In general, the main purpose of a film is to tell a story. As filmmakers, we have a wide variety of tools available to tell our story in a way that best affects the audience. These tools include dialogue, acting, music, and sound design, just to name a few. But as film is fundamentally a visual medium, images are the most powerful storytelling tool we have.
Once upon a time, films were shot in black and white. The only aspect of the film look the filmmaker could manipulate was the lightness or darkness of the shot. However, by the early 1950s, filmmakers had mostly adopted color film, which gave them a brand-new tool in their storytelling toolbox.
Colors can affect an audience in powerful ways. While different researchers have tried to assign certain psychological characteristics to different colors, our reaction to color is mostly subjective based on our own culture and experiences. However, all can agree that color has a significant effect on how we perceive visual images.
In the same way, how filmmakers use color is always subjective, depending on their own artistic intentions. However, we can usually understand what color means to the filmmaker by observing how it is used throughout a film.
This article is the first in a three-part series about color in film. First, we will cover the basics of color, then we will look at color psychology, and finally, we will analyze a case study about how color is practically applied in film.
How Do We Describe Color?
Before we can talk about how to use color, we need to know exactly what it is. When a color is represented on film, a TV screen, or a computer monitor, it can be described using three characteristics: hue, saturation, and value. Each of these characteristics can be adjusted to create millions of distinct colors.
Hue describes the spectrum of light the color comes from. Looking at figure 1 below, hue is described by the top plane of the cylinder, also known as the color wheel. Hue is usually what we refer to when we talk about different colors. For example, red is a different hue than blue or green, but light blue is the same hue as dark blue.
Saturation describes the intensity of the color. It can also be a way of talking about “how much” color is present. In figure 1, saturation is represented by the radius of the cylinder. Notice how the center is white (no color) and becomes increasingly intense toward the edge. For example, cherry red has higher saturation than pink. Both are red hue, but with different intensities.
Value refers to the lightness or darkness of the color, which is also referred to as brightness. In figure 1, value is represented along the vertical axis of the cylinder. Notice how the hue and saturation remain the same, but the color becomes darker toward the bottom. For example, light red and dark red have the same hue and saturation, but they each have a different value.
With these three factors, we can create any color in the visual spectrum.
Figure 1. By HSV_color_solid_cylinder.png: SharkDderivative work: SharkDTalk - HSV_color_solid_cylinder.png, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9801673
Since light is required to project and display film, we use what is known as an additive color process (figure 2). This means that within our cameras and computers systems, colors are added together to create the full spectrum. All the colors added together create white.
The basic colors in an additive scheme are red, green, and blue. There are also three intermediary colors, which are magenta (red + blue), cyan (blue + green), and yellow (red + green). From these six colors, every hue on the spectrum can be created.
Figure 2. By SharkD at English WikipediaLater versions were uploaded by Jacobolus at en.wikipedia. - Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2529435
Another helpful concept for understanding the practical use of color in film is color temperature. Looking back at the color wheel (figure 1), you can notice a distinct division between the colors on the left and right sides of the wheel.
The colors on the right are referred to as cool colors while the colors on the left are referred to as warm colors. As you will see in subsequent articles, color temperature plays an important role in how we react emotionally and psychologically to color.
Everything that appears on screen and in the soundtrack is an opportunity to communicate to your viewer the tone and meaning of the story you’re trying to tell. Color in film is just another tool at your disposal. As you wouldn’t ignore acting or music, make sure your color choices are optimized to serve the story.
Color is everywhere, and while it may be arbitrary in real life, it always has a specific meaning when used in movies, or at least it should. Whether you intend to or not, the color choices you make will affect the viewer, so be sure to choose carefully and wisely!
Now that we know what color is on a technical level, we can start to understand how color works on an emotional and psychological level. Be sure to check out our next articles in the Color in Film series: Color Psychology and Case Study - The Matrix (1999).
If you are looking for a powerful tool to add a striking color cast to an image, you should add monochrome LUTs to your toolbox.
In previous generations, color correction and grading was a tedious and complicated chemical process that required specialized equipment and an expert colorist. While expert colorists are just as valuable today, the tools are much more accessible now than ever before thanks to software developers.
At Cinegrading, we spent countless hours researching Hollywood films to create the most effective monochrome LUTs on the market. If you’re interested in trying out some LUTs to give your footage a monochrome look, you can check out our +Cine Monochrome LUTs.