Harnessing the Power of Color to Service Your Story

"It’s easier to make color look good, but harder to make it service the story." - Roger Deakins

In the early days of cinema, using color (hue, value, chroma) in a film was a deliberate choice made by filmmakers, whether it was through the use of filters or through the painstaking process of painting each individual frame. Even in primordial cinema, color's potential to communicate and manipulate was well understood, and today, it's more important than ever to understand how it can be used to not only make an image look beautiful, but to help tell your story.

The Verge takes a look at how filmmakers use color to influence their viewers' emotions in the video below:

Though the video doesn't offer much more than a good, albiet limited, primer on color theory (and before you say it, yes, the music in their example did more to change the tone of the shot than the color correction did), it does point out a few great pieces of information on how we experience and interpret color emotionally. 

First of all, our emotional responses to colors depend on several different factors. Cultural norms, traditions, and personal experiences change the significance of colors and their meanings for every individual. For example, American's might feel a sense of patriotism, pride, or bravery when viewing the colors red, white, and blue, while a citizen of Ghana or Portugal may feel that way when viewing green, red, and gold.

Contextually, colors change their effects based on the situation they're appearing in. Red, for example, may signify "love", "passion", and "intimacy" when it's shown within the context of a romantic encounter, but if it's shown during a fight sequence or highly suspenseful scene it could signify "danger", "blood", and "death".

Despite the fact that emotional responses to colors varies greatly based on culture and context, there are fairly universal interpretations for many colors, which is visualized in Plutchik's Wheel of Emotions below:   

Plutchik's Wheel of Emotions

We've covered the science of color before, namely in a post highlighting a video essay by Lewis Bond, which thoroughly breaks down its storytelling potential in film. But, perhaps before we learn about how cinema has utilized color to aid narratives, we should first get a deeper sense of how we perceive color not just on an emotional level, but on a physical and psychological level as well. This episode of PBS' Off Book offers an interesting perspective:

Color has the potential to create a tone, change the meaning of a scene, and alert your audience to something important within the frame. It's not solely an aesthetic tool -- it's a narrative one. Understanding how your audience will respond emotionally to different colors can add so much dimension and depth to your story, all without having your characters speak a single word of dialog. In fact -- like Lewis Bond says in his video essay, many times color expresses more than words ever could.     

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Your Comment


I do love your articles but your recent affiliation with the verge is becoming noticeable.

Great topic. It all goes hand in hand, in creating meaning in the overall standing of the film.

October 27, 2015 at 2:55AM, Edited October 27, 2:55AM

Ash Tailor

These, combined with every new Film Riot video that comes out.

October 27, 2015 at 7:55AM, Edited October 27, 7:55AM


Illogical, sure you can just toss a canned grade on something but it is majorly down playing the work that goes into making it WORK. You have to shoot things in a fashion that allows for the grade, you can't adjust it as much with natural light and get that result. You have to paint with light to allow this kind of separation in post/color. That being said, their point at the end about the color changing the mood of a scene, you know what did more than the color the FRACKEN music changes. Seriously, is this about color or about music?

October 27, 2015 at 7:12AM, Edited October 27, 7:13AM

Darren Orange

I hate when something tries to be an intelligent version of something and the end up being a terrible cursory version. I've worked with some great colourists and there is no rule book of emotions they follow.

This may be something fine to teach my grandma with but come on...

October 27, 2015 at 9:16AM, Edited October 27, 9:16AM

Brooks Reynolds

Maybe they do it intuitively. Check out Patti Bellantoni's "If It's Purple, Someone's Gonna Die". You can download it.

October 29, 2015 at 3:32PM

Tom Montvila
TVProduction supervisor

It is basically scientifically not meaningful, more or less esoterical.

Also, before anyone gets too upset, do you remember black and white pictures?

October 29, 2015 at 1:42PM


And again, wrongly reversing the causality of the equation: we see colors as emotions in a certain way because WE have been associating them in that way, ourselves, so far; not the other way around.

Maybe the reason why we associate blue with horror is because we've been indoctrinated to do so - every horror film follows the same convention, and it's been so for decades. So of course, blue equates a scare.

I bet you blue could equally well be associated with serenity: water is calming; water is blue. Or depth: the ocean is blue; the ocean is profoundly deep. Or vastness: the sky is blue; the sky is vast.

The point being that we're mistaking our self-indoctrination for natural color-mood associations. We bury ourselves in a pit of pre-conceived half-baked pseudo-scientific beliefs - the kind of beliefs that have no place in the world of art, or even in the world of science.

We trick our brains into making these associations, and then after a few decades we start to analyse these associations "scientifically", completely omitting the fact that we might have just INVENTED them ourselves in the first place - which makes them conventions, more than natural emotional responses.

If you show red to someone who's never seen blood up close before, red might turn out to be appealing or appeasing.

Of course, color has an effect. Deeply so. But to say that these effects are universal, or natural, is a bit of a stretch. The current pattern can easily be reversed, and if horror filmmakers start using green or red or pink as a standard color base for their work, in 35 years, pink will be scary.

October 30, 2015 at 5:19PM, Edited October 30, 5:19PM

Raph Dae
Screenwriter & attempted director

Color is getting to the point where it's being overplayed. Some color schemes are so obvious that they distract from the story. It's like a horror movie where every scene has something that foreshadows the monster and there is no surprise left when it gets to that point.

November 1, 2015 at 8:48PM, Edited November 1, 8:51PM

Ryan Gudmunson
Recreational Filmmaker

Great Article thanks

April 2, 2018 at 6:30PM, Edited April 2, 6:30PM