Grade for Purpose: Color as a Visual Language

Terry Gilliam’s latest film  ‘The Zero Theorem’ was released here in Portland recently, so a bunch of us from Story & Heart trudged through the pouring September sunshine to see it. (Yes, sunshine. I don’t know who told you it always rains here but it’s a myth.) 

Terry Gilliam’s films are always a totally immersive experience that plunge you into worlds much like our own but just a little skewed. In his latest, Gilliam makes use of extreme color grading techniques, making for an intense and almost overwhelming experience.

The trailer alone will give you a good sense of how overpowering this film is in both it’s exuberant use and stark absence of color. The Zero Theorem Trailer–Directed by Terry Gilliam.

The trailer alone will give you a good sense of how overpowering this film is in both it’s exuberant use and stark absence of color. The main character—Qohen Leth, wears only black and lives in a darkened, burned out cathedral, with very little natural light. When he sleeps his dreams are plagued by black holes. 

The world around Qohen, however, is so saturated by color that the visual space is crowded, even claustrophobic. Whenever Leth is forced to interact with society, we are overcome by bright rich, deep color combined with neon, dayglow, and synthetic tones in such great abundance that it all becomes one loud noisy mess. 

Color Grading as a Tool for Emotional Impact

2001: A Space Odyssey Movie Trailer – Directed by Stanley Kubrick

The film got us to thinking about how we use color in filmmaking—as well as films we’ve loved that are rich in their use of color.

Classics that have bright and brilliant color design like ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ that uses its sparse white or black backdrops to place minimalist brilliant colors to give you a sense of the individual against the great expanse of the universe. Or slightly more contemporary films like ‘Amelie’ which saturate the screen with sunny, bright tones layered upon each other to warm the viewer to Amelie’s luminous vision. 

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid Trailer–Directed by George Roy Hill

But vibrant color, and as much of it as possible, is not always going to fit your story.

Think of ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’ the opening of this film—the first five minutes—is completely in sepia. Almost the entire film is an unforgiving, heated chase through the desert, and this is only heightened by the relentless dusty, copper hues that pervade the screen space—making it feel like an antique photo of the Old West. 

O Brother, Where Art Thou? Trailer–Directed by Joel and Ethan Cohen.

Oh Brother Where Art Thou’ has the same type of color scheme as Butch Cassidy, but this time pulling from our collective memory of the dust bowl era.

In this film, however, a little more blue is used here, to create more water imagery. The cooler colors representing the redemption that is offered to the main character—a literal washing away of the dust and dirt of the world occurs in the flood scenes toward the end of the film. There is variation to this color, but brown and light blue are our major colors throughout the piece.

If we could go through and take screenshots scene by scene of then break that down into just its base colors it would be largely brown, sepia, black, blue and grey. That would be pretty time consuming, but luckily there is already a website called The Colors of Motion that has done just that for ‘Oh Brother Where Art Thou’ and several other incredible films that use color as a storytelling tool.

Explore 20+ feature films and their use of color frame by frame at The Color of Motion.

Explore 20+ feature films and their use of color frame by frame at The Color of Motion.

Just by looking at an overview of the color palette of Oh Brother Where Art Thou you get a sense of the mood and feeling you would experience by watching the film itself. 

Courtesy of The Color of Motion. Prints available for purchase here.

Courtesy of The Color of Motion. Prints available for purchase here.

Not a New Idea

'If It's Purple Someone's Gonna Die', by Patti Bellantoni. Awesome text for delving into the world of color in filmmaking.

'If It's Purple Someone's Gonna Die', by Patti Bellantoni. Awesome text for delving into the world of color in filmmaking.

There are entire books devoted to the use and interpretation of color grading within film and its effect on the viewer. One such book that we highly recommend is ‘If It’s Purple, Someone’s Gonna Die' by Patti Bellantoni’. In it, she writes:

“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 goes on to write that color, unlike many other storytelling techniques:

“...is one of the elements rarely recognized by the audience as manipulating them.This subliminal quality can be magic in the director’s hands—or not. This much is clear: if we remain unaware of this power awaiting our command, we relinquish a large part of our control to chance. Color will continue to resonate, to send out signals, irrespective of our intentions. So, whether it’s on or off-screen, it’s essential for us to know what we are doing.” 

Which means, as filmmakers we have to put aside what looks cool, or is currently trendy, and select a color palette that is story relevant—if we want to maximize the control which we have over our viewers. 

We don’t just see color; we feel it.

And knowing which steps to take in the edit process starts with understanding the emotional language of color. 

In the table of contents, Bellantoni lists interpretations of various colors:

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 

Wait. 

How can blue be both warm and cold? We’re visual people, right? We think of blue as a cool color. The bluish cast of a rainy day, puddles in the pavement or the cool of early morning light for example. Blue is cool. Okay erase the image. Now try the aqua blue of the Caribbean ocean close to the shore, underwater beside a coral reef, or a sun filled Arizona sky the brightest color of blue bouncing off the red rock. Blue can be warm based on context.

Situations affect interpretations. And the feeling of color in a film can absolutely be affected by the situation in which it’s used.

Wanna try another one? 

On one hand the color green can represent health, while on the other, it can symbolize poison. 

So just like in the last example, 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? 

Color in Action

Okay, so lets put that in the context of a film. 

‘The Zero Theorem’, as we mentioned earlier in this post, is an example of how hue might change the emotional tone of a film. There is a scene in which Leth escapes into a computer generated private island with the love interest who has been paid by Management (the villain of the film) to spend time with him. Were it a true escape from the harsh world in which Leth exists into a natural landscape the greens would be more appropriately vibrant, lush, and fertile. However because the is escape Qohen finds an artificial paradise of dubious origin, there is a sickly greenish cast to the light on the island. 

Island scene from The Zero Theorem.

Island scene from The Zero Theorem.

Surprisingly enough, a lot of the Bellantoni’s table of contents interpretations above remain constant cross-culturally. Though there are, of course, some important deviations. 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. 

But that’s beauty of color. 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, lighting and light modifiers, as well as the use of color grading in post. So it’s important to know from the get go what sort of influence you want to make on the viewer. 

There is no replacement for a great art director, wardrobe artist, and lighting team—but for indie filmmakers, those aren’t always available.

One of the biggest ways you can push story is with your color grading.

Getting Started

So, 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? 

Turns out it totally matters. Adjusting some variables ends up affecting other factors as well—they compound one another.

For example, contrast and saturation go hand in hand.

Contrast is the relative difference between light and dark areas of an image. Higher contrast makes the shadows darker and the highlights brighter.

When 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. 

Take this clip below, from Story & Heart filmmakers Something Dwightly.

We start with a relatively flat image, and as we add contrast, you'll notice the saturation starts to increase.

The contrast in the image above was applied with a simple S-curve in Colorista II..

The contrast in the image above was applied with a simple S-curve in Colorista II..

In the clip above, we added contrast in Colorista II by adjusting our master curves to form a small "S". This color adjustment brought our down our blacks down and our whites up.

Once you’ve hit the contrast you aimed for, verify that you’re happy with the amount of saturation. If you’re finding that it’s just a little too much, go ahead and make your tweaks using the saturation slider.

So let’s say we are going for the pure sepia like in the opening of ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.’ 

In this case, because we're going to remove saturation entirely, we're not worried about contrast affecting color. First, we want to bring our saturation all the way down to zero. Then, add in some yellow and red to provide the warmth of the sepia look. In the clip below, we’ve added yellow and red into the shadows, midtones, and highlights, and maintained a pretty harsh contrast. It has a dramatic look yet feels nostalgic at the same time. 

A couple of small tweaks to our original clip and you have something that tells a completely different story. Powerful, right?

Now, just as there are entire books dedicated to color theory in film, there are entire books dedicated to the process of color grading. In a future blog post we will share our favorite grading resources, while also breaking down our process of maximizing story with color work.

Color as a Visual Language

What’s amazing about color is that the options are infinite without the complexity of 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 you to tailor them to the story you are telling. 

A helpful tip is to think about color as you would a language—each shade or word has the capacity for communication both in and of itself and with those surrounding it. 

The language of filmmaking is no different from any other language, except that your “words” manifest themselves as your technical choices, such as color, lighting, focal length, camera movement, and all the rest. 

Every word has meaning. Our choices convey something unique.

Knowing the connotation behind each of your decisions gives you the power to communicate with maximum impact. 


Color is just one collection in your vocabulary, but it is one that can profoundly influence how your message is received.