Color Theory for Filmmakers

or: The Quest for Warm and Cool

warm and cool colorRecently, I had conversations with two separate clients about color theory.  It reminded me why it’s so important for us, as working artists, to educate ourselves on the Why’s and How’s of our craft.

Speaking of education, I dropped out of art school back in 2005.  At the time, all I wanted to do was make movies, I didn’t want to understand why images were specifically constructed and how to scientifically dissect why a photograph was visually appealing.  I just wanted to shoot dammit!

Over the years, however, I’ve slowly returned to those principles I rejected.  I find myself discovering something that works and then learning WHY it works.  This should come as no surprise to anyone who knows me; I’m the type of guy that can’t be told how to do something.  I have to uncover things out on my own.  Like Neo but with less spoons.

Color theory is one of those beasts.  If you watch movies these days, you may notice an abundance of warm and cool colors, like yellow, oranges and blues, tossed around on screen.  Why do filmmakers choose these colors and why do they make everything look so damn cool?

warm and cool color

Not Spiderman

Color Temperature: Warm and Cool Colors

“Color temperature” is a phrase we use to classify the color values we’re shooting.  It is measured in Kelvin (K) and visible colors generally fall between 1000K and 10,000K.  Using this scale, we can chart warm and cool colors and classify them easily: color tempBasically, warmer colors are classified with lower Kelvin values (5500K and below), and cooler colors are classified with higher values (5600K and above).

If your camera has an onboard white balance meter, you’ll notice that the values are reversed.  That is, the higher (or cooler) you set that number (5600K and above) the warmer the shot gets.  That’s because the camera’s white balance is offsetting the color temperature of the light around you.  If you’re shooting inside under household light bulbs, you’ll set it at 3600K to get true white whites.  If you’re outside, you’ll set it around 5600K for the same result.

Take a moment and think about skin tones and where they fall on the chart.  Probably somewhere around 2000K, right?  Remember this; we’ll be coming back to it later.

Complimentary Colors, Contrast and Distance

Ok, now that we’ve got a basic understanding of the Kelvin scale and color temperature, let’s talk about how our brains understand color. You probably already know that complimentary colors, or colors that are opposite in hue, look awesome together.  That’s why Spiderman’s costume works; blue and red are complimentary and set each other off nicely.


So why do we find complimentary colors so visually pleasing?  The answer actually comes the way light works and how our brains interpret it. Light travels as a wave, much like sound.  And, like sound, different frequencies travel at different speeds.  You may know that bass travels slower than treble; it also travels further, which is why you can hear bass from passing cars.

Light is the same way.  Cooler light is more like bass – it travels further distances and moves slower.  Warmer light is like treble – quick and short.

As light waves travel through the atmosphere, some of that visible light gets scattered by the molecules of oxygen and nitrogen in the air.  Specifically, the longer wavelengths are scattered more than the shorter ones. What this means is that things in the far distance will look cooler (bluer) because they are further away.

Think about looking off at mountains in the distance.  Chances are, they are blue or purple, not red or orange. Our brains understand this difference.  So when we’re looking at a picture with warm and cool colors, our brains are interpreting this contrast as distance and separation.

You literally perceive cooler colors as being “further away” regardless of the actual distance they are from you.  Just one of the many ways your brain takes shortcuts when forming a view of the world around you.

How to Use It – Composition, Tint and Split Toning

We all know that images with high luminance contrast (bright highlights and dark shadows) are visually interesting.  You’re probably already creating this contrast by crushing the blacks and blowing the highlights (not nearly as dirty as it sounds).

Now it’s time to take it a step further and establish a similar contrast in the colors themselves. Remember our skin tone temperature?  It was pretty warm, right?  Let’s set that person against a cooler background.  In doing so, we’ve automatically created color contrast, just by manipulating our audiences’s brains.

Now, let’s push that color contrast even further.  Depending on what program you’re using, your method may be slightly different.  Most video editing programs have a Tint filter which allows you to change the tint of the highlights and shadows.  Lightroom has a super useful Split Toning, which does the same thing.

If your image is properly exposed, your skin tones should be somewhere in the upper mid range.  Go ahead and add some warmth into them, maybe yellow or red.  Now do the opposite to your darks; make them blue or dark green.   In doing so, you’ve actually created more contrast in your image than you originally had.  And made and damn good looking picture in the process.

 Conclusion – How Important Is It?

Only as important as your client wants it to be.  As visual artists, we tend toward bold visual choices, especially in color and framing.  Clients are often turned off by such distinct choices.

But it is up to us to educate ourselves and be able to explain to our clients why we shoot, correct and process the way we do.  “It just looks cool” will never fly with a stubborn client.  But “Complimentary colors create a greater sense of visual depth in the image” just might sway them. jamie color

Look Out


“You have to risk everything from time to time.  The death of creativity is getting stuck in your ways” – Hans Zimmer

artist look out

I’ve been thinking a lot about perspective and perception.  Particularly the way we view ourselves and the effect it has on our lives.  The way we view ourselves not only changes the way we deal with other people; it has the power to totally reshape our lives and alter our paths.


As artists, we have an awesome power to out – think ourselves.  It’s remarkable easy for us to do.  In fact, I don’t think I know a single successful artist who doesn’t second – guess their work and their worth on an almost weekly basis.

artist chair

I used to think it was luck that separated a successful artist from an unsuccessful one.  Right place, right time and all that.  But the truth is, as Harvey Dent so gracefully put it, “We make our own luck”.  The difference is that a successful artist knows when to listen to that nagging self doubt, and when to tell it to shut up.


It’s not an easy thing.  It takes practice.  And that secret, cynical voice will never really go away, just recede and get smaller and less powerful.  But that’s good enough.

artist flood

I don’t believe that you can really start creating and growing as an artist until you have confidence in your work.  Until you can let it stand on its own, and speak and breathe.  That’s when you start to push boundaries and change worlds.  But it all starts by saying, “My work is pretty awesome and people want to see it”.  Because it’s probably true.


So try it.  That side project you’re working on, that script you’ve been revising for the past two years, that painting you’ve been touching up all month – show them off.  You might be amazed at the reaction.


I have a habit of processing photos and walking away for a few days, only to return and push the images further.  This set really benefitted from it.  They have a creepy, horrific look that came very organically.  I like to believe that’s the location’s essence coming through.  That it followed me home like a rogue spirit and possessed the images, making them reflect it’s own inner demons.

Shot on 7D and Canon 28mm f/1.8.  Processed in Lightroom.


Self Portrait with Corpse

Self Portrait with Corpse

I was introduced to horror at an early age.  My mother was a voracious reader, who fancied Stephen King, Peter Straub and Edgar Allen Poe.  I first encountered horror in The Green Ribbon, a story that is more of an urban legend at this point.  Look it up if you don’t know it, it’s well worth a read.  

I remember that was the first story that made me afraid to venture into the woods alone.  Not because I thought the woman with the green ribbon was looking for me, but because I had such a sense of unease just thinking about what that ribbon meant.  It stuck with me.  It haunted me.  

It did exactly what horror should.  

Recently, I discovered Joshua Hoffine, a remarkable talented photographer who makes his art with images of fear.  If you have a phobia, he’s probably shot it.  He opened a new world to me, something between generic model shots and full blown filmmaking.  He creates finely tailored images that convey a mood, a story and a place and he does it so well that it’s chilling.  

I wanted to do something similar.  Self Portrait with Corpse was shot in my downstairs bathroom.  The room was brightened with two small scoop lights, one shooting from high left of the frame and one shooting upwards on the shower door.  The ever – patient Elizabeth played the part of the dead body.  The hammer from Old Apartment makes a reappearance here too.

I processed until I recognized a Chris Nolan influence and called it a day.  I did have to dodge some of the shower door to make the handprints and streaks show up a a little better.  It’s a bit of a cooler image than I usually produce, but that seems to fit the mood.  

It’s safe to say this won’t be my last venture into the world of horror photography.  It’s a world that I find strangely comforting.  

See the larger version at flickr.  

Just remember, there are things lurking in the shadows, they are whispering your name, and it’s not going to be okay.  

Lightroom Holga

Recently, I found myself flipping through some of the stunning images from uer taken at Hashima Island.  One of my secret passions is urban exploration, but I’m way too cowardly to actually do any infiltration.  I love reading stories about people chartering local fishing boats to take them to remote islands, but I don’t have the balls to attempt it myself.  
Hashima is a derelict island off the coast of Nagasaki.  Once a coal mining facility, it was abandoned in 1974 when coal went out of fashion in Japan.  For the past 30 odd years, it’s been left to rot; a ghost town in the middle of the ocean.  
The explorer who snuck onto the island took a Holga and shot everything he could see.  I found myself entranced by the pictures.  There’s something so appropriate about shooting abandoned locations with a camera like a Holga.  It’s an atmospheric device, to say the least.  
Originally sold as a toy camera in the 80’s, Holga has developed a cult – like following.  Known for its light leaks, blurry photos and all around random imaging problems, it has a kind of supernatural built – in eeriness that is just damn cool.  
I took a lazy Saturday afternoon and tried to create my own Holga lookalikes, using only Lightroom.  

I shot RAW, with presets as close to neutral as I could.  I varied my shutter speed from 1/60 to 1/30.  Since I tend to have a shaky hand, 1/60 is just slightly out of focus while 1/30 has defined blur.  Apertures hung right around f/2.8; way too open for Holga (which was either f/8 or f/11) but more visually interesting for me.  I wasn’t trying to create an exact Holga replica, just my interpretation of it.  
Once in Lightroom, I kicked around temp and tint until it looked interesting.  I pulled clarity down and punched vibrance without touching saturation or lightness at all.  I also threw on the vignette that Holgas are know for.
After an unsuccessful attempt to render light leaks in Photoshop, I moved back to LR and began playing with the gradient tool.  I found that applying a bright gradient (high exposure) followed by a darker one would give exactly what I was looking for.  

Click for larger version
I’m quite satisfied with my results.  I don’t normally shoot or process this way, but it’s good to know that the option is available to me if I’m ever so inclined.  
You can see the whole album of my Holga images at flickr.

Firecracker says “Go there!”