Liz’s Cinematography 101: COLOR!

I had the opportunity to attend a seminar at the American Cinematheque where the panel consisted of Oscar-nominated production designers and art directors. I wasn’t sure how interesting it would be, since I don’t consider myself the ‘artsy-type’. However, I was blown away by how much I learned just listening to these individuals talk about each film’s color palette. It opened my mind up to think more about COLOR as a powerful tool in the cinematographer’s toolbox.

Jess Gonchor, production designer for True Grit, shared a story where he gathered paint cards of each color in the film’s color palette. He distributed these to his PAs and told them to call him immediately if they saw anything on the sets that was not in that palette!

The job of the cinematographer is to support the creative vision of the director, even as it is implemented by the production designer. When you know what the vision is, there are many opportunities to explore.

The color palette chosen for the film can convey a feeling that will stick with the viewer even after the credits have rolled. It is a way to either subtly or blatantly enhance the emotions of the story. The cinematographer needs to know how to capture this palette effectively.

With color palette you want to have some idea where you’re going. Otherwise the production designer may make the sets a different color than you and the director were expecting, and they wouldn’t necessarily react the way you may like on film. That goes for costumes as well. I find it a bit odd sometimes that so much testing is done on costumes and wallpaper and paints and stuff. You can stand and look at it, and that’s what it’s going to look like. There’s no great magic; it’s what your eye sees, basically. Film stocks these days are balanced to give you what your eyes see. It’s not like the old days when the film stocks, even the black-and-white stocks, didn’t truly reflect what was in the frame and it was a really big issue. These days a black-blue suit may look slightly more bluish, but that’s a minor thing. Now when you see someone standing there with the makeup and wardrobe on, that’s the way it’s going to look on film. The only way it’s going  to vary is if you are changing the color temperature lighting to something much warmer at night with candles, but someone standing outside in normal daylight, there is no need to test that, it’s going to look the way your eye sees it.

(Roger Deakins, ASC, Frost interview, November 2007)

Color is another way to create contrast and draw attention to a particular element in the frame.

The Patriot

Blue, green, and violet are considered ‘cool colors’. In general, cooler colors convey feelings of tranquility and detachedness. Warmer colors, like red, yellow, and orange, are more stimulating and aggressive colors. They will tend to pop out in a frame, whereas cooler colors recede into the image. When you know the color palette the story calls for, you can support it through your lighting techniques.

There is no doubt that every color is a specific wavelength of energy that can represent or symbolize a specific time of life…the meanings of colors are universal, even if they have different cultures. Even if the audience doesn’t see the meanings of different colors, they can feel them.

(Vittorio Storaro, ASC, American Cinematographer, September 2007, 56)

Color Balance

This is a hefty topic, and I will try not to bore you tremendously! We will just touch the surface of the subject.

Film (or imaging sensors), unlike our eyes, cannot reproduce colors accurately under all kinds of lighting. Yes, light varies in color, but unless you are looking for it, you will probably not realize it. Our brains communicate with our eyes to adapt to each lighting situation. Film does not have that brain power behind it. We need to realize its limitations and work with it accordingly.

If you have chosen to shoot with a daylight film stock (or your white balance is set to 5600K), you will usually be pleased with the results you get shooting outdoors. Skin tones will look natural and flattering, and grass will be green. However, if you take that same film stock (or white balance setting) and shoot indoors where the illumination comes from practical light sources, you will be not get flattering results. Those lamps, that appear to have white light (to your eye) will produce a ghastly orange glow. Skin tones will also be rendered with with a red cast.

In the two images above, the color balance is off. It creates odd skin tones that are not explained by light source in the frame. Colors do not look natural. Areas we expect to be white are either blue or orange. The image on the left was shot outdoors and so to produce colors accurately the film (or white balance) should have been 5600K. Likewise, the image on the right was shot indoors mostly likely under incandescent light (approx 2900K). Both of these images can be corrected in post production of course, but it is best to get closest to the desired results from the get-go.

What you need to be aware of is that different sources of light have different color temperatures. These sources are measured in degrees Kelvin. Refer to the chart below to get a better idea:

You can use this knowledge to your advantage. Depending on the needs of the story, you may want to reproduce that orange glow that I formerly described as ghastly.

The colors in these pictures do not look terrible; they meet expectations. You know that the primary source of light in the frame is candlelight. We expect to see a warm glow with firelight.

Barry Lyndon

True Grit

In addition to color balance, we can utilize gels to either warm up or cool down our light sources. There are color correction gels and also color effects gels.

Color correction gels are used to ‘correct’ the color temperature. For example, if you were shooting indoors under incandescent light and you wanted all of the light to appear white. You would make sure your film (or white balance setting) was 3200K (or possibly 2900K). If there were windows, you could use  Full CTO (color temperature orange) on the windows to negate any blue cast coming from the daylight. This would be a way to match your sources. However, someone else in the same situation may want to keep some color separation apparent in the light sources, since it is natural for our eyes to perceive the light entering the window to be cooler than the warmer incandescent sources. In this case, you could still apply CTO to the windows, but instead of Full CTO you could apply 1/8, 1/4, or 1/2. This is just one method of many.

I will not go into great detail about lens filtration in this entry, except to say that it is a powerful and often overlooked tool. With filters, you can enhance colors, mellow colors, and even lower contrast in bright outdoor scenes. There are also color correction filters that are relied on heavily when shooting specifically with film.

Some directors will assign different color palettes to characters or will even have a color scheme evolve as the character evolves and their journey moves forward. This is utilized quite frequently. Some directors consistently adhere to certain color schemes.

In Babel, the story follows different characters in different parts of the globe. To help drive this separation different colors are relied on.

For example, we decided (with director Alejandro Iñárritu) to have one color in the beginning that unifies the movie, and we would find different characteristics of that color in each place, and that color was red. If you notice in the Moroccan section there is more amber, orange, red color in the production design. In Mexico it is primarily red: her dress, the tarp over the musicians at the wedding, which is red, so the color of the light would be red. In Japan it was a purplish-pink shade of red: I used that on the club as well in terms of lighting, but it was very much in the production design and the costumes. So this is something, in collaboration with Alejandro, that we discussed in the beginning of the movie and followed through again, it’s a funneling of ideas.

(Rodrigo Prieto, ASC, Frost interview, July 2007)


On The Fountain I worked with certain color temperatures and how they render on film stocks. For example, taking a tungsten stock and rendering cool white fluorescents versus warm white fluorescents or something that’s 2500 degrees Kelvin versus something that’s at 5000 degrees Kelvin how they render in the same frame together is important to me. I use a lot of color temperature readings and I use that to render specific colors. Then I’ll shift those colors. If something is 5000 degrees on tungsten film and goes a little blue, it’s also going to render a little magenta, so maybe I’ll add a little green to it, or I’ll put green on the lights and make the kinoflos 5500 degrees. It’s part of the craft, trying to keep that palette as disciplined as possible.

(Matthew Libatique, ASC, Frost interview, September 2007)

Isaac Botkin wrote a fabulous blog entry in regards to this subject. I would not even attempt to summarize it. Included is this chart below, which shows the changing color palette frame-by-frame and how it is directly tied to the story progression in Black Hawk Down.

Film Stocks

A painter has paints, and a cinematographer has film stocks. Yes, let’s forget about digital just for a moment. There are two suppliers of motion picture film: Kodak and Fuji. Each have there own offerings of stocks, and each stock has its own unique characteristics. The cinematographer will choose the stock(s) that will best suit each location, time of day, color saturation desired, and shadow detail.

There negative stocks and reversal stocks. Negative stocks are the most common, plentiful, and practical. Reversal stocks produce a positive image – just like slide film in photography. They are more saturated and contrasty. The two color reversal films in production are both from Kodak: 100D and Ektachrome 64T. The latter being the same Super 8mm stock that has been produced for decades. I have a collection of 8mm Ektachrome my grandfather shot back in the day. Even after DVD transfer, I am amazed at the colors that were rendered. Reversal film is still a popular choice for many photographers. In fact, pick up an old National Geographic and be amazed at the color saturation in the images: reversal film. This famous photography was shot with reversal film (Kodachrome) by Steve McCurry:

Certain film stocks will produce punchier, more saturated colors while others will render colors as more pastel-like. Film stocks can vary in contrast and grain structures.

Many color grading applications have presets that will try to emulate different film stocks.

COLOR. It is an exhaustive subject, and I would recommend further study if you are an aspiring cinematographer. Train your eyes to observe different colors of light sources and the reaction it has on the subjects it illuminates. You need at least a basic understanding of color so you know how to control it and use it to best serve your story.

For further reading I recommend the book:

Motion Picture and Video Lighting by Blaine Brown


Liz’s Lesson:
Understanding color means understanding
the meaning and emotion of your images.

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2 Responses to Liz’s Cinematography 101: COLOR!

  1. Pingback: Vicki's OCA Blog | colour temperature—1

  2. Ejaz Mehedi says:

    Great post! Helped me a lot to grow a basic understanding the use of color and visual storytelling!
    Really appreciate this 🙂

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