6 Examples of Color Theory in film. Red is the color of power, lust and love

Colour Theory in Cinema color theory in film

I would love to make a film and focus on every shot with obsessive detail. Indie filmmakers have so much to focus on (often the director taking on multiple roles) that there is no time to put the effort into every shot.

The basics of color theory in film for cinematography was something I first read about many years ago in this fantastic book If It’s Purple, Someone’s Gonna Die: The Power of Color in Visual Storytelling which looks at many scenes within films to show how color has been used to enhance every shot.

I will be using this book as reference for the examples used below. Color Theory technique for cinematography, color can be used as a technique to bring more layers into a story. Different shades of color can provoke different responses and emotions within humans.

Although noted in the book filmmakers should avoid using color theory in film purely as an abstract notion. Some colors can be planned to be placed into films prior to weeks of pre-production, other time colors are chosen to be introduced into a film on the day by gut feeling. I have referenced 6 main studio films as examples of their use of color below.

1. Red American Beauty 


Red is like visual caffeine, it can give power, create desire- lust and love. The colours of red, white and blue are used throughout American Beauty. The family is portrayed as the traditional happy American suburban family, complete with white picket fence. Then there are the dark red petals that surround Angela in Lester’s hyper-delusional lust filled fantasies. American Beauty has a color pallet of red, white and blue throughout. I have created a Pinterest board of the use of red in cinema here.

2. Yellow Dick Tracy


Yellow is the colour of caution, it brings power, energy and anxiety. Dick Tracy wears a bright yellow coat and hat, the screen becomes energised whenever Tracy enters. The color is brash, daring, it is the color of obsession (according to scientists the colour a person sees first and forgets the least ) , there is a reason poisonous reptiles have yellow skin. Tracy is the obsessive detective caught up in his case . Yellow being a perfectly symbolic color for Taxi Driver’s obsessive Travis Bickle.

3. Blue Shawshank redemption

Blue can be a tranquil pond or a soft blanket of sadness. Throughout Shawshank the film is surrounded by the color of blue. A smog of grey blue surrounds the film. Shawshank is a film of sadness, and is this emotion that cinematographer Roger Deakins wanted the audience to feel throughout the film. That we are amongst the prisons. When Andy escapes the prison he finds his friend Red on an island, with vibrant green land – the first time vivid colours have been used throughout the film.  I have created a Pinterest board of the use of blue in cinema here.

4. Orange The Godfather

Orange is the welcoming color, warm sunsets and Halloween pumpkins.  In the opening scene of The Godfather the Don’s office is lit with an amber and orange light. The film is lit romantically with pastel orange shades. Throughout the film the orange shades turn more red as more is revealed within the crime underworld. Not to mention the use of physical orange props used throughout the Godfather movies.

5. Green Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon

Green can signal health, danger or decay. It is the colour of fresh vegetables and spoiled meat. In Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon Jen and her master Li Mu Bai are about to have a fight in a green vibrant bamboo forest. The fight is non-violent Jen’s master is afraid that Jen is turning evil, he chases her through the forest, she disappears diving into a green lake.

The oppositional nature of green plays a significant part in the story. The sword’s name is Green Destiny, and the villain’s name is Jade Fox. Li Mu Bai’s concern that Jen can become a poison dragon is his primary motivation in wanting to teach her

6. Purple Chicago

Purple the colour of mystery, the paranormal and death. In Chicago purple is used to show both death and delusion. Roxy stands on stage she looks out into the crowd purple light covers her and the piano player. Roxy is imagining that she is a famous singer, the story is about the glamorization of criminals. Purple is consistent throughout the deaths that take place in the film.

I enjoy using color in my films, I feel that by putting a color gel on a light a film could be made to stand out against the majority of indie films being created. The master's use color theory in film as a deliberate device in their films, every little detail is helping to tell the story.


Link to a great book on color theory in cinema,  Article What’s with all the Oranges in the Godfather? , Lots of good reads  on cinematography and color theory in film Stephen Murphy DOP Documents, You can find me via Twitter here - @amyclarkefilms