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Why Color Means So Much

By: Barbara Ford Grant


Color and color science are foundational to the content creation process. There exist numerous sophisticated methods of managing and conveying the intent of color in media through color science. 

Specifications for how to encode and represent color are continuously being published through standards bodies such as SMPTE (Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers) and IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers). Digital color has also been standardized in the motion picture and streaming industries through ACES (Academy Color Encoding System) and the CDL (Color Decision List), and with open-source software such as OpenColorIO.  

This is all focused on the singular goal of maintaining the creative intent of the content for the many given viewing experiences. The fundamentals of colorimetry (measurement and characterization of color) provide an important conceptual framework on which color management is built. Without color management, it would not be possible to characterize or have control over the image permutations throughout the content creation process.  

So, why is it so important to maintain creative intent of color in content? Color impacts every area of the visual creation process, from scene painting and lighting; costume and makeup; camera and compositing; and from mastering and image display to the viewer experience. The color and lighting choices play a key role in directing your emotions as a viewer. When Art Directors and Cinematographers choose a color palette for film or TV shows, reasons can include both mechanics and aesthetics.

Color is intrinsically connected to the impact of storytelling and can set the tone visually and emotionally. For example, using complementary colors can create a jarring effect, while analogous colors might imbue a sense of peacefulness. Color choices can create moods and define scenes and can even act as a character element itself. The use of color and the use of color harmonies impact the psychology of a piece of visual content. The color red, for example, tends to raise awareness and can represent anger or passion, while blues tend to be calming.  

Colors can draw the viewer’s attention to specific detail. The balance of color is equally important in terms of composition, contrast and saturation, so as to support storytelling without drawing too much attention to itself. Here are some examples: 

In La La Land, the complementary color combination of yellow over violet allows the foreground character to pop with vibrant hyperrealism.

Both Fight Club and True Detective made use of gold/orange light against teal blue shadows to create tension and a jarring uncomfortability.  In the Spike Jonze movie Her the color choices are central characters.

Theodore is wearing this color during the majority of the film and Samantha is pink. In the beginning I think he is accepting of himself and his lifestyle. While it might not be his ideal or happiest situation, he has come to terms with everything. Acceptance and love.

Catherine, his ex-wife, wears blues. She is pretty much always sad, unhappy and completely uncomfortable with Theodore dating his OS. Her presence dampens the mood and creates discomfort.

The first time he hears about Samantha’s other relationships, he is wearing yellow. Throughout that scene he is confused, uncertain, questioning where she is, what has happened to her and then eventually their entire relationship. 

Picking the right color palette is essential to the successful telling of a story. It can amplify what is important. At the end of the day, the viewer will determine “Does it read well visually?” or not. And being able to know what the viewer thinks of your color choices is one of the critical tools to keeping them watching. 

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