First of all, let’s make something very clear: making a movie is a HUGE job. It requires a collective effort where art direction, photography, lighting, and color correction form a key axis in the composition of the image and, therefore, in the narration of the story. And before you cancel me, I know: the scriptwriters, the editors, the producers, the sound technicians, the actors and actresses, the extras, the casting, the catering … they are all important, but I did highlight the art team and photography because I want to talk you about the use of color in movies and how this influences the viewer’s perception a LOT.
Color is a key tool for creation. No doubt about that. And if there is, it is enough to review a fragment of the 32 thousand year history of painting to finish convincing you. Through color we transmit information and the use of that information can make us understand a story in one way or another.
Okay. So far so good. Now, how to achieve it? With so many possible color combinations, where to start?
It’s simple: by the primary colors. Everything in this life begins with the acronym RYB (red, yellow and blue), adding black and white as the absence or total saturation of all colors. From the different shades that emerge, the color wheel or chromatic circle :
Another fundamental variable of the chromatic composition is the color temperature, divided into warm colors and cool colors. This is key in the cinema and I will explain later why.
With the combination of different tones (complementing each other, being verified) certain feelings and sensations are generated in the spectators. If you enter the page www.moviesincolor.com you will see hundreds of examples where the author displays the main color palette that make up different scenes from well known films and explains the chosen technique and the desired effect.
Table of Contents
- 1. The most basic: complementary color scheme
- 2. Basic but a bit more complex: combined color scheme
- 3 . Stress-free degradations: analog color scheme
- 4. It’s getting complicated: triadic color scheme
- 5. It’s getting seriously complicated: tetradic color scheme
To make it easier for you, I summarize the main and best known techniques:
1. The most basic: complementary color scheme
Works at contrast opposite colors on the color wheel . I say “contrast” but the ideal verb would be “complement”. Well,in this technique, each color meets its complementary pair.
A 1-1 relationship. And this is where the temperature factor is key: warm color meets cool color, creating immediate harmony in the painting , for instance Red and green :
It is simple but effective. Calms the view and arouses interest in the viewer. For a reason, it is the most general technique in movies.
2. Basic but a bit more complex: combined color scheme
It maintains the same logic of the contrast but adds one more variation: two opposite colors are integrated . The ratio would be 1-2.
This decreases the tension between both ends and generates more color variations of the same hue and temperature .
In this picture of House of Flying Daggers you can see the use of green, blue and orange:
3 . Stress-free degradations: analog color scheme
As you must have already guessed, analogous colors are in a very close position within the color wheel. They are derivations of the same family, so to speak.
Here again it is important to talk about temperature: Do you want to create a warm or cold atmosphere? To achieve this, the chromatic variations of a single. Consider a scene where snow is plentiful, as in Fargo, or in cold weather outdoor shots as in Into the wild :
4. It’s getting complicated: triadic color scheme
Three colors. One is prominent, the other two accentuate. Each color would be located in different places on the chromatic circle, that is, they would be spaced apart (some more than others, and there may be variations of the same color). It could be a 1-2 or 2-1 or 1-1-1 relationship. It’s a mess, but a beautiful mess that stimulates the eye and makes the image memorable . Only masters like Fellini have handled it perfectly:
5. It’s getting seriously complicated: tetradic color scheme
Now there are four colors. In this case in a 2-2 ratio: two close colors of the chromatic circle compared to two other opposite colors. The effect that is generated can be excessive, of extreme and complex harmony.
Here the objective is to create scenes that stimulate the viewer a lot, that awaken him, that dazzles him, something that usually happens to all of us when we enter a movie theater. I leave you a very colorful and festive example:
Understanding the use of these five color schemes is a starting point to identify the thousands of variants that may exist in the use of color in cinema and how these always impact our perception and invoke our “lighter” and “darker” feelings. (The joke is terrible… sorry, I couldn’t help it).
I hope you liked this article. Any comment is more than welcome.