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

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