 months.
  • Offline download and viewing with the MZed iOS app.
  • The majority of MZed courses provide an industry-recognized certificate upon completion.
  • Purchasing the courses outright would cost over $9,800.
  • Course topics include cinematography, directing, lighting, cameras and lenses, producing, indie filmmaking, writing, editing, color grading, audio, and even how to launch a YouTube channel.
  • 7-day money back guarantee if you decide it’s not for you.
MZed courses

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Full disclosure: MZed is owned by CineD

How do you utilize color theory in your videos? Add your comment below!

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