Colors in cinema and their influence on the perception of the plot

Nastya Bulavska
Nastya Bulavska
Content Manager at MakeStoryboard
11 min reading·

colours in cinema

It's time to admit to yourself that cinema is quite skillful in manipulating the audience. The more technological techniques appear at the disposal of cinematographers, the more skillfully they master attention and mood. Today, musical accompaniments, suspense effects, camera shots, shadows, light and colors help with this. What does it mean for your subconscious perception when a heroine wears a red dress? It means that the girl who is lucky enough to parade around in the color of passion is the dominant one in the company of girlfriends.

Even in the days of black-and-white cinema, directors were able to show certain symbolism, masterfully alternating black and white. Yes, in Alfred Hitchcock's film "Psycho," at first glance it would not occur to you to analyze the underwear of the sad heroine, however, you should. At the beginning of the film, when she is getting dressed after a stormy night with her lover, the heroine is still considered a positive character, so white represents purity and innocence. Immediately after she steals a large sum of money and then hastily packs up to escape, we see her in black underwear: a symbol of guilt and wickedness.

It’s such a simple, but also significant, transformation of the character by depicting the "light" and "dark" side of the heroine, to focus attention not on her clothes, but on her inner world, her soul. So if filmmakers were able to make an impact by using just two colors, it's not hard to imagine how that effect was amplified with the advent of color cinema.

Today we are going to examine the role of color and its influence on perception, but before we start we want to remind you that we have added even more possibilities for branding your storyboard. From now on, you can customize the colors, font, and display of the frames. Check here to make your works more recognizable.
From now on, you can customize the colors, font and appearance of the frames. check here to make your works more recognizable.

What about technology?

In the 1890s, films were dyed by hand. That is why it was necessary to think very carefully about which elements would be lucky to get a little more brightness. Yes, explosions and scenes with fire were honored to become red or red-orange. A kind of old-fashioned action effect. Later, in 1905-06, the French film studio Pathe was the first to create a workshop for a partially mechanical film dyeing process. Later, in 1908, the "Cinemacolor" color shooting scheme was adopted in Great Britain. This technique was invented by George Smith and Charles Urban. It consisted of the fact that with the help of a shutter with color filters it was possible to do color separation: to divide the light into several monochrome components, each of which contains information about only one of the colors.

Colours technology in movie

In 1914, The Technicolor Motion Picture Corporation was founded in Boston, a corporation that was actively involved in the development of a new technology for coloring film. Two color filters, red-orange and green-blue, reproduced almost two-thirds of the entire color spectrum. Later, three filters were used. This made the technique unsurpassed until the 1960s, but it was constantly improved and changed. By the way, currently all technologies of the corporation, which, of course, have become increasingly modernized over the years, belong to the French company Technicolor SA.

The most common color schemes

Color correction in cinema plays an important role, because it creates the general mood and atmosphere. And although you can play as much as you want with the overlay of certain colors, there are still five most often used color schemes or "harmonies.. The color wheel shows a continuous transition of shades. When correcting the colors of the film, you should choose those that will withstand the entire film or specific parts of it.

the most common colours in movie

A complementary color scheme is characterized by two colors that are opposite each other in a circle, for example, red and green. The bottom line will always be warm and cold colors opposite, so this will create quite obvious contrasts. The picture becomes as saturated and alive as possible, but unrealistic. This scheme can be seen in the movie "Amelie" (red-green) or in "Fight Club" (orange-blue).

colours in movie

A complementary color scheme in movie

A similar color scheme, as the name suggests, chooses several similar shades, for example, brown-yellow-orange or gray-blue-blue. This is the most landscape color scheme, because everything in nature quite harmoniously echoes the colors. Yes, with the help of warm colors you can create a soft atmosphere, and cold colors - intense. Examples in movies: "Dallas Buyers Club," "The American Scam," and "The Royal Tenenbaums."

Dallas Buyers Club

The triadic color scheme is called mystical for a reason. If you look at the spectral circle of shades, the triad scheme is a triangle made up of any three colors, but at an equal distance from each other. Films in which such color schemes are used can rightfully be called the brightest. Examples: "Moonrise Kingdom," "Grand Budapest Hotel" and "Dark Pierrot."

Grand Budapest Hotel

A split complementary color scheme is also characterized by the use of opposite colors, but uses two warm colors on the side and one cool color or vice versa. Contrast is present, but not so sharp. This can be seen very well in the films of the Coen brothers: "Burn After Reading," "Suburbicon," and "Bad Santa."

Burn After Reading

The Tetrahedron color scheme resembles a triad, but instead of a triangle, it is a square. This means that four colors are used, which are at an equal distance from each other and create the most diverse color correction: two warm and two cold. Examples: "Mamma Mia!", and "Magnolia..

Plot, symbol, drama

Colors in cinema have three main functions: plot, symbolism and drama. The plot is responsible for orientation in space, for example, the director tries to show different dimensions with the help of colors. Recently, this technique is often used in TV series ("Stranger Things," "Darkness"). Yes, the real dimension will always look "warmer," the colors are full of life, but other dimensions or simply the past will look "colder," repulsive, like something alien. As a rule, the symbolic function is responsible for the mood in the frame, but we will talk about the influence of color on the psyche and perception a little later. The dramatic function is responsible for using colors to identify characters. Yes, the hero's mistress or new acquaintance can be dressed in cold colors, because she is still a stranger to the man, but the wife is warm, so her clothes will often be shown in warm shades, especially orange and pink.

However, in Disney's “Beauty and the Beast,” Belle's blue dress has more than one function. Have you noticed that she is the only one who allows herself to wear this color? Look at her fellow villagers: not a hint of blue. This color symbolizes Belle's difference from others, it emphasizes the fact that she is out of place. And no matter how strange it may seem, here too blue symbolizes alienation. But next to the Beast, in good times, when he presents Belle with a luxurious dress, she will already have a warm color - yellow. Here you can read more about the role of color in animation, and now let's look at the use of color in the scenes of world classics.

The influence of color on the perception of the plot

Red This is one of the most aggressive colors, so its excessive use can cause emotions of anger, irritation or anxiety. In other words - anything that causes discomfort. This color can even increase blood pressure. Imagine yourself in a red room - if your imagination has not had time to fantasize that this is a jar of tomato juice in which you are swimming relaxed on your back, then bloody thoughts will slowly creep into your head. In Alex Garland's “Ex Machina,” the excessive amount of red in the scene in the image is a hint of the danger that artificial intelligence can bring, as something unknown. After this frame, the plot twist will never return to happy hopes - it is doomed to plunge the viewer into darkness, despite all the cuteness of Alicia Vikander. In a shot from Stanley Kubrick's “A Space Odyssey,” red symbolizes danger, bringing the viewer closer to the fear of death, and in Andres Muschetti's “It,” the incredibly bloody scene demonstrates the highest level of fear. So, if it is not a red dress on a beauty, then it’s waiting in the frame from the red trail of anxiety and tension.


This is a color to be careful with in cinema. Although it looks softer and warmer than red, it also often acts as a rider of suspense. This can be seen in “Blade Runner 2049” by Denis Villeneuve and “Mad Max: Fury Road” by George Miller. In both cases, orange increases the level of anxiety, hints at changes that cannot be avoided. Note that when orange occupies the entire plane of the frame, its "warmth" no longer seems soft and friendly, it resembles a dangerous flame.

Mad Max Fury Road (George Miller)


An excessive amount of bright yellow is a hint of insanity. In Richard Ayoade's “Double,” this is not surprising because the hero gradually loses his mind, splitting between the awareness of himself and his successful "twin." However, in this film there is another manifestation of yellow, a natural one - happiness. When the main character sees a girl with whom he is in love (albeit a little madly!), she is surrounded by such a yellow light that it is not difficult to even feel the warmth that fills the heart of a hopeless romantic. This color is very diverse, but its emotion depends on the amount of shade in the frame and how it appears: it completely “fills” the entire space or is part of bright clothes and interior. In the first case, expect madness, in the second - warmth, peace and relaxation.

Double (Richard Ayoade)


The color green is destined to evoke associations with nature, but its use in the frame does not necessarily have to be that way. Guillermo del Toro in the film "Shape of Water" does use green and turquoise to create an atmosphere of water even on land, but Brad Anderson in "Machinist" uses green color correction for a completely different purpose. He strives to convey the depressing and mundane monotony of the hero's joyless life, to literally discolor it, because that is what it is - full of longing and torment.

Machinist (Brad Anderson)


Blue can cause an emotion of alienation. As we said above, it will demonstrate the cold emotions of the characters, their detachment and even dreams. It is like the alienation blue demonstrated in the frame from the film "Only God Forgives" by Nicolas Winding Refn, and it can also be seen in the frame from his "Neon Demon." Doesn't it get cold when this color completely takes over the space? A good idea for the walls in the hot season, but the film has the risk of feeling "ants" on the skin. But one should not be so categorical, because blue, if it is only bright details, for example, the sea or clothes, can evoke only positive emotions of dreams and even childish ease. This color can also represent purity and innocence, as in Jeff Nichols' “Midnight Special.”

Only God Will Forgive (Nicolas Winding Refn)


This is the color of mysticism and mystery, as well as sensuality and seduction. It seems as if the frame from "The Neon Demon" has all of the above at once. It is also worth focusing on the fact that the mysterious can sometimes border on the dangerous, so this is exactly what we see very well in Refn. As for the frame from "Blade Runner 2049," it represents a slightly different degree of mystery, but also its own. It seems as if at this moment the hero is immersed in the inner world of the incomprehensible, which is trying to absorb him.

The Neon Demon (Nicolas Winding Refn)​


This is always the color of romance, even if sometimes hidden. Looking at this color from a negative angle seems simply impossible, because its most powerful association is a pure, relaxed, even childish feeling. This is very clearly visible in the frame from Wes Anderson's “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” as well as the internal experiences of the main character from Spike Jonze's “She.”

The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson)

“The Neon Demon,” was worked on by colorist Norman Nisbet for 30 days. For a whole month, he created an exquisite palette that enriched the tape with a frighteningly mysterious atmosphere. Colorists are people who give films  an atmosphere, they breathe into them an additional mood, meaning, even a mystery or, on the contrary - a solution. There is no single recipe for conveying a certain emotion, all other options being wrong. All this is a matter of vision, creative approach and actually the idea of ​​the director and colorist. However, the skillful use of colors and their influence on the subconscious is one of the keys to success.

Wrapping Up

Color should help to develop the plot, so you should never think that there is something "just like that" in the frame. Under each element, there is a series of decisions and reflections. If the director and colorist decided to fill the frame with red, sorry, but you will have to be scared and tense. On the other hand, if he gave you a space of yellow color, it's time for madness and relaxation, but if you had to plunge into the purple "lake", then something mysterious and unknown would be released. Colors in films are very good at manipulating people, so if you agreed to watch, you will most likely have to succumb. Thank you for reading and it's high time to storyboard!


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