Colour Theory in Films

Written by: Chloe Tan(22-I6), Eris Kek (22-I6), Emma Lee (21-O1) , Jolina Prisha Nair (21-E5), 

Designed by: Alexia Teo (22-U1)

From Wes Anderson’s eccentric monochromatic films to Denis Villeneuve’s spellbinding sci-fi films, colour has played a pivotal role in film. Technicolour first took the world by storm in the 1930s with the popularity of “The Wizard of Oz”. Back then, Technicolour gained traction for its bright, bold, saturated colours. Since then, however, the use of colour in film has shifted significantly. Gone are the days of colour to simply enhance visual effects. Film colour theory now introduces a wider range of uses for colour. Beyond colour grading in post-production, colour has taken on a character of its own in films. Colour is taken into account even in pre-production preparations when storyboards are drawn up. In most scenarios, colour plays a vital role in setting the scene by creating an ambience that evokes the desired emotion. Other times, colour can be used as an oxymoron, as seen in Wes Anderson’s films where the emotions of a scene can be at odds with its colour palette. Regardless of its purpose, colour has become a key cornerstone in shaping the foundations of film. 

Starting off with the fundamentals, we have many types of colour palettes, ranging from monochromatic to triadic. Listed below are the few main colour palettes that are commonly observed in many beloved films we hold dear today. 


The monochromatic colour palette is as its name suggests, created using different tones of that one colour. In films, using a monochromatic colour palette evokes a sense of simplicity and harmony. 


Made up of opposite colours on the colour wheel, the complementary colour palette represents conflict. Such combinations include purple and yellow, blue and orange or red and green. Film-makers often use the stark contrast between the colours to illustrate a duelling opposition between characters. However, complementary colours can also be used to exemplify warmth and comfort. 


Comprising a group of three colours next to each other on the colour wheel, analogous colour palettes usually consist of a primary colour, a supporting colour and a  third colour which would either be a mix between the two or an accent colour. With analogous colours being commonly found in nature, using an analogous colour palette in a film replicates the natural world.


Contrasting the analogous colour palette is the triadic colour palette, which uses three equally spaced out colours on the colour wheel. With one colour being the dominant one, and the remaining two serving as complementary colours.  The colours stand out from one another and make for a vibrant, lively colour palette. Applying this in films, triadic colour palettes can be used to magnify the polarities of two characters. 

Symbolism of Colours

Apart from the colour palettes as mentioned above, the symbolism of colours play a vital role in solidifying the overall atmosphere and mood of a film. Thus, there are many such ways in which the use of the psychology of colour has been incorporated into films so as to influence the audience’s emotions, and subsequently offer maximum immersion into said films. 

Red, for example, could symbolise passion and love in romantic films, or, if in thrillers,  portray the feeling of danger and power. Depending on the context of the film and its genre, colour can take on many roles in giving different and distinct meanings. 

Blue, on the other hand, symbolises feelings of coldness and isolation. In more melancholic scenes, it gives off the effect of passivity and calmness. 

Examples of Films

Some examples of highly acclaimed films that have effectively used the psychology and theory of colour palettes, symbolism, and other similar methods include works such as Studio Ghibli’s Ponyo, Disney’s Lion King and many of Wes Anderson’s films. 


In Ponyo, its universe is filled with a range of soft, childlike colours. From Ponyo’s distinctive bright pink hair and matching pink dress to the blues and greens of the seaside, the film brims with colour and life. Such colour palettes are appropriate in appealing to the eyes of young viewers, or simply anyone who wishes to watch a feel-good movie. 


In the film The Lion King (released in 1994), Mufasa is often shadowed by a backdrop of the blue sky of Pride Rock. The complementary colours blue and orange portray Mufasa as a loyal, wise and warm leader. On the other hand, Scar, who is depicted as a villain in the film, is illustrated using darker colours, predominantly, his black mane. 


Lastly, in Wes Anderson’s films, the assortment of colours has been far from limited. From glaring reds to soft hues of yellows, each colour had many parts to play in creating complex worlds of rich characters and almost-whimsical stories. The clever use of distinctive colour palettes has significantly helped to bring Wes Anderson’s imagination to life, bringing his works to fame. 

With how much weight the use of colours brings to the meaning of filmmaking, it is almost impossible to imagine how the world of films used to exist in shades of black and white. From colour palettes to the range of different symbolisms behind each hue, it is without a doubt that the world of colour-building in the art of film-making will long persist as one that is ever-evolving.