How a Film’s Color Palette Psychologically Affects the Viewer

The B Take
Aug 7, 2020 · 6 min read

We have all seen films that are visually beautiful, whether it’s the cinematography, framing, or set design. One aspect of the film that viewers rarely notice is the color palette, yet the color choices in a film have a very large impact on the emotions of the viewer. So yes, if you have ever watched a movie, you have most likely been psychologically manipulated by color! Here are a few examples that illustrate the power of a film’s color palette.

As humans, we have an emotional reaction to colors whether we are aware of it or not. Of course, each person has different reactions to certain colors depending on their cultural background or personal experiences, but there are general reactions that humans tend to have to specific colors.

For instance, if you think of warm toned reds, yellows, and oranges, you might associate them with the feelings of warmth, comfort, and happiness. Alternatively, cooler tones like blues, purples, and greens, are usually associated with coldness, isolation, and sadness. Therefore, when viewers watch a film, even if they are not actively thinking about the colors they are seeing, their brain naturally makes those associations. Filmmakers intentionally utilize colors, and the associations our minds make with them, in order to direct the viewers’ thoughts and emotions.

13 Reasons Why
13 Reasons Why

For example, in the first season of Netflix’s, 13 Reasons Why, all of the present-day scenes have very cool toned blues and grays. Alternatively, in the flashback scenes, the colors are very warm and orange. Therefore, in the flashback scenes when Hannah Baker is still alive, the world feels very warm and happy. In the present-day scenes when she is no longer present, the world feels very cold and empty. This is the emotional effect the filmmakers wanted to have on the viewers when they watched the show.

La La Land (2016)

Analogous color palettes use colors that are next to each other on the color wheel. This tends to result in a visually cohesive “look” that is pleasing to the viewer’s eye. Therefore, analogous color palettes can be utilized when filmmakers want the viewers to feel as if they are in a harmonious and dream-like world. For example, in the film La La Land, there are various scenes where the color palette consists of pinks and purples.

These colors are usually associated with fantasies and dreams which perfectly reflects the plot of the film. Since the analogous colors are harmonious and dream-like, the viewer is transported into the subjective world of the characters who are fantasizing about their hopes and dreams, rather than being in the objective reality.

Spider-Man (2002)

Complementary colors are on opposite sides of the color wheel and therefore create contrast and tension on the screen. These color palettes are often used when the filmmakers want to visually represent the tension between two characters. The viewers will not only understand the tension between the characters as a result of the dialog and story, but will also “feel” the tension because of the contrasting colors.

For example, Spider-Man’s uniform is red, but his enemy, Green Goblin, is green. Red and green are on opposite sides of the color wheel and therefore create dynamic contrast on screen, while also representing the tension between the two characters.

Up (2009)
Up (2009)

Transitional color palettes utilize a shift in colors to indicate a shift in the film. For example, in the film Up, the change in color palette visually represents the change in the story’s tone. In the montage sequence at the beginning of the film, bright and saturated colors are used during the happy times when Carl’s wife is alive. Then, towards the end of the montage, the palette transitions to more dark and dull colors when Carl’s wife gets sick and lives her last days. Most of the people who watched Up had an emotional reaction to this scene which indicates the impact that color really does have on the emotions of the viewer.

Since our minds tend to associate colors with different ideas or feelings, filmmakers can intentionally choose a specific color to represent a theme or character in the film.

It (2017)

For example, red is often associated with feelings of danger, anger, fear, or warning. In the film, It, the red balloons warn the viewers of danger that will be coming.

Schindler’s List (1993)

In Schindler’s List, the whole film is in black and white except for the little girl in the red dress. The red dress not only represented death, but since it was the only color in the entire film, it hyper focused the viewer’s attention on the girl which created a much larger impact on the audience when they found out the girl had died.

The Great Gatsby (2013)

The color green is often associated with money and wealth. In The Great Gatsby (2013), Jay Gatsby is constantly looking out at a green light. The color green is used to represent the wealth that Gatsby uses to try and win Daisy back. Therefore, when Gatsby reaches out towards the green light, he is reaching towards the idea that he will win back the love of his life.

In the film 500 Days of Summer, the color blue represents the main character Summer because of her blue eyes. Therefore, when Summer is in a scene, she is either wearing blue or there are copious amounts of blue around her. There is a huge flash mob scene on the day after Tom’s date with Summer. In this scene, Tom is so in love with Summer that he is seeing “her” everywhere. To visually represent this, every person besides Tom is wearing the color blue.

So, next time you watch a film or television show, will you look at it the same way as before? Will you see it indifferently, or will you start to think about what psychological effect the specific color choices are having on your mind?

Originally published at on August 7, 2020 by Giana Cullen.

The B Take

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