Amina Moreau
Amina Moreau

Amina Moreau is the cofounder of the Emmy Award winning Stillmotion. She believes in telling stories that make a difference, and that in order to create truly powerful imagery, one must have a strong purpose behind every choice.

Color me emotional

September 30, 2014

Let’s start off with a pretty straightforward question: why is color important?

As written by film writer, Patti Bellantoni:

“Each color affects us uniquely. Even the slightest variation of a single color can have a profound influence on our behavior. In wise hands, color can become a powerful tool for filmmakers to subliminally layer a story — to make a situation ironic, or absurd.
-Patti Bellantoni, author of "If It’s Purple, Someone’s Gonna Die"

As storytellers, color grading has been drilled into us as “part of the workflow,” yet all too often, filmmakers make color decisions based primarily on what looks cool, what’s trendy at the time or, more simply, what little they know how to do.

People don’t just see color; we feel color. And knowing which steps to take in the editing process starts with understanding the emotional language of color. Let’s take a look at some potential interpretations of various colors (pulled from Bellantoni’s table of contents):

  • Red: powerful, lusty, defiant, anxious, angry, romantic
  • Yellow: exuberant, obsessive, daring, innocent, cautionary, idyllic
  • Blue: powerless, cerebral, warm, melancholy, cold, passive
  • Orange: warm, naive, romantic, exotic, toxic, natural earth
  • Green: healthy, ambivalent, vital, poisonous, ominous, corrupt
  • Purple: asexual, illusory, fantastic, mystical, ominous, ethereal

Notice how there are some contradictions here. On one hand, the color green can represent health, while on the other, it can symbolize poison. How can this be? Well, part of it has to do with context in which it’s being used, while the other will be influenced by the kind of green being used and how it’s being applied. Is it a vibrant sea green added to the brighter parts of the image or is it a swampy green making the shadows look sinister?

Interestingly, a lot of the interpretations above remain constant cross-culturally. With some important deviations, of course, knowing that every color has the potential to elicit a specific emotional response gives you, the storyteller, a tremendous amount of influence over how the viewer experiences your film.

The beauty of color is that it can be implemented in such a great variety of ways. It can be influenced by set design, wardrobe, camera settings such as white balance or WB Shift, as well as in post. And the great thing about doing color work in the edit suite is that you have a ton of freedom to achieve exactly the look and feel you’re aiming for.

But where to start? Do you look at the shadows? Midtones? Highlights? Do you focus on color temperature first, or saturation? What about contrast? Does it even matter what order you tackle these in?

Well, the answer is yes. There are some variables that, when adjusted, end up affecting other factors as well. The main one to consider is contrast. Whenever you adjust contrast, a saturation side-effect will occur. The more you boost contrast, the more saturated your image will become. For this reason, it’s a good idea to make contrast adjustments your first priority. That way, you won’t find yourself in a position where you’ve perfected all your color settings, only to ruin them by adjusting your contrast last.

Similarly to contrast settings, there are a number of ways to control the color settings of your image. If your image feels a touch too cold, you can warm it up globally or you can add warmth to different parts of the image. If you add yellow to the shadows, you’ll start to notice a bit of a vintage feel start to emerge. Alternatively, you can try adding yellow to the midtones and/or highlights for a very different feel that also lightens the overall picture.

Photo by Amina Moreau


Photo by Amina Moreau


Photo by Amina Moreau


And then, you can take it a step further. Start combining different colors in different areas of your image! What happens if you put green in your shadows and red in your highlights? Wanna see something really amazing? Swap the colors: Put red in your shadows and green in your highlights! Crazy right? What a difference! One feels alternative/ominous, while the other feels a bit mouldy/vintage!

Photo by Amina Moreau

Photo by Amina Moreau

What’s amazing about color is that the options are infinite without the the process being too overwhelming. And the beauty of it all is that there’s no wrong answer. It’s up to you to decide what feels right. What’s more, while there are certain emotions that are pretty universally linked to specific colors, their interpretations are completely up to us to tailor. It’s all about our experiences, our biases, and the context we put them in.

Think about color as a language. In fact, think of photography and filmmaking as languages in themselves. You and I and any other visitors to this site may speak and understand the same language (English) but we all interpret things a little differently and we speak in our own style too. Visual language is no different, except that our “words” manifest themselves as our technical choices such as color, lighting, focal length, camera movement, and all the rest.

Every word MEANS something. Every choice conveys something unique. Knowing the meaning behind each of our storytelling tools gives us the power to communicate with maximum impact. Color is just one collection in your vocabulary, but one that can profoundly influence how your message is received.

As storytellers, we are architects of emotion. Let’s build something monumental.

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