How to use cohesive color palettes to tell stronger stories

In a nutshell

  • Understanding color theory is fundamental to creating a cohesive color palette, guiding how colors interact and the emotional responses they invoke.
  • Lighting techniques, from color correction gels to dimming and color separation, play a significant role in achieving the desired color effects and the overall atmosphere of a scene.
  • The green/magenta axis, often overlooked in favor of warm and cool tones, offers an additional tool for establishing the mood and style of the footage through saturation and tint variations.

Color is a powerful communication tool that can significantly enhance visual storytelling. With the rise of advanced camera sensors and accessible color correction and grading tools, the pressure is higher than ever for videographers to use color effectively. Constructing a cohesive color palette is essential for any video producer who wants to create videos that engage their audience and tell compelling stories. 

Here’s how to use color to enhance your storytelling.

Understanding color theory

Color theory plays a pivotal role in video production. It helps you understand how colors interact with each other and the emotional responses they elicit. By using color theory to create a cohesive color palette, you can effectively convey emotions, moods and messages to your audience.

To dive deeper into color theory, there are several terms of color theory that you should first understand:

Color wheel: The color wheel is a tool that helps you understand the relationships between colors. It’s divided into three categories: primary colors (red, yellow, and blue), secondary colors (green, orange, and purple) and tertiary colors (yellow-green, blue-green, red-purple, etc.).

Color temperature: Color temperature refers to the warmth or coolness of a color. The two primary color temperatures you’ll work with in video production are daylight (5500 K) and tungsten (3200 K).

Saturation: Saturation refers to the intensity or purity of a color. Highly saturated colors are bright and bold, while desaturated colors are muted and subdued.

Contrast: Contrast refers to the difference between light and dark colors. High contrast can create a dramatic effect, while low contrast can create a more subtle effect.

Starting in pre-production

The key to a successful color palette is planning. The more thought and planning you put into your color palette, the more effectively it will convey your message to your audience. In pre-production, you should consider locations, production design, costuming and lighting to determine your look. This will help you create consistent visual language throughout your video.

Lighting techniques for color

Lighting is one of the most powerful tools at your disposal when achieving your desired color effects. There are several lighting techniques you can use to create a specific color palette:

Color correction gels: Color correction gels are filters you place over your lights to change their color temperature. They come in various colors, and you can use them to create a wide range of color combinations.

Dimming: Dimming your lights can also help you achieve your desired color effects. You can create a more muted or subdued effect by dimming your lights.

Color separation: You can use color separation to help make a scene more dynamic. Emphasizing the warmth of skin tones against a cooler backdrop can be a great way to bring focus to your subjects. At the same time, the cooler backdrop will emphasize the divide between character and environment.

White balancing: You can also accentuate the color temperature of a scene with simple white balance adjustments. For example, lighting with daylight lamps and white balancing the camera to around 4300 K can accentuate a dull, sterile environment.

The green/magenta axis

While many cinematographers think in terms of warm and cool tones, much of your mood can be defined by the green and magenta axis of the color vector wheel as well. You can achieve different looks and moods by playing with saturation and tint on the magenta axis. For example, desaturating the magenta and adding violet can create a dreamy, ethereal effect.

The look must serve the story

Regarding cinematography and color grading, your look must serve the story. It’s not enough to create a visually stunning video without effectively conveying your message. Your color palette should be an integral part of your storytelling, helping to evoke emotions, create atmosphere and convey meaning.

Autumn Durald, a well-known cinematographer, has said that being a great director of photography is not about making something look great but ensuring the look fits the scene’s emotion and supports the story. This sentiment applies to color grading as well. The goal of color grading is to draw the viewer into the story rather than pull them out. If the color palette is ineffective in conveying the intended message or mood, it will distract the viewer and detract from the story.

Color grading can be an intimidating process, especially for those who are new to it. However, it’s important to remember that it’s not about adding flashy effects or making your video look as polished as possible. It’s about creating a consistent and cohesive visual language that effectively conveys your message and engages your audience.

Tips for using cohesive color palettes in video production

Here are some tips to help you create a cohesive color palette for your video production:

Plan ahead

One of the most important things you can do to create a cohesive color palette is to plan ahead. Start thinking about your color palette in pre-production by considering locations, production design, costuming and lighting to determine your look. This will help you create a consistent visual language for your video.

Use color theory

Creating a cohesive color palette involves using color theory strategically. Begin by determining the emotions you want to express and select colors that evoke these feelings. Use the color wheel to choose complementary, analogous or triadic colors that enhance your primary color. Factor in color temperature, leaning towards warm or cool tones based on your narrative or setting. Decide on the saturation level for your colors — high for a bold look, low for a subtler feel. Also, consider contrast, with high contrast creating drama and low contrast providing a softer look.

Saving Private Ryan (1998)
“Saving Private Ryan” (1998). Image courtesy: Paramount Pictures

Experiment with lighting

Lighting is one of the most powerful tools at your disposal when it comes to achieving your desired color effects. By manipulating lighting, you can create depth, draw attention to significant elements in a scene or set a specific atmosphere. Start with the basic three-point lighting setup. But don’t feel bound by this setup. Feel free to explore more dramatic or stylized effects. Low-key lighting, for instance, can deepen color saturation for a more dramatic, mysterious feel, while high-key lighting can wash out colors for a light, airy and comedic tone. Experiment with various light sources, like the warm hues of natural light or the cooler tones from artificial lights. Lighting, when used strategically, can be a powerful tool to underscore your narrative and accentuate your color choices.

Consider the green/magenta axis

While many cinematographers think in terms of warm and cool tones, 

you can define much of your film’s mood using the green and magenta axis. You can achieve different looks and moods by playing with saturation and tint on the magenta axis.

Serve the story

When it comes to cinematography and color grading, your color palette must serve the story. Your color palette should be an integral part of your storytelling, helping to evoke emotions, create atmosphere and convey meaning. It’s important to ask yourself how your chosen colors support the story and its message.

Practice, practice, practice

Color grading is a skill that takes practice to master. One way to practice is by analyzing other videos and films that you admire to see how they use color to enhance their storytelling. Another way is to experiment with different color grading software or plugins and try out different looks to see what you like and what works best for your project. The more you practice and experiment, the better you’ll become at using color to create cohesive and impactful video productions.

Mastering the art of color grading

Cohesive color palettes are an essential part of video production. They help to convey emotions, moods and messages to your audience effectively. By understanding the basics of color theory, experimenting with lighting techniques and serving the story, you can create a consistent and cohesive color palette that engages your audience and enhances your storytelling. With practice and experimentation, you can master the art of color grading and take your videos to the next level.

Contributing editors to this article include Kieran Fallon and Steven Wetrich.

Kieran Fallon
Kieran Fallonhttp://www.graphicdesigneire.ie
Kieran is owner of Éire Graphic Design — https://www.graphicdesigneire.ie

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