5 compelling ways color can impact your story

Color is an essential tool in the indie filmmaker or video creator’s arsenal, but it’s often underused.

Color isn’t just about theme, or using color correction to match shot to shot. It’s also one of the most effective and inexpensive ways to add production value to your project.

A great color strategy begins before the cameras ever turn on. But planning your color strategy is more than deciding that your hero wears red. A color strategy underlines the look and feel of your world. It’s defined as much what isn’t in the frame as what is. Determine your color strategy by deciding on a color palette. Then, decide if and how that color palette changes over the course of the video.

1. Color palette

Color palette in a scene from Groundhog Day
Groundhog Day, moviesincolor.com

When building your color strategy, think about color in terms of harmony and discord. The closer two colors are on the color wheel, the more they are in agreement. The further apart, the more they clash. Analogous (adjacent) colors like magenta, violet, and purple are the strongest examples of agreement, while complementary (opposite) colors like the oft-used blue and yellow are the strongest examples of discord.

2. Production Design

Production design in Grand Budapest Hotel
Grand Budapest Hotel

Production design, which includes practical locations, is an important part of your color strategy. Location availability can influence your color strategy, especially if you are working within a lower budget. If the amazing warehouse location has sea green walls, you might consider building your color strategy around sea green.

3. Costume

Color contrast in costuming for Kill Bill
Kill Bill: Volume 1

The color of your characters’ clothing speaks volumes in a single glance. Color theory in costuming is about similarity and contrast. Audiences interpret a character’s relationship to others and to their environment based largely on their clothing. A person wearing purple to a funeral—or yellow to a black tie sword fight—is as out of place as someone wearing a tank top in a snow storm.

4. Camera Settings

RED camera settings, digitalfilms.wordpress.com
RED camera settings, digitalfilms.wordpress.com

Although digital filmmakers have more freedom in postproduction than ever before, your camera settings still impact the effectiveness of your color story. Using a less compressed—or even RAW—codec empowers you to augment and change decisions in color grading. With a more economical codec like H.264 or AVCHD, your color settings and white balance will have a more permanent effect on the look of your final product.

5. Color Correction and Color Grading:

Color grading before and after, Dolphin Tale 2
Dolphin Tale 2

Color grading is a digital filmmaker’s best friend. By changing the color temperature, saturating or desaturating colors, and changing contrast you can make the most of your decisions in prep and production.

Stephen Heleker

Stephen is a producer and writer/director living in Los Angeles. His first feature film as a producer—Good, starring Keith David—debuted at the 2020 Austin Film Festival. You can find him on Twitter and Instagram @stephenheleker