5 Common Film Color Schemes – Learning Cinematic Color Design

March 5th, 2015
5 Common Film Color Schemes - Learning Cinematic Color Design

film-color-schemes

Being able to use color to create harmony, or tension within a scene, or to bring attention to a key visual theme can be used to spectacular effect. In this article we look at 5 common film color schemes that can help you understand how cinematic color design works.

This industry of ours is great. I truly love it, the people, the gear, the creativity and energy. At the same time, as your experience grows and your expanding network of connections allows you to move up the ranks, you also find the expected, assumed level of knowledge increases. This is logical, but I have found the assumed knowledge is often rarely discussed, because, well, it’s assumed that you already have it.

IMG_9335_squareI want to share a few of my “ah ha!” moments that I assume some (most) of you already know, because of course it’s “assumed” knowledge, but the truth is maybe it will help more than a few of you to connect some dots of your own.

If you’ve never really come to grips with why certain colors or combinations of color evoke or induce a emotional response, or simply just look pleasing, this explanation of basic practical color theory may suddenly cause the puzzle pieces to fall together or spark some interest in researching it further.

Planning the look

In post of course, a colorist can only work with what he (or she) is given, and so it can be argued that the overall look and feel of the image is the responsibility of the production designer. This is carefully planned by art department as a whole in consultation with the director and cinematographer long before cameras roll. While this is true, how many of us regularly work with a professional production designer?

Sometimes perhaps, but certainly not for every project. Many times I’ve brought on someone in a junior role, or simply used a stylist to quickly set dress a location with found existing objects, or to bring some selected items in with them if needed. The basic knowledge I am about to share helped immensely in those situations.

The Effect of Color

Color can affect us psychologically and physically, often without us being aware, and can be used as a strong device within a story. Knowledge gives you control, and control means you can manipulate and use color to give your work a powerful and beautiful edge.

Being able to use color to create harmony, or tension within a scene, or to bring attention to a key visual theme can be used to spectacular effect.

In the sense of the work of the world’s greatest cinematographers we admire so much nothing is accidental. A strong red color has been shown to raise blood pressure, while a blue color has a calming effect. Some colors are distinctly associated with a particular location or place, while others give a sense of time or period.

The Color Wheel

First of all we’ll look at some fundamentals that will apply equally to both design, and post.

It all starts with the color wheel. This should look familiar to anyone with experience of a 3 way color corrector.

color-wheel-300

The color wheel is the common tool you will see when it comes to color control, and it is standard in color theory in defining a number of combinations that are considered especially pleasing.

In a simplified form the color wheel comprises 12 colors based on the RYB (or subtractive) color model.

In the RYB color model, the primary colors are red, yellow and blue. The three secondary colors are green, orange and purple, and can be made by mixing two primary colors. A further six tertiary colors can be made by mixing the primary and secondary colors.

Let’s make some sense of this. Firstly you’ll notice warmer colors on the right side, and cooler colors on the left. Warm colors are bright and energetic. Cool colors give a soothing and calm impression.

We will quickly define the common color harmonies or color chords, each consists of two or more colors within a specific pattern or relationship on the color wheel.

All of the frame grabs used to illustrate the 5 most common schemes were created by graphic designer Roxy Radulescu from her site www.moviesincolor.com. It’s worth taking some time to look through all the work she has done.

5 Common Film Color Schemes

1. Complementary Color Scheme

ComplementaryTwo colors on opposite sides of the color wheel make a complimentary pair. This is by far the most commonly used pairing. A common example is orange and blue, or teal. This pairs a warm color with a cool color and produces a high contrast and vibrant result. Saturation must be managed but a complimentary pair are often quite naturally pleasing to the eye.

 

Orange and blue colors can often be associated with conflict in action, internally or externally. Often a internal conflict within a character can be reflected in the color choice in his or her external environment.

Complementary_Amelie_2

Complementary_Amelie

The color palette of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s “Amelie” is a great example of a complementary pairing of red and green.

Complementary_Fight_Club

Orange and Teal are readily apparent in this scene from “Fight Club.” Teal is often pushed into the shadows, and oranges into highlights.

Complementary_Drive

A similar look in this scene from “Drive.”

Complementary_Fight_Club_2

A complementary pairing isn’t always so obvious and the contrast between the two colors used is often relative. Another shot from “Fight Club” which at first appears just to have a strong overall teal tint to the entire image, but a closer look reveals there is still a orange touch to the skin tones relative to the deep blue green.

2. Analogous Color Scheme

Analogous colors sit next to each other on the color wheel. They match well and can create a overall harmony in color palette. It’s either warmer colors, or cooler colors so doesn’t have the contrast and tension of the complementary colors.

Analogous

Analogous colors are easy to take advantage of in landscapes and exteriors as they are often found in nature. Often one color can be chosen to dominate, a second to support, and a third along with blacks, whites and grey tones to accent.

Analogous_American_Hustle

Reds, Oranges, Browns and Yellows in this scene from “American Hustle” fall next to each other on the color wheel forming a warm overall feel with very little tension in the image.

3. Triadic Color Scheme

TriadTriadic colors are three colors arranged evenly spaced around the color wheel. One should be dominant, the others for accent. They will give a vibrant feel even if the hues are quite unsaturated.

 

Triadic is one of the least common color schemes in film and although difficult, can be quite striking.

Pierre_Le_Feut

Jean-Luc Goddard’s 1964 “Pierrot Le Fou” makes use of a triadic color scheme of red, blue and green.

4. Split-Complementary Color Scheme

SplitComplementaryA split-complimentary color scheme is really very similar to complimentary colors but instead of using the direct opposite color of the base color, it uses the two colors next to the opposite. It has the same high contrast but less tension than a complimentary pair.

 

Split_Complementary_Burn_After_Reading

A split complimentary color scheme in this scene of the Coen Brother’s “Burn After Reading” of red, green and teal.

5. Tetradic Color Scheme

TetradTetradic colors consist of four colors arranged into two complementary pairs. The result is a full palette with many possible variations. As with most of these color harmonies, one color is usually dominant.

 

Tetradic_Mama_Mia

“Mama Mia’s” colorful party scene falls into the example of a tetradic choice of colors creating a well balanced and harmonious palette in a scene that could otherwise have looked like a bad disco.

Some common general looks that can be created in post pretty much regardless of what colors are in the image are the orange/teal look where orange is pushed into the highlights and upper-mids of the skin tones and teal (or blue green) is pushed into the shadows.

Complementary_Magnolia

A scene from “Magnolia” showing another example of Hollywood’s love affair with orange and teal. Blue/green has been pushed into the shadows, and orange in the midtones and highlights specifically in skin tones.

I hope that this basic breakdown can help give you control in making planned and purposeful color choices either on set when working with a designer, or purely in post in order to set your work apart. Studiobinder have a free e-book called “How to Use Color in Film” if you’re interested in finding out more.

Of course I assume you all knew this already… but this was just in case you didn’t ;)

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christy shelton fernando
Guest
October 8th, 2019

a valuble article

arnav sharma
Member
September 16th, 2019

Great! Thanks for sharing this information I am so very happy to read this content
I am really thankful to you for sharing such useful info. Great share! Nice work. Keep it up. http://cbtfarnav.com

BBL 2019-20 Prediction
Guest
September 16th, 2019

Great! Thanks for sharing this information I am so very happy to read this content
I am really thankful to you for sharing such useful info. Great share! Nice work. Keep it up.

sangram
Guest
May 2nd, 2019

its helpful

 Akshay Dahake
Akshay Dahake
Member
April 25th, 2018

Thanks for the awesome article.

But I think the example you have given here for Tri-adiac Color scheme is actually goes with Split Complementary Color scheme.
Correct me , If I am missing out something.

 Arthur Vieira
Member
January 23rd, 2017

I’m really grateful to you for this article!

Member
September 27th, 2016

Awesome post on color theory Richard. We actually just released a free e-book that dives even deeper on color theory called “How to Use Color in Film” https://www.studiobinder.com/blog/e-books/how-to-use-color-in-film-free-ebook/

Member
May 24th, 2016

Thank you for sharing the the colour scheme tricks that makes the scene memorable ones!

Anonymous
Anonymous
Guest
April 5th, 2016

my goodness…waah..am speechless!!! Great job!!

Member
January 29th, 2016

nice

Anonymous
Anonymous
Guest
January 26th, 2016

I didn’t!!! Thank u

Member
January 26th, 2016

This is fascinating and has a great selection of images as examples! I’ve writing and teaching about color in cinema for a few years now, and am working on a book about the emotional and symbolic use of color in cinematic storytelling.

Member
January 26th, 2016
Reply to  Peg Aloi

I thought readers of this article might enjoy my recent review of Todd Haynes’ CAROL, focused on the symbolic use of red and green… http://artsfuse.org/138953/fuse-film-commentary-blink-a-bright-red-and-green-carols-holiday-charm/

Member
January 26th, 2016
Reply to  Richard Lackey

My pleasure! If you want to contact me about the book project, let me know, it will be an anthology of essays by myself and two others.

 Pratik Prabhan
Pratik Prabhan
Member
January 13th, 2017
Reply to  Peg Aloi

Hi Peg, I found your article absolutely fascinating. Have there been any developments on your book project since. I’m absolutely intrigued to read it.

Member
January 14th, 2017
Reply to  Pratik Prabhan

Thank you so much! It has been a bit on the back burner, with other projects taking my time. The anthology will, I hope, include writings by two of my former students and myself. I plan to have a proposal ready to go out to publishers sometime this spring.

Member
January 24th, 2016

Or some obscure website will claim there’s a scratch on the car’s paintwork.

Member
January 24th, 2016

Excellent discussion of how color affects our moods and the use of color in cinematic staging. Most people don’t even realize the details that go into creating a movie scene that is a split second in length. As an interior designer, the physiology of color, is the basic foundation of all good design. The use of proper color, based upon the natural light flowing into each room, the purpose of the actual room, the client’s lifestyle are all considerations before developing a color palette for the client.
A kitchen needs to be uplifting and evoke a sence of harmony and home; bedrooms need to have a calming color palette to evoke calmness and tranquility; a master suite can be seductive and sensual with a color palette of cool colors. It’s all it the details that makes a home very unique and it all begins with color. It’s not just paint on the walls and ceilings: color is as important to our wellbeing as enjoying all the good things that life has to offer.

Member
November 17th, 2015

Brilliant and Helpful. Thanks a lot!

Stephen Heleker
Stephen Heleker
Guest
October 7th, 2015

It kind of sucks that you used a bunch of moviesincolor graphics with no attribution. Useful post, though.

Member
September 20th, 2015

Don’t miss the Timeline of Historical Film Colors:

http://zauberklang.ch/filmcolors/

Riven Mists
Riven Mists
Guest
May 25th, 2015

very helpful post, thank you!

Eston
Eston
Guest
April 9th, 2015

I browse through Ittens ever so often to help me develop my own ideas related to colour and how I want to use them. Very informative article and helpful comments. Thanks for sharing. I often look for moral of the story, body language and voice tone in movies, now I will also look at colour usage.

Member
March 18th, 2015

Theoretically Ittens Color Wheel is completely wrong. Except for yellow both of his other primary colors aren’t really primary. the red is a magenta with a bit of yellow and the blue has a small amount of magenta in it as well. but since it’s not about color mixing in this article i would suggest to just focus on Ittens 7 color contrasts cause these work just fine.

in addition the most complete color mixing system is Harald Küppers Rhomboeder-System. it includes CYM, RGB and B/W. but again just when it comes down to mixing them up :)

Member
March 11th, 2015

Very interesting article, one question: is it right use subtractive wheel to achieve complementary colors? I think it’s right for paintings but for video I use additive wheel to establish a complementary color. What do you think about this?

Member
March 11th, 2015

Great post

Member
March 10th, 2015

neat!

Member
March 9th, 2015

Great article! Thanks

Member
March 6th, 2015

Excellent ! But it is “Pierrot Le Fou” (mad) ,not Le Feu ( fire )

Member
March 6th, 2015
Reply to  Julien Beydon

Thanks for the hint. Corrected.

GLenn Stillar
GLenn Stillar
Member
March 6th, 2015

An excellent post. Thanks so much.

Anonymous
Anonymous
Guest
March 6th, 2015

Good one

Member
March 5th, 2015

great article, may thank’s

Member
March 5th, 2015

Brilliant Post! Very helpful!
Thanks a lot Cinema 5D.

Bart van der Gaag
Bart van der Gaag
Member
March 5th, 2015

Brilliant post.

Dave
Dave
Guest
March 5th, 2015

Fantastic post. Really enjoyed reading it and being able to put real world examples alongside the descriptions.

Minco van der Weide
Guest
March 5th, 2015

Awesome post, thank you Cinema5D!

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