Color Theory for Cinematographers

At this year’s San Antonio Film Academy, I gave two lectures on three Cs of cinematography, composition, contrast, and color. Color is often overlooked by beginning DPs, and it is an extremely powerful tool. I described color in cinematography as “the use of analogous or complimentary color tones to create contrasts between elements in the frame and communicate emotional ideas to the audience.”

Not a great description, but good enough for starters. Color can be used to communicate information to audiences in all kinds of ways. For example, the storyline in Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic takes place in three different places, each of which is a very different color. Viewers can instantly tell where characters are and what part of the story they are watching. This is a very obvious way to communicate basic information.

Color can also communicate emotional information. Certain cinematic conventions have developed which help with this, for example warm lighting to convey safety and cool lighting to suggest danger are about as standard as shadows to convey mystery and brightness to signify security. Some directors, like James Cameron, stick to these conventions religiously, but others are willing to shake things up.

It can be very helpful to depart from the expected if your film requires it. Spielberg flipped the light=good/shadows=bad expectation on its head for E.T., and Ridley Scott changed all the normal colors rules for Black Hawk Down. Because these films are more complex than say, a standard comedy, forcing the audience to adjust to and rethink the world of the film is very effective.

When we first see Scott’s Somalia it looks like this – dirty, grungy, and brown. A greeny-orangey tobacco-filter brown. This is not the rich golden Africa of Sahara or Gladiator, but a dingy and dangerous place. Diesel smoke makes even the sky grubby. So far, so good.

By contrast, US soldiers live in high-tech steel barracks lit by cool halogen lights and laptop screens. Remember, cinematic convention usually says that warm tones indicate a cosy safe place and harsh blues like these mean cold clinical uncertainty, but not in Black Hawk Down. This color palette is unfamiliar territory, just like Somalia.

When Task Force Ranger goes into Mogadishu they go into the warm, brown, dangerous sunlight and bad things happen. This bright warm orange light is not safe. This is different. The audience has been thrown a curve ball, just like our heroes.

Even the command center has warmer light in it during the attacks than it did previously. The monitors are still blue, so the fill light is cool, but the key light on JSOC officers is warm, like on their men in the field. Command is just as messed up as the operation.

Ever since Saving Private Ryan war movies have tended towards a very desaturated bleach-bypass look, especially for combat scenes (including the opening scene of Gladiator). Ridley Scott and DP Slawomir Idziak have bucked the trend here as well, and it is very effective.

Finally, our men begin to find cover. Inexplicably, the basements of the abandoned slums they hide in have a very cool lighting scheme. Subconsciously, even though this is not conventional color use, the audience knows that they are safer here that outside in the brown. By now, all our viewers have picked up on how the palette works.

As time ticks away the odds get worse, the situation becomes more and more dangerous. Even that deadly warm sunlight is trying to invade the cool blue safe house. Every part of the film, including the color palette, is communicating jeopardy to the audience.

Traditionally, nighttime is communicated on film by desaturation and an ever-present blue moonlight, but once again Ridley Scott has a better idea. Somalian night is spooky green, and the tracers and explosions add orange to the scene. It’s the same sickly warm tone as the daytime, but brighter and scarier. There is no blue here; no safety.

But fortunately, a relief convey is rolling out. The 10th Mountain Division brings bright blue halogen lights to banish the orange and green of danger. By amplifying the saturation of these night scenes far beyond what is “normal,” the audience finds them very unsettling. This is the perfect emotion for what is being depicted.

Up until now, most of the scenes have been almost monochromatic, despite being highly saturated. Only at the climax do all of our colors really collide. These soldiers are pinned between threatening orange fire behind them and the uncertain dark green night in front of them, but safe blue headlights are coming in from the right. It’s final showdown time.

And of course, the battle ends just as the blue light of dawn makes everything safe and secure. The grueling Mogadishu Mile becomes almost a victory lap with this new color palette. The Rangers are back to their normal hue, and all is well… pretty much.

Ridley Scott does a tremendous job with this film through clever color use. It might be a little surprising, since everyone wears the same clothing, all the buildings are the same shade, and a lot of the film takes place at night, but I think this film makes better use of color as a storytelling tool than even Gladiator.

To see how closely color is tied to the events of the film, take a look at the chart below. Brendan Dawes has come up with a great new way to examine the pacing and overall color of films, and here are a few more color charts to look through.

As you can see, since the colors are tied directly to the moods of the film, clear trends are visible as different things happen in the film. We can see the film’s acts and turning points highlighted clearly. I am certain that Ridley Scott and Slawomir Idziak created a color chart like the stripe I made on the right to plan things out, and by analyzing this chart (slightly cropped for clarity), we can see a coherent vision appear.

Color is such a powerful part of cinema storytelling that we should never neglect it. And despite the power of modern color correction tools, we can never leave it to chance or expect to come up with a highly effective Ridley-Scott-style color script in post. All the Cs of cinematography take careful thought and a lot of planning to use properly, but when plotted out, they add a tremendous amount of storytelling power.

  1. It’s neat to be able to see the differing color moods in the film laid out in a strip.

  2. Great explanation. Are there any good books on color theory you’d recommend?

    - Bo
  3. Fascinating post!

  4. Right on! What a great post on color as it relates to tone, atmosphere and emotion. Everything that goes on screen should be in service of the story.

  5. Credit where credit is due. Slawomir Idziak came up with the colour palette on Black Hawk Down not Ridley Scott. Thats part of the DP’s job after all.

  6. I did credit Idziak as the DP, and he did an excellent job, but Ridley Scott is consistently strong on color no matter who his cinematographer is. He’s probably the strongest modern director from a visual standpoint, and from reading about him I think he does nearly all of the heavy lifting when it comes to conceptual work on how he wants his movies to look.

  7. Thanks for posting this Isaac. It’s very helpful to see something like this visually for those like me who were straining to imagine things while listening to the MP3s from the academy.

  8. Great article. It should be covered well for indy filmmakers, that teaches a lot. Thank you for posting this! Especially cool is the overall overview, must have been a bit of work?
    Thanks again!

  9. Sorry Isaac but i think thats highly insulting to all the wonderful cinematographers who have worked with him over the years. Ridley is a superb director and is very strong visualy but he does not design the photography of his movies as you seem to imply in this particular article. You mention Slawomir once at the end of the article. I think if you spoke to either Ridley or Slawomir they’d paint a different picture.

  10. Thanks for the article, this is really appreciated. Possibly the best article you’ve featured on this website yet, and that says a lot. If the Lord wills I will implement these strategies in my current project.

  11. Very interesting. I would have loved even more! Thank you.

  12. I for one, really enjoyed hearing you discuss this at the film academy this year. Being a first timer and not knowing the makeup of cinematography, I found it to be fascinating! Naturally, I’ve always imagined that the creation of a film was a work of art and the result of extreme diligence and tireless labor,but I had no conception of how much detail went into the making of it! Also, I recently read your book “Outside Hollywood” and was deeply impressed by the solid, reformed, theological views that you conveyed and the immense amount of Hollywood history that you revealed to open the eyes of your readers and share with them the truths and the agenda of its humanistic,statist,marxisist(the list goes on..)heritage. I applaud your diligence and efforts in creating this book and pray that God will raise up many leaders in this generation and the next that will create god-honoring, biblical films. Keep up the good work! :)

  13. Wow, really neat post. I’m sure this will come in useful. Thanks alot.

  14. Stephen,

    I think what Isaac is trying to point out is that the color scheme of Scott’s movies are not purely dictated by lighting and grading but also by the production design. These images are not achieved solely by gels and post color correction, but also through thorough set and costume design.

    This signifies that Scott puts in a significant effort in the planning stage to pull off his strong visual style. Of course, like everything in filmmaking, this is a collaboration (between the big three: director, DP, and Prod Designer). But the fact is apparent that Scott is a the helm of these creative decisions.

  15. Nice article, thanks. It gives a completely new way to shed light in color of movies.

    - Stefano
  16. interesting and educative…i see this as an eye opener…thanks

    - kagho crowther idhebor
  17. Hi, thanks for your article, it has been really useful for me. I am doing my dissertation about “Mood through colours” from a cinematographer point of view. Could you recommend some book, websites, movies. Any kind of material useful for my project ?

    - Sergio
  18. Isaac your passion towards your profession creat’s a passion toward you for sharing you experience.thanks

    - Leo.D
  19. Great article, and very useful! Thank you

    - albert
  20. I’m color blind and you just made me feel like a bad person! Haha no… but what about colorblind people? They matter too.

    - Joe Rossi
    1. I have a good friend who is red-green colorblind and works in post. It’s true that he’ll never be a pro colorist, but he’s actually a superior compositor because of his condition; sometimes he can see mattelines, grain mismatching, and grading faults before the rest of us because he’s processing color differently.

  21. Great explanation. Are there any good books on color theory you’d recommend?

    - pravin
  22. Great article. Thanks

    - krishan kodithuwakku
  23. Very well examined and explained. The color chart focusing on pacing of
    Of the film is eye opening infant. Can you please suggest some books
    On such theories may be for color theory.

    - Gogo Okram
  24. I like it.

    - Frederick
  25. I never thought about movies and how they were planned out like this, very fascinating!

    - Erika Nicole Smith
  26. Thanks it was very informative.

    - Antoinnette
  27. The color and contrast differences are very cool. I like the way it is explained in this. This explains all differences in all the movies. Some of the clarity is in all the pictures and in the ways of colors.

    - kimberly shupe

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