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Throughout the black and white era of Hollywood filmmaking, directors and cinematographers did not have to consider color schemes in their motion picture photography. Once it became possible to produce movies in color, though, directing and cinematography had to adapt, and the concept of the movie color palette was born.

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What Is the Significance of Color in Film?

The colors a director uses in their film help them tell stories through pictures. As a filmmaker, you can use color theory to evoke a period in time, foreshadow events, heighten characterizations, or set an overall mood. Colorful cinema palettes directly affect an audience’s experience of a film. Color creates ambiance, amplifies emotion, and heightens symbolism. This is why directors, cinematographers, and production designers choose their color palettes in preproduction, long before they begin filming.

What Is Color Theory in Film?

In filmmaking, color theory refers to the notion that certain hues on the color wheel combine to create particular visual effects. A director’s use of color combinations can evoke a mood or atmosphere within the world of a film. Cool, unsaturated colors may be used to create an atmosphere of gloom, rich greens and earth tones can create feelings of balance and symbiosis, and vibrant colors on the warmer end of the spectrum can bring energy and intensity to a film—or, in the case of the potent reds of Martin Scorsese films like Taxi Driver, a sense of impending violence.

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How to Choose a Color Palette: 5 Tips for Using Color in Film

Use a strong color palette to augment your storytelling in your own film.

  1. Use color discordance to direct audience attention. Color discordance is when one color clashes with the rest of a picture, drawing attention to the object that stands out. A particularly heightened version of the color discordance effect is the inclusion of one or two colored objects within a film that is otherwise monochromatic. Steven Spielberg famously used discordant color in Schindler's List, including one girl in a red coat within a film that is otherwise in black and white.
  2. Use complementary color schemes to create striking images. Complementary colors are color pairs that fall exactly opposite each other on the color wheel—one primary color and one secondary color. Red and green are complementary, as are orange and blue, as are yellow and purple. Complementary colors produce some of the most satisfying color harmonies in filmmaking, bringing a satisfying contrast without creating discordance.
  3. Use analogous color schemes to connote harmony. Analogous colors fall next to each other on the color wheel, like red and orange or green and blue. Depending on how they’re used, analogous shades can create serenity or an oppressive sense of uniformity.
  4. Use triadic color schemes for satisfying images. A triadic color scheme involves selecting three different colors and emphasizing them above all others. Many superhero movies use a high-contrast triadic film color palette, although the technique was more popular in the early days of technicolor filmmaking than it is today.
  5. Hire a professional colorist. If your film budget allows it, a professional colorist can add color consistency to your final product using the process of color grading. Color grading allows scenes filmed under different lighting conditions to maintain the same basic hues and shades.