How to Use Color to Tell Your Film's Story


“It’s easier to make color look good, but harder to make it service the story.”

– Cinematographer Roger Deakins

From Apocalypse Now Redux | Miramax Films, 2001

From Apocalypse Now Redux | Miramax Films, 2001

Red and blue lightsabers glow in the dark – purple smoke swallows a patrol boat as it drifts down the Nung River – two iconic images from two iconic films, Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back and Apocalypse Now Redux.

In both cases, it’s the color that makes these moments unforgettable. Vader’s red versus Luke’s blue manifests evil versus good, while the purple smoke, so out of place in the jungle, suggests the soldiers are out of place in Vietnam. The color externalizes the internal, ever the goal of cinema, creating meaning without words.

In order to do this consistently and effectively in our films, we must understand what Vittorio Storaro, the cinematographer behind Apocalypse Now, calls “the philosophy of color”; that is, how color affects us cognitively and can be used to influence our experience of a film.

It’s a complex subject, which is why we’re thrilled to have stumbled across this video essay by Lewis Bond of Channel Criswell, “Colour in Storytelling”, one of the most insightful and inspiring discussions of craft we’ve seen here at Lights. Bond dives deep into color, “our psychological reaction to different wavelengths of visible light”, and his “favorite aspect to visual storytelling.”

Bond takes us from the silent era to the present day, exploring how color can be used to differentiate stories, set atmosphere, and direct attention. He covers hue, saturation, and value; the “balance and discordance” in color schemes; and the “associative and transitional” applications of color to character relationships and transformations.

All sixteen minutes are overflowing with on-point film and television examples, some of which I didn’t recognize. Looks like I’ll be updating my Netflix queue.

So, break out a pencil and paper and settle in for an education!

Ultimately, color is both a science and an art.

As Bond notes, understanding our cognitive reactions to different colors helps, but there are no hard and fast rules governing how precisely humans perceive specific colors. “An artist’s greatest tool is not a degree in psychology,” we’re reminded. “It’s their ideas.”

What will yours be?

 Michael Koehler, with

Want to learn more about color grading in moviemaking?

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