5 Common Film Color Schemes – Learning Cinematic Color Design


Being able to use color to create harmony, or tension within a scene, or to bring attention to a key visual theme can be used to spectacular effect. In this article we look at 5 common film color schemes that can help you understand how cinematic color design works.

This industry of ours is great. I truly love it, the people, the gear, the creativity and energy. At the same time, as your experience grows and your expanding network of connections allows you to move up the ranks, you also find the expected, assumed level of knowledge increases. This is logical, but I have found the assumed knowledge is often rarely discussed, because, well, it’s assumed that you already have it.

IMG_9335_squareI want to share a few of my “ah ha!” moments that I assume some (most) of you already know, because of course it’s “assumed” knowledge, but the truth is maybe it will help more than a few of you to connect some dots of your own.

If you’ve never really come to grips with why certain colors or combinations of color evoke or induce a emotional response, or simply just look pleasing, this explanation of basic practical color theory may suddenly cause the puzzle pieces to fall together or spark some interest in researching it further.

Planning the look

In post of course, a colorist can only work with what he (or she) is given, and so it can be argued that the overall look and feel of the image is the responsibility of the production designer. This is carefully planned by art department as a whole in consultation with the director and cinematographer long before cameras roll. While this is true, how many of us regularly work with a professional production designer?

Sometimes perhaps, but certainly not for every project. Many times I’ve brought on someone in a junior role, or simply used a stylist to quickly set dress a location with found existing objects, or to bring some selected items in with them if needed. The basic knowledge I am about to share helped immensely in those situations.

The Effect of Color

Color can affect us psychologically and physically, often without us being aware, and can be used as a strong device within a story. Knowledge gives you control, and control means you can manipulate and use color to give your work a powerful and beautiful edge.

Being able to use color to create harmony, or tension within a scene, or to bring attention to a key visual theme can be used to spectacular effect.

In the sense of the work of the world’s greatest cinematographers we admire so much nothing is accidental. A strong red color has been shown to raise blood pressure, while a blue color has a calming effect. Some colors are distinctly associated with a particular location or place, while others give a sense of time or period.

The Color Wheel

First of all we’ll look at some fundamentals that will apply equally to both design, and post.

It all starts with the color wheel. This should look familiar to anyone with experience of a 3 way color corrector.


The color wheel is the common tool you will see when it comes to color control, and it is standard in color theory in defining a number of combinations that are considered especially pleasing.

In a simplified form the color wheel comprises 12 colors based on the RYB (or subtractive) color model.

In the RYB color model, the primary colors are red, yellow and blue. The three secondary colors are green, orange and purple, and can be made by mixing two primary colors. A further six tertiary colors can be made by mixing the primary and secondary colors.

Let’s make some sense of this. Firstly you’ll notice warmer colors on the right side, and cooler colors on the left. Warm colors are bright and energetic. Cool colors give a soothing and calm impression.

We will quickly define the common color harmonies or color chords, each consists of two or more colors within a specific pattern or relationship on the color wheel.

All of the frame grabs used to illustrate the 5 most common schemes were created by graphic designer Roxy Radulescu from her site www.moviesincolor.com. It’s worth taking some time to look through all the work she has done.

5 Common Film Color Schemes

1. Complementary Color Scheme

ComplementaryTwo colors on opposite sides of the color wheel make a complimentary pair. This is by far the most commonly used pairing. A common example is orange and blue, or teal. This pairs a warm color with a cool color and produces a high contrast and vibrant result. Saturation must be managed but a complimentary pair are often quite naturally pleasing to the eye.


Orange and blue colors can often be associated with conflict in action, internally or externally. Often a internal conflict within a character can be reflected in the color choice in his or her external environment.



The color palette of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s “Amelie” is a great example of a complementary pairing of red and green.


Orange and Teal are readily apparent in this scene from “Fight Club.” Teal is often pushed into the shadows, and oranges into highlights.


A similar look in this scene from “Drive.”


A complementary pairing isn’t always so obvious and the contrast between the two colors used is often relative. Another shot from “Fight Club” which at first appears just to have a strong overall teal tint to the entire image, but a closer look reveals there is still a orange touch to the skin tones relative to the deep blue green.

2. Analogous Color Scheme

Analogous colors sit next to each other on the color wheel. They match well and can create a overall harmony in color palette. It’s either warmer colors, or cooler colors so doesn’t have the contrast and tension of the complementary colors.


Analogous colors are easy to take advantage of in landscapes and exteriors as they are often found in nature. Often one color can be chosen to dominate, a second to support, and a third along with blacks, whites and grey tones to accent.


Reds, Oranges, Browns and Yellows in this scene from “American Hustle” fall next to each other on the color wheel forming a warm overall feel with very little tension in the image.

3. Triadic Color Scheme

TriadTriadic colors are three colors arranged evenly spaced around the color wheel. One should be dominant, the others for accent. They will give a vibrant feel even if the hues are quite unsaturated.


Triadic is one of the least common color schemes in film and although difficult, can be quite striking.


Jean-Luc Goddard’s 1964 “Pierrot Le Fou” makes use of a triadic color scheme of red, blue and green.

4. Split-Complementary Color Scheme

SplitComplementaryA split-complimentary color scheme is really very similar to complimentary colors but instead of using the direct opposite color of the base color, it uses the two colors next to the opposite. It has the same high contrast but less tension than a complimentary pair.



A split complimentary color scheme in this scene of the Coen Brother’s “Burn After Reading” of red, green and teal.

5. Tetradic Color Scheme

TetradTetradic colors consist of four colors arranged into two complementary pairs. The result is a full palette with many possible variations. As with most of these color harmonies, one color is usually dominant.



“Mama Mia’s” colorful party scene falls into the example of a tetradic choice of colors creating a well balanced and harmonious palette in a scene that could otherwise have looked like a bad disco.

Some common general looks that can be created in post pretty much regardless of what colors are in the image are the orange/teal look where orange is pushed into the highlights and upper-mids of the skin tones and teal (or blue green) is pushed into the shadows.


A scene from “Magnolia” showing another example of Hollywood’s love affair with orange and teal. Blue/green has been pushed into the shadows, and orange in the midtones and highlights specifically in skin tones.

I hope that this basic breakdown can help give you control in making planned and purposeful color choices either on set when working with a designer, or purely in post in order to set your work apart. Studiobinder have a free e-book called “How to Use Color in Film” if you’re interested in finding out more.

Of course I assume you all knew this already… but this was just in case you didn’t ;)

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Minco van der Weide Reply
Minco van der Weide March 5, 2015

Awesome post, thank you Cinema5D!

Dave March 5, 2015

Fantastic post. Really enjoyed reading it and being able to put real world examples alongside the descriptions.

Bart van der Gaag March 5, 2015

Brilliant post.

Niklaas P. Hoyng Reply
Niklaas P. Hoyng March 5, 2015

Brilliant Post! Very helpful!
Thanks a lot Cinema 5D.

Simone Gandolfo Reply
Simone Gandolfo March 5, 2015

great article, may thank’s

Editt Lab Reply
Editt Lab March 6, 2015

Good one

GLenn Stillar March 6, 2015

An excellent post. Thanks so much.

Julien Beydon Reply
Julien Beydon March 6, 2015

Excellent ! But it is “Pierrot Le Fou” (mad) ,not Le Feu ( fire )

Sebastian Wöber Reply
Sebastian Wöber March 6, 2015

Thanks for the hint. Corrected.

Arnaud Trouvé Reply
Arnaud Trouvé March 9, 2015

Great article! Thanks

Margarita Smith Reply
Margarita Smith March 10, 2015


facebook_user Reply
facebook_user March 11, 2015

Great post

Giacomo De Biase Reply
Giacomo De Biase March 11, 2015

Very interesting article, one question: is it right use subtractive wheel to achieve complementary colors? I think it’s right for paintings but for video I use additive wheel to establish a complementary color. What do you think about this?

Richard Lackey Reply
Richard Lackey March 15, 2015

Hi Giacomo, I have used a “traditional” RYB color model to illustrate the pairings, which technically is different to either subtractive CMY or additive RGB. It’s a twelve hue color circle developed by Johannes Itten and is the basis for most color theory explanations and color themes.

The opposite pairings of subtractive CMY and additive RGB color wheels are identical, the difference being a reversal of which colors are primary and secondary. It’s a interesting question however, so do you consider the complimentary opposite of Red to be Cyan, not Green?

It makes for some different pairings and schemes, as the traditional RYB pairs Orange and Teal whereas either additive RGB or subtractive CMY pair Orange with Blue.

For certain the 3 way color wheels we use for grading and control are additive RGB.

Manuel Diepold Reply
Manuel Diepold March 18, 2015

Theoretically Ittens Color Wheel is completely wrong. Except for yellow both of his other primary colors aren’t really primary. the red is a magenta with a bit of yellow and the blue has a small amount of magenta in it as well. but since it’s not about color mixing in this article i would suggest to just focus on Ittens 7 color contrasts cause these work just fine.

in addition the most complete color mixing system is Harald Küppers Rhomboeder-System. it includes CYM, RGB and B/W. but again just when it comes down to mixing them up :)

Richard Lackey Reply
Richard Lackey March 18, 2015

Thanks Manuel, I agree exactly, when it comes to color mixing of course we are using additive RGB but I’ve always referred to Ittens wheel for the combinations because they work so nicely. There is definitely a separation of purpose there though, and they shouldn’t be confused. Thanks for helping to clarify that.

Eston April 9, 2015

I browse through Ittens ever so often to help me develop my own ideas related to colour and how I want to use them. Very informative article and helpful comments. Thanks for sharing. I often look for moral of the story, body language and voice tone in movies, now I will also look at colour usage.

Riven Mists May 25, 2015

very helpful post, thank you!

Barbara Flueckiger Reply
Barbara Flueckiger September 20, 2015

Don’t miss the Timeline of Historical Film Colors:


Stephen Heleker October 7, 2015

It kind of sucks that you used a bunch of moviesincolor graphics with no attribution. Useful post, though.

Richard Lackey Reply
Richard Lackey October 7, 2015

Actually Stephen I did attribute Roxy and her site, and I got her permission before writing this article. Here is the paragraph in the article right before the heading “5 Common Film Color Schemes”: “All of the frame grabs used to illustrate the 5 most common schemes were created by graphic designer Roxy Radulescu from her site http://www.moviesincolor.com. It’s worth taking some time to look through all the work she has done.”

I never ever use images or other people’s content in any of my work without attributing them and having their express permission in writing beforehand.

 Martin Gomez Santiago Reply
Martin Gomez Santiago November 17, 2015

Brilliant and Helpful. Thanks a lot!

 Rosemarie DiSalvo Reply
Rosemarie DiSalvo January 24, 2016

Excellent discussion of how color affects our moods and the use of color in cinematic staging. Most people don’t even realize the details that go into creating a movie scene that is a split second in length. As an interior designer, the physiology of color, is the basic foundation of all good design. The use of proper color, based upon the natural light flowing into each room, the purpose of the actual room, the client’s lifestyle are all considerations before developing a color palette for the client.
A kitchen needs to be uplifting and evoke a sence of harmony and home; bedrooms need to have a calming color palette to evoke calmness and tranquility; a master suite can be seductive and sensual with a color palette of cool colors. It’s all it the details that makes a home very unique and it all begins with color. It’s not just paint on the walls and ceilings: color is as important to our wellbeing as enjoying all the good things that life has to offer.

Richard Lackey Reply
Richard Lackey January 26, 2016

Absolutely, so much thought goes into color on a polished Hollywood production, very little that you see in an image on the big screen is there by chance, somebody has made specific choices with intent, at the very least to create harmony or dischord (but actually so much more than that). It’s often overlooked by many independent filmmakers and enthusiasts but choice of color palette, as much as lighting style and cinematography plays an integral part in creating a felt, emotional experience and connection for the audience.

 Peter Holland Reply
Peter Holland January 24, 2016

Or some obscure website will claim there’s a scratch on the car’s paintwork.

 Peg Aloi Reply
Peg Aloi January 26, 2016

This is fascinating and has a great selection of images as examples! I’ve writing and teaching about color in cinema for a few years now, and am working on a book about the emotional and symbolic use of color in cinematic storytelling.

 Peg Aloi Reply
Peg Aloi January 26, 2016

I thought readers of this article might enjoy my recent review of Todd Haynes’ CAROL, focused on the symbolic use of red and green… http://artsfuse.org/138953/fuse-film-commentary-blink-a-bright-red-and-green-carols-holiday-charm/

Richard Lackey Reply
Richard Lackey January 26, 2016

Thanks so much for adding this link. Brilliant.

 Peg Aloi Reply
Peg Aloi January 26, 2016

My pleasure! If you want to contact me about the book project, let me know, it will be an anthology of essays by myself and two others.

 Sidney Mfezo Reply
Sidney Mfezo January 26, 2016

I didn’t!!! Thank u

 Vijayagopalan Gopalan Reply
Vijayagopalan Gopalan January 29, 2016


 Allan Drafted Reply
Allan Drafted April 5, 2016

my goodness…waah..am speechless!!! Great job!!

 Mani Mariappan Reply
Mani Mariappan May 24, 2016

Thank you for sharing the the colour scheme tricks that makes the scene memorable ones!

 Shant Kiraz Reply
Shant Kiraz September 27, 2016

Awesome post on color theory Richard. We actually just released a free e-book that dives even deeper on color theory called “How to Use Color in Film” https://www.studiobinder.com/blog/e-books/how-to-use-color-in-film-free-ebook/