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5CommonFilmColorSchemesCinematicColorDesign

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5 Common Film Color Schemes Learning Cinematic Color Design


by Richard Lackey (website) | 5th March 2015

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,
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well, its assumed that you already have it.

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 location 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 12 colors based on the RYB (or subtractive)
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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.
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.
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 with conflict in action, internally or
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externally. Often a internal conflict within a character can be reflected in the color choice in
his or her external environment.

The color palette of Jean-Pierre Jeunets Amelie is a great example of a complementary


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pairing of red and green.

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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A similar look in this scene from Drive.

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, 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.

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

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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

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 scene of the Coen Brothers Burn After Reading
of red, green and teal.

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5.Tetradic Color Scheme

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 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.

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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.

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.
Of course I assume you all knew this already but this was just in case you didnt ;)
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Back to School with Canon's Digital Learning Center.

Tags: color, color theory


Under: Cameras, Filmmaking, Post Pro

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Minco van der Weide March 5, 2015

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.

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Niklaas P. Hoyng March 5, 2015

Brilliant Post! Very helpful!


Thanks a lot Cinema 5D.

Reply
Simone Gandolfo March 5, 2015

great article, may thanks

Reply
Editt Lab March 6, 2015

Good one

Reply
GLenn Stillar March 6, 2015

An excellent post. Thanks so much.

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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.

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Reply
Arnaud Trouv March 9, 2015

Great article! Thanks

Reply
Margarita Smith March 10, 2015

neat!

Reply
facebook_user March 11, 2015

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?

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