Photo by Ged Carroll / CC BY 2.0

A cocktail of main elements like acting, script, and direction, are just a few of the main things that can make or break a movie. Since the introduction of color in the film industry, filmmakers have used more than action and spectacle to tell a powerful narrative in a matter of hours. Color theory is a concise, effective way to visually convey important details about characters or a scene.

Color Psychology and Characterization

A simple way to communicate tone or traits of characters is through basic color psychology. Certain colors are associated with different characteristics or ideas. For example, white as purity or innocence or red for evil or danger. Flooding a room with lighting of one color can signify a welcoming or dangerous location. Tools like Canva’s Color Wheel can be used to know what colors go well together. It lets you dive deeper into color theory and create the perfect color scheme.

Still from Denis Villeneuve’s film Blade Runner 2049 (2017). The film’s visuals complement its futuristic, neo-noir style.

Characterization is often achieved through color coding. Protagonists are often assigned color schemes that evoke goodness or a combination of primary colors. Because people respond to different colors, these cultural ideas can be shown in conjunction with principles of cinematography, helping audiences understand how a scene will play out, deepen character development, and anticipate events.

Successful storytelling rests on the ability for films to elicit an emotional reaction from viewers. Films often dress scenes with certain colors to highlight emotion. Certain color palettes reflect certain atmospheres or tension, such as the futuristic neon in Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2019 or muted pastels of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. How a scene is lit can also indicate a character’s emotions or mental state.

Subverting the Spectrum

Color is even more striking when the rules of color symbolism are broken, upending audience expectations. In Toy Story 3 (2010), it’s revealed that the magenta-colored bear Lotso, is actually the film’s antagonist. His bright color is an effective distraction to both the audience and the toys he deceives.

Another example is Steven Spielberg’s war drama Schindler’s List. The majority of the film is shot in black and white, underlining the tone and context of the horrific events the movie is based on. This makes the isolated image of one of its most iconic scenes much more impactful: a little girl in a thick red coat, a striking instance of color. Though red is traditionally associated with evil, the red is in stark contrast with the innocence of the child, underscoring the victim’s position within the order of the Nazi regime.  

Filmmakers have relied on color dynamics as an effective way of getting viewers invested in the story. Color helps the viewer identify with characters and explain their motivations, as well as signify the importance of objects and places. By using colors that signal to an audience’s subconscious, movies can foreshadow scenes, quickly move along critical plot points, and convey their messages much more clearly and purposefully.

Interested in learning more about concepts and techniques in visual storytelling for film? Check out the course Cinematic Storytelling from California College of the Arts below:

Graphic Design Methods

Cinematic Storytelling

California College of the Arts