Editing 101: Color Schemes

By Danny F. Santos (doddleNEWS)

Color timing or color grading has come a long, long way from the original photo-chemical process done at a photo lab, all the way up to modern day digital color correction suites. Today’s digital hardware and software solutions are incredibly powerful, and give a lot more leeway in how you process your images, but you still need a fundamental understanding of color schemes.

Despite the power of these digital suites, a colorist will still only be able to work with the colors that are already there. In a larger project, the director and cinematographer work with the production designer to carefully plan each scene’s color scheme. Smaller productions may not have an art department at all, or, in some cases, the cinematographer, director, editor, and colorist is the same person.

If you hold any or all of those positions, you should have a good understanding of the nine different color schemes from the most used to the extremely stylized.


The Color Wheel

This is an abstract tool that describes all the colors of the visible spectrum. It organizes them in a wheel that goes from cool colors to warm colors and back again and makes for the easiest way to come up with color schemes.

The color wheel is a very basic tool and the screen captures used to illustrate these concepts are from  www.moviesincolor.com which is a valuable site to learn more about how different filmmakers went about dealing with their color palettes.


Complimentary Colors

This is the one you see used most often. It pairs one color with a color from the opposite side of the color wheel with the most used complimentary colors being teal and orange.

By using complimentary colors, you create a very vivid high contrast image that generally separates the background from the subject.


Analogous Colors

To create an image from analogous colors, you simply pick three colors next to each other on the color wheel. By using three colors which are similar to each other you create a harmonious image between subject and environment.

You can use warm colors or cool colors to very easily convey physical temperature such as hot desert climates or cold arctic environments.


Split-Analogous Color

This is very similar to an analogous color scheme but instead of picking three colors that sit right next to each other, you use three colors that are one space away from each other.

This type of color scheme allows you to keep tight control over the temperature of the scene but gives you a bit more flexibility in adding a bit more contrast.



Split-Complimentary Color

Teal and orange is the most common color scheme used in film but there’s a more interesting type of complimentary color scheme called split complimentary. Like the standard complimentary color, you choose a color but instead of a straight opposite color, you use the adjacent colors on either side of the opposing color.




Triadic Color

You can take the split analogous color scheme one step farther to create a triadic color palette. Simply pick three equidistant colors such as red, green, and blue that will give a vibrant feel to the scene. One color should be the dominant color with the remaining two serving as accents.



Tetradic Color

This color scheme provides quite a lot of color. Instead of using one complimentary color scheme, for a tetradic color palette you’ll use a pair of complimentary colors. This set can sit right next to each other or as diametrically opposed as you see fit. It creates a kaleidoscope of color so it tends to not be used as often as other color schemes.




This is similar to analogous color but instead of using three colors that are adjacent to each other, you use only a single color that’s accented with tints and shades of that color. This is the most sparse color scheme you can use but you can still create a high contrast image by cutting to a complimentary monochromatic color scheme like cutting from an orange exterior shot to a teal interior.



Neutral is just another way of saying that the film is in black and white. It’s a color scheme absolutely devoid of color and shares characteristics with a monochromatic palette in that the only way to create contrast is by using tints or shades. Most films are in color but a few still get made partially or in full with a neutral color scheme as an artistic choice.



Accented Neutral

This is probably one of the most stylized and rarely used of all the color schemes. Like a neutral color palette, accented neutral uses only black and white but introduces a single color element into the frame. That color is used to highlight a subject and contrasts against the lack of color everywhere else on screen.

Accented Neutral

Online Tools

Coming up with which colors to use depends on what mood you want to portray. Green tends to be a sickly color, blue a calm but cold color while red, for instance, usually signifies rage and heat. If you want to experiment with color ideas there’s a large number of websites devoted to creating them including Paletton, Adobe Color Wheel, and Pictaculous. These are usually used by graphic designers but will also help a filmmaker decide what they’re looking for.

Hat tip: Cinema5D

About Danny Santos

Freelance writer, filmmaker, actor, musician, and visual artist. Writing online professionally for 4-plus years and has produced and performed in over a dozen films and webseries. He has also been everything from a social media consultant to managing a JUNO award winning musician.