This article was published on August 8, 2014

Movie magic: 4 ways your color palette can transform your work

Movie magic: 4 ways your color palette can transform your work
Roxy Radulescu
Story by

Roxy Radulescu

From her home base in Los Angeles, Roxy has worked on a variety of projects, from traditional graphic design (logos, brochures, banners, boo From her home base in Los Angeles, Roxy has worked on a variety of projects, from traditional graphic design (logos, brochures, banners, books, websites, branding) to more craft-oriented projects (sewing costumes, puppet-making, drawing, and illustration) and her newest endeavor, Movies In Color. Find her at

From her home base in Los Angeles, Roxy Radulescu has worked on a variety of projects, from traditional graphic design to more craft-oriented projects and her newest endeavor, Movies In Color. This post was originally published on the Shutterstock blog and has been reprinted with permission.

As a graphic designer, my relationship to color is best described as complicated. I’ve spent countless minutes staring at a Pantone book, or on my computer clicking around the color wheel in Photoshop, searching for that perfect shade of blue/green/orange/red that would really make the design “pop,” as clients seem to often demand.

In my effort to learn and transform my relationship with color from a sometime struggle into a collaborative partnership, I decided to start a project involving nothing but color. It all suddenly came to me one evening, as many serendipitous ideas do.

On this particular evening, I was watching Skyfall. The James Bond film’s cinematography and use of color really caught my eye, and suddenly, everything clicked. I wanted to find out what colors make up certain parts of the movie, and quickly realized that, in today’s share-crazy internet culture, this endeavor would be fairly easy.


Skyfall, 2012
Dir: Sam Mendes
Cinematography: Roger Deakins

I was able to quickly find stills from Skyfall and extract colors from them with the combination of a color generator and manually extracting colors in Photoshop. I find that combination works best, as most color generators tend to miss colors that can make a palette interesting, and it lets me be creative in the final palette process and decision-making. I decided I could take this process a step further and try it with several films, and Movies In Color was born.

Eventually, I used the blog to keep a record of color palettes that I could use in projects, or that I could reference for a few interesting color combinations. I was very excited to find other artists also found them useful for their projects. So far, it has not only been an aesthetic pursuit but also an educational one.

Overall, it is a study of color in films, but mainly, it has other uses and applications. One of the goals is to give artists and designers color palettes they can use in paintings, films, videos, graphic design and other pursuits.

I’d like to get more specific about the use of color in film, solely based on my personal research and the Movies In Color blog. Throughout the lifespan of Movies In Color, I’ve had the chance to post several classic films by renowned filmmakers, and had fun extracting my own color palettes from the stills I find. I try to choose stills that are particularly interesting compositionally, and those that have colors that catch my eye.

While my intent was purely to “practice” the use of color and see it in action in the medium of film, I soon discovered I made up my own mind about what each still represented and why certain colors were used. In some cases, the color palettes are completely intentional, but often the intention varies movie by movie. I’d like to think that certain scenes are planned with color in mind to affect mood and visually entice and influence people’s emotions. It is also interesting that the cinematographer can influence the color palette/color of the scene by overseeing framing and lighting.

I’ve tucked away in my brain four main reasons for deliberate use of color that I’ve come across while making palettes for Movies In Color.


Sunshine, 2007
Dir: Danny Boyle
Cinematography: Alwin Kuchler

1. Contrast

The advent of digital color grading has influenced the look of films since 2000’s O Brother, Where Art Thou. An overall positive of color grading is that it allows a film to stay consistent from scene to scene without disruptive changes in color. However, a recently popular development has been the use of blue and orange, or teal and orange, to create a good color contrast throughout films.

Since people’s skin tones most often contain a warm tone, orange becomes the most closely related color to a skin tone. The opposite color to orange on the color wheel is blue or teal. Opposite colors (or complimentary opposites, as they are known in color theory) are used to create the most contrast.

Sometimes this practice remains relatively subtle, like in the still below from Sunshine. Other times, it becomes obnoxious and makes actors look like they’ve spent too much time in a tanning bed.

The orange/teal phenomenon is most often used in big Hollywood productions or blockbusters, and is often used to make people stand out among backgrounds, but can also have specific meaning. Star Trek, a widely orange/teal film, is an example. The color split can be attributed to warm/cold, danger/safety, or just a stylistic choice that looks good on the screen.

Star Trek

Star Trek Into Darkness, 2012
Dir: J.J. Abrams
Cinematography: Daniel Mindel

There are other directors who have used contrast to create rich and interesting color palettes. Jean-Pierre Jeunet uses complementary opposites throughout the majority of his films, and in turn creates vibrant and quirky palettes that give his films an extra sense of stylized surrealism. Red and green are widely used in Amélie and Delicatessento emphasize surreal scenes — like when Amélie’s Pig lamp comes to life and talks to her.


Amélie, 2001
Dir: Jean-Pierre Jeunet
Cinematography: Bruno Delbonnel


Delicatessen, 1991
Dir: Jean-Pierre Jeunet
Cinematography: Darius Khondji

Contrast is often used deliberately, and while colors can be manipulated with digital color grading, I imagine there is still a lot of planning involved in the creation of a film’s main color palette. Any number of things can influence the choice of a specific color palette, from a strong desire for consistency throughout the film (with or without a specific meaning attached) to its use in certain parts of the film to highlight scenes, characters, or objects, as seen below in a still from Hellboy.


Hellboy, 2004
Dir: Guillermo Del Toro
Cinematography: Guillermo Navarro

2. Era

Oftentimes, a color palette can convey a specific time period very easily and to great effect. In my experience, movies set in the 60s and 70s tend to have more orange, yellow and brown tones, and warmer and richer colors overall, as in The Virgin Suicides, and Autumn Sonata.

virgin suicides

The Virgin Suicides, 1999
Dir: Sofia Coppola
Cinematography: Edward Lachman

Autumn Sonata

Autumn Sonata, 1978
Dir: Ingmar Bergman
Cinematography: Sven Nykvist

A color palette can also draw upon other works of art for inspiration. In the case of Milos Forman’s Goya’s Ghosts, the cinematographer, Javier Aguirresarobe, specifically took into account the tonalities achieved by classic painters. His palette, heavily influenced by the artist Ribera, focuses on light and expression, with special emphasis on warm light, a warm tone, and dark densities.


Goya’s Ghosts, 2006
Dir: Milos Forman
Cinematography: Javier Aguirresarobe

3. Mood

Color is also often used to denote a mood or make the viewer feel a specific way. The color palette of Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory emphasizes the film’s underlying creepy vibe, in a more subtle way. Burton’s already stylized filmmaking prepares the viewer for bright colors. However, there is something very unsettling about the brightness surrounding the otherwise pale and subdued characters.


Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, 2005
Dir: Tim Burton
Cinematography: Philippe Rousselot

David Fincher retains a similar look in several of his movies with the help of Jeff Cronenweth, his cinematographer. In Fight Club and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, several scenes are dark, but contain many of the same green and yellow tones. Yellow, an otherwise cheery color, looks drab, sick, and denotes an unsettling space.

Fight club

Fight Club, 1999
Dir: David Fincher
Cinematography: Jeff Cronenweth

Dragon tattoo

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, 2011
Dir: David Fincher
Cinematography: Jeff Cronenweth

4. Meaning

Often used to emphasize a character’s emotion or decision, color is closely tied to meaning. In Mean Streets, for example, the strip club/criminal hangout that the characters frequent is always shown washed in a shade of red — the color of lust, blood, and guilt. The club is often the source for main character Charlie’s most sinful activities.

As a devout Christian, he gets drunk, gets into fights, witnesses drug use, and expresses sexual desire towards women. Red also symbolizes sin, and the passion of Charlie’s criminal lifestyle is represented by the red shade the scenes are bathed in. By comparison, the outside world seems more cold and dark.

mean streets

Mean Streets, 1973
Dir: Martin Scorsese
Cinematography: Kent Wakeford

In The Mood for Love is another example. Shades of red and pink are used similarly to denote sin and love in the context of a socially conservative Hong Kong. Chow and Su are both often lonely and left to their own devices by their cheating spouses. At the time, friendships between men and women bore scrutiny, and the two begin to recognize that fact, especially when they develop feelings for each other.

mood for love

In The Mood for Love, 2000
Dir: Wong Kar-Wai
Cinematography: Christopher Doyle, Pung-Leung Kwan, Ping Bin Lee

The use of color in any medium — photography, film, graphic design, or art — cannot be free of meaning, whether intended or attributed by others. I’ve learned when working on a project that color can be a very important consideration, especially when I’ve been given free reign.

While Movies In Color will continue to inform my color decisions and ease the burden of finding new and exciting color combinations, it has also made me more aware of color in my surroundings and, more specifically, how color is used in graphic design and in film. I have learned that it takes a discerning eye to observe and pick out what seems relevant color-wise for the task at hand. Hopefully these insights can help you do the same.

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