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8/24/2017 5 Common Film Color Schemes - Cinematic Color Design

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5 Common Film Color Schemes Learning Cinematic


Color Design
by Richard Lackey | 5th March 2015

English

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 youunderstand 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


https://www.cinema5d.com/lm-color-schemes-cinematic-color-design/ discussed, because, well, its assumed that you already1/24
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English

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

If youve 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 thelook

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 Ive 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


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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 worlds 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 locationEnglish
or place, while others give a
sense of time or period.

The Color Wheel

First of all well 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.

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


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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.

Lets make some sense of this. Firstly youll 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. English

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. Its worth taking some time to look
through all the work she has done.

5 Common Film Color Schemes

1. Complementary Color Scheme

Two 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


https://www.cinema5d.com/lm-color-schemes-cinematic-color-design/ with conflict in action, internally or externally. Often a4/24
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English

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English

The color palette of Jean-Pierre Jeunets Amelie is a great example of a complementary pairing of red
and green.

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English

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

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English

A similar look in this scene from Drive.

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English

A complementary pairing isnt 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. Its either warmer colors, or cooler colors so doesnt have the contrast and
tension of the complementary colors.

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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,English
and a third
along with blacks,
whites and grey tones to accent.

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

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Triadic 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.

English

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

Jean-Luc Goddards 1964 Pierrot Le Fou makes use of a triadic color scheme of red, blue and green.

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4. Split-Complementary Color Scheme happy with it. Ok

English
A 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.

A split complimentary color scheme in this


https://www.cinema5d.com/lm-color-schemes-cinematic-color-design/ scene of the Coen Brothers Burn After Reading of red,
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5.Tetradic Color Scheme

English

Tetradic 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.

Mama Mias colorful party scene falls into


https://www.cinema5d.com/lm-color-schemes-cinematic-color-design/ the example of a tetradic choice of colors creating a well
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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.

English

A scene from Magnolia showing another example of Hollywoods 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 youre interested in finding out
more.

Of course I assume you all knew this already but this was just in case you didnt ;)

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English

Author of this post:


Richard Lackey

Richard Lackey is a cinema camera and workflow specialist, colorist (CSI member), producer & writer
with 10+ years of industry experience. Richard has a passion for cinema technology & beautiful
imagery.

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Minco van der Weide March 5, 2015


English
Awesome post, thank you Cinema5D!

Reply

Dave March 5, 2015

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

Reply

Bart van der Gaag March 5, 2015

Brilliant post.

Reply

Niklaas P. Hoyng March 5, 2015

Brilliant Post! Very helpful!


Thanks a lot Cinema 5D.

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Simone Gandolfo March 5, 2015


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happy with it. Ok
great article, may thanks

Reply

Anonymous March 6, 2015

Good one

Reply English

GLenn Stillar March 6, 2015

An excellent post. Thanks so much.

Reply

Julien Beydon March 6, 2015

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

Reply

Sebastian Wber March 6, 2015

Thanks for the hint. Corrected.

Reply

Arnaud Trouv March 9, 2015

Great article! Thanks

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Reply

Margarita Smith March 10, 2015

neat!

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facebook_user March 11, 2015 English

Great post

Reply

Giacomo De Biase March 11, 2015

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

Reply

Richard Lackey March 15, 2015

Hi Giacomo, I have used a traditional RYB color model to illustrate the pairings, which technically is
different to either subtractive CMY or additive RGB. Its a twelve hue color circle developed by
Johannes Itten and is the basis for most color theory explanations and color themes.

The opposite pairings of subtractive CMY and additive RGB color wheels are identical, the
difference being a reversal of which colors are primary and secondary. Its a interesting question
however, so do you consider the complimentary opposite of Red to be Cyan, not Green?

It makes for some different pairings and schemes, as the traditional RYB pairs Orange and Teal
whereas either additive RGB or subtractive CMY pair Orange with Blue.

For certain the 3 way color wheels we use for grading and control are additive RGB.
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Reply

Manuel Diepold March 18, 2015

Theoretically Ittens Color Wheel is completely wrong. Except for yellow both of his other primary
colors arent 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 its 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 Kppers Rhomboeder-System. it
includes CYM, RGB and B/W. but again just when it comes down toEnglish
mixing them up :)

Reply

Richard Lackey March 18, 2015

Thanks Manuel, I agree exactly, when it comes to color mixing of course we are using additive RGB
but Ive always referred to Ittens wheel for the combinations because they work so nicely. There is
definitely a separation of purpose there though, and they shouldnt be confused. Thanks for helping
to clarify that.

Reply

Eston April 9, 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.

Reply

Riven Mists May 25, 2015

very helpful post, thank you!

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Reply

Barbara Flueckiger September 20, 2015

Dont miss the Timeline of Historical Film Colors:

http://zauberklang.ch/filmcolors/

Reply
English
Stephen Heleker October 7, 2015

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

Reply

Richard Lackey October 7, 2015

Actually Stephen I did attribute Roxy and her site, and I got her permission before writing this
article. Here is the paragraph in the article right before the heading 5 Common Film Color
Schemes: All of the frame grabs used to illustrate the 5 most common schemes were created by
graphic designer Roxy Radulescu from her site http://www.moviesincolor.com. Its worth taking
some time to look through all the work she has done.

I never ever use images or other peoples content in any of my work without attributing them and
having their express permission in writing beforehand.

Reply

Martin Gomez Santiago November 17, 2015

Brilliant and Helpful. Thanks a lot!

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Rosemarie DiSalvo January 24, 2016

Excellent discussion of how color affects our moods and the use of color in cinematic staging. Most
people dont 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 clients lifestyle are all considerations before developing a color palette for the
client.
A kitchen needs to be uplifting and evoke a sence of harmony andEnglishhome; 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. Its all it the details that makes a home very unique and it all
begins with color. Its 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.

Reply

Richard Lackey January 26, 2016

Absolutely, so much thought goes into color on a polished Hollywood production, very little that
you see in an image on the big screen is there by chance, somebody has made specific choices with
intent, at the very least to create harmony or dischord (but actually so much more than that). Its
often overlooked by many independent filmmakers and enthusiasts but choice of color palette, as
much as lighting style and cinematography plays an integral part in creating a felt, emotional
experience and connection for the audience.

Reply

Peter Holland January 24, 2016

Or some obscure website will claim theres a scratch on the cars paintwork.

Reply

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Peg Aloi January 26, 2016


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happy with it. Ok
This is fascinating and has a great selection of images as examples! Ive 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.

Reply

Peg Aloi January 26, 2016

I thought readers of this article might enjoy my recent review of Todd Haynes
English 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/

Reply

Richard Lackey January 26, 2016

Thanks so much for adding this link. Brilliant.

Reply

Peg Aloi January 26, 2016

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.

Reply

Pratik Prabhan January 13, 2017

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

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Peg Aloi January 14, 2017

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.

Reply
English
Anonymous January 26, 2016

I didnt!!! Thank u

Reply

Vijayagopalan Gopalan January 29, 2016

nice

Reply

Anonymous April 5, 2016

my goodnesswaah..am speechless!!! Great job!!

Reply

Mani Mariappan May 24, 2016

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

Reply

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Shant Kiraz September 27, 2016


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happy with it. Ok
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/

Reply

Arthur Vieira January 23, 2017

Im really grateful to you for this article!


English

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