Ang Lee

How To Implement An Alluring Color Design Scheme

Color is a seemingly magical tool, and a hugely important asset in the cinematographer’s toolbox for conveying a particular mood and eliciting the desired emotions in a movie’s audience.

Of course, it isn’t really magic—the science behind which colors work well together on film and the effects they create are taught at cinematography school 101, and the theory behind color design is well established at this point in the history of cinema.

That said, it’s always good to refresh that knowledge from time to time, especially since it’s an integral part of effective filmmaking. Today, we’ll be looking at:

Color Design in Film: 5 Important Things to Consider

color wheel cinematography

1. Know This Well

The color wheel above is an iconic representation of the red, yellow, blue—or subtractive—color model, and is an essential concept in pretty much any field of the visual arts and cinematography is no exception.

Learn this like the back of your hand, though there’s no harm in keeping a reference card in your field kit bag. Or pinned up in the edit room. Or superglued to the back of the assistant DP’s head. Everywhere, really.

But equally important is knowing what to do with it. Moving on to:

2. Color Temperature

Looking back to the color wheel, you’ll see that colors running clockwise 90 to 270 degrees—i.e. the right-hand side—are predominantly warmer than those on the left-hand side. The upshot of this is that scenes which feature warmer colors are more lively and energetic, while the ‘cooler’ colors give the impression of stillness, and calm and somberness when applied to film.

It’s a fairly basic principle, but the results of applying warm and cold colors effectively really do speak for themselves. Check out this scene from The Dark Knight, which features a heavy amount of graytones and cobalt blue and the effect it has on the overall mood:

Notice also in the above scene that the cold colors play very well against the fire and blood. Given that you won’t want to just use either warm and cold palettes all the time, let’s explore…

3. Creating Contrast With Opposing Colors

Any two colors that lie opposite each other on the color wheel can be used together to create a real vibrancy to a scene, particularly when it comes to pairing a warm and a cool color. A good demonstration of this can be found in Ang Lee’s Life of Pi—really, any Ang Lee movie viewed with a cinematographer’s eye will teach you volumes about effective color design:

You’ll likely have to carefully balance saturation and contrast in the editing suite when putting together two very vibrant and opposite colors, but the payoff can be more than worth the time it takes to get it right. That all said…

4. Know When to Dial It Back

Just because two or more colors work well together doesn’t mean you necessarily have to push them to the limit and oversaturate them. In fact, sometimes the best color design can be found in moderation.

If you think back on any of Tim Burton’s movies, you’ll notice they have the strange knack of giving the impression of both vivid color as well as a macabre, washed-out look… all at the same time.

It’s an exceptionally clever trick, mainly achieved by keeping most of the key characters and majority of the scenery on a grayscale but applying bright color design to secondary elements (almost the reverse of common convention.) Here’s a clip from the iconic Edward Scissorhands:

And finally…

5. Mix & Match

While all of the above can be considered conventional wisdom, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t feel free to experiment with color combinations. A lot of great cinematography has been born out of experimentation, so bend the rules and see what happens—using colder colors for a romantic scene to create a contrasting and jarring effect, for instance, or mixing two colors that don’t typically work in order to make the cinematography feel alien and unsettling.

Your experimentation won’t always work, but there’s certainly no harm in trying (and the more you discover what doesn’t work, the more you’ll intuitively get a handle on what does.)

Best Cinematography: Looking At Life of Pi

Scene from Life of Pi

Life of Pi is a beautifully shot film that exists somewhere in between the worlds of fantasy and adventure. Adapted from the Yann Mantel novel of the same name, about a young Indian teenager stuck adrift on a raft with a tiger, hyena, orangutan, and zebra, it was considered for years to be utterly unfilmable. Pi finally found its intrepid director in Ang Lee, who decided to shoot digitally and shoot 3D, and the result was a colorful, amazing visual experience that looked nothing like anything that came before it.

Life of Pi won the most Oscars in 2012, including Ang Lee for Best Director and Claudio Miranda for Best Cinematography. Chilean-born American cinematographer Miranda was the first Chilean person to win an Academy Award. In addition to Pi, Miranda has worked frequently with David Fincher, including shooting The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, the first movie nominated for the Cinematography Oscar that was shot entirely in digital.

Life of Pi contains a bevy of advanced special effects shots, with a good deal of the movie, including co-protagonist Richard Parker the Tiger, generated by computers. Claudio Miranda had the difficult task of photographing much of a film that didn’t exist in reality, yet capturing its epic essence in a way that would match the unbelievable CGI being prepared.

Miranda succeeded, marrying the film’s photography and special effects in a seamless way that let each enhance one another. At the production’s heart was a massive tank of water used to replicate the ocean-set scenes. Built inside an abandoned airport, the 1.7 million gallon behemoth was the world’s largest self-generating wave tank. Miranda himself had a hand in its construction, making sure it was built around the lighting needs of his crew. A giant door was even created to allow the actual sunset to light the tank every day at dusk, allowing the indoor ocean to be shot during the magic hour.

Life of Pi underwater shot

The money and effort spent on the tank underlines how important the ocean setting was to Life of Pi. For many shots of the film, the frame would be almost entirely water. As such, Ang Lee decided to shoot the film in 3D, a technology still unproven and not as well-respected at the time, when Avatar had yet to been released and revolutionize the medium. By adding depth to the image, Lee felt the power of the ocean and the subtleties of its movements could be more accurately captured.

Because of the prominence of both actual and digitally created water, lighting was especially important to Miranda and the cinematography crew. It was also especially difficult to the particulars of the shoot. With waves and water moving constantly, any light would reflect and refract in every direction. In a wide flat ocean, with nothing else but the occasional bioluminescent plankton, the sun was the film’s chief source of diegetic light—a huge ball of fire with nothing to obstruct it—constantly dominating the image.

Deferring to his director of photography, Ang Lee asked Miranda to choose the camera the crew would use to shoot the film. Miranda eventually decided to use the Arri Alexa for its high contrast range. Using the Alexa, the crew could create subtleties and grades of shade and light despite the sun’s overpowering presence.

A sunlit scene from Life of Pi

Miranda also used an open shutter for most of the film, allowing more light into the camera for each frame. The result is a smoother more natural look, closer to the way we see the world with our human eyes. This made it easier for the audience to watch the moving water for an extended period of time and allowed them to follow the images in the fast-cut, chaotic action setpieces. The last thing Ang Lee wanted was for his audience to get seasick while watching his film, and a wide-open shutter was a smart way to prevent that.

While many of Life of Pi’s most remarkable images were animated in a computer, they would have felt false and out of place if not for the efforts of Ang Lee, Claudio Miranda and the cinematography team to photograph everything in a seamless, logical fashion. By combining both the magic and science of the movies, the filmmakers behind Life of Pi manage to make fantasy come to life.

The whale scene in Life of Pi