Inspiration, Pro Tips

How to Use Color in Film, According to Renowned Cinematographers


If you’re a fan of directors like Wes Anderson or Wong Kar-Wai, you’ll notice something aside from exceptional shot composition and camera movements in their films: color is everywhere. For the best filmmakers, color is a must in any moviemaking toolkit — not only to create more luscious looking images, but also ones with greater meaning. We asked renowned cinematographers Paul Cameron (Man on Fire, Westworld, Pirates of Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales) and Eduard Grau (The Gift, A Single Man, Suite Française, Buried) to share their insights on how to approach color in film.

Ryan Reynolds in "Buried"
Ryan Reynolds in Buried (2010)

Always Keep Color in Mind

The first rule of color is to not treat it like an afterthought. Color should always be on a filmmaker’s mind – from the earliest stages of pre-production to the moments right before a director yells “Action!” “I definitely think of color a lot,” says Grau. “Every time you do a shot or a scene, you’re thinking of how colors are going to get conveyed, how they’re going to be felt on the other side of the screen.”

And don’t doubt audiences will sense color, whether consciously or not. “Your eye goes to color,” says Cameron. “It gets trained to look at certain colors in a certain way, to gravitate or be repelled by color – whatever the intention is.” So always think of color, because the audience will, too.

Denzel Washington in "Man on Fire"
Denzel Washington in Man on Fire (2004)

Plan Your Color Scheme Early

When brainstorming which colors you want to define the look of your project, the earlier the better. It’s not something you want to improvise in the moment. For Cameron, it’s there from the beginning. “It starts with reading the script, and visualizing the sensibility,” he explains. “Where the locations are, what’s lighting that world. As I break down the script for the first time, I see if there’s anything that stands out from my initial instincts.”

But while generating one’s own ideas about color schemes for a project is important, if you’re not directing your project, tit also becomes a collaborative decision. “Color comes when you’re trying to make plans on how to do it or when talking with people and working with them,” Grau says. Either way, colors should be considered early, along with everything else you’re thinking about during pre-production.

Joel Edgerton in "The Gift
Joel Edgerton in The Gift (2015)

Color Is Most Powerful for Emotion

Color can be used to enhance aesthetics or reflect mood and theme. But Grau believes color is most effective in another area: “The best way of using it is to portray the emotions of a character,” he says. For example, when he worked with writer-director Tom Ford on A Single Man, the director saw color as so fundamental to character that it was part of the script.

“There were descriptions of how saturation changes in the character to describe his emotions, and to describe how he feels about something. He was highlighting the character’s internal change.” Anyone who has seen A Single Man knows how well that works, and it’s an approach Grau very much endorses for other projects. “If you’re telling the story with that tool, you’re doing your job right.”

Colin Firth in a "Single Man"
Colin Firth in A Single Man (2009)

Work Color into Locations and Objects

Color’s potential to convey visual coherency and meaning should be spliced into every part of a film’s DNA. That includes costumes, locations, and objects. That’s why, for example, when Cameron shot the Westworld pilot, he and showrunner Jonathan Nolan were very particular about color use. Different locations have different color schemes — from the pristine white of the offices on the upper levels, to the darkness nestled in the basements where the hosts are programmed.

Nolan also wanted red to be ever present, and those with keen eyes can spot it in everything from architecture and costumes to blood. Want further proof of how highly color is valued by filmmakers? Cameron says for Collateral, Michael Mann and his team tested 26 shades of orange for Jamie Foxx’s taxi cab before settling on the one they liked best.

Thandie Newton in Westworld
Thandie Newton in Westworld (2016)

Stick To Your Scheme, No Matter What

A good filmmaker doesn’t select a color scheme and then only half-heartedly stick to it. A chosen palette needs to be consistently adhered to throughout an entire project. That’s not something Cameron says all filmmakers necessarily do: “There’s a tendency for directors of photography to step off that initial choice, and change their look and approach to scenes and locations,” Cameron says. “What happens is the use of color gets destroyed.”

That’s because color is most effective when it’s consistently integrated throughout a film, creating a cohesive look that an audience absorbs and that reflects your artistic vision. So, be sure to pick a color scheme, then stick to it.

Rebecca Hall in "The Awakening"
Rebecca Hall in The Awakening (2011)

Don’t Ignore How Color Interacts

Artistic ambitions with color are important, but don’t overlook logistics either. A color choice may work in theory, but not necessarily once the camera starts rolling. A blue you’ve picked for thematic purposes and worked into the costume of your main character may suddenly seem like a bad idea when you’re in a location with blue wallpaper your actor is standing in front of. That’s why one important question Cameron asks is: “How do we separate people and colors from backgrounds?”

For example, he’s currently working on an HBO film adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 with Ramin Bahrani, and the inherent colors of fire (a big part of the story, naturally) necessitated big talks about what colors would work with that. “It’s a very heavy conversation right now, in terms of exact colors for every location, every wardrobe, every color,” he says. “We’re exploring how we’re going to do things with color separation, so it’s not all just very orange and glowing from the fire.”

Doing tests before principle photography can help with this, but sometimes even when you arrive on set, something may look different — so be adaptable.

Jim Caviezel in "Deja Vu"
Jim Caviezel in Deja Vu (2006)

Don’t Worry About Being Perfect

Film shoots aren’t exactly known for being stress-free or slow-paced environments. The truth is, sometimes in the rush to make a shoot day, color consistency can be difficult to achieve. That’s nothing to despair over. Yes, as Grau puts it, “It’s ideal that you do on camera as much as you can.” However, “Sometimes it’s difficult when you’re on a roller coaster of time pressure, artistic pressure, and your own expectations. You don’t have time to do all those little things.”

Related Post Color Correction Basics Using Adobe Premiere

That’s where color correction can come to the rescue of filmmakers, allowing them to tweak shots in post-production and create the visual consistency that eluded them on set. “Get as close as you can shooting on set with all your tools,” concludes Grau, “but also know that where you want to go is possible afterwards with color correction.”

Top Image: Still from Suite Française (2014)