Colour plays a major part in our sensory experience and visual perception of the world. Colour psychology has the capacity to drive our emotions, influence our mood, and even accelerate our heartbeat.
This is why having a good understanding of the psychology of colour in post-production provides powerful creative control helping you achieve better results from your videos and evoke the desired associations and reactions in your viewers.
From title design to correcting badly-lit interviews to introducing carefully selected hues to enhance a sequence, a good grasp of colour psychology could really elevate your production to the next level.
This post covers some basic Colour Psychology theory, explores some well-known filmic clichés, and offers some great examples of creative use of colour.
Basic Colour Psychology
While colour can carry strong emotional clues and meanings, it is not something experienced in the same way across the board. People react to it in completely different ways depending on culture, generation, demographic and context. Studies suggest that colour and colour combinations can acquire an array of universal, cultural and individual meanings which could be constant or flexible, or come and go in trends.
The universal meanings ascribed to colours are said to affect us on a more physiological level – some research indicates vivid reds increase our heart rate, while deep blues diminish it. It has been suggested that these predispositions originate from our evolutional development and factors such as survival instinct (red means hot, danger, blood) or living conditions (blue means water, space, quiet weather).
There is a multiplicity of articles written in the field of Colour Psychology attributing different positive and negative associations to colours. While these could be of good use to graphic designers and artists, such generalisations should always be taken with a pinch of salt, or even better – with some detailed contextual analysis.
The meanings of colours and colour pallets can differ greatly in different countries and cultures, as they are adaptive and dependent on shared history, learned and lived experiences.
Take for example scarlet red. Throughout South America, Europe, and Asia its political meaning relates to the left, liberalism, socialism and communism. However, in the US the mainstream media has made red largely representative of the Republican Party, which is inherently conservative.
In most of the Western world black evokes thoughts about death, mourning, loss; however in China and some Asian countries white is the colour signifying the ending of life.
Another great example is the today ubiquitous blue-pink gender coding stretching from clothing to cars, which was in fact the other way around up until the mid-1920s as pink was considered a stronger, more vivid and aggressive colour more suitable for boys.
As it seems colour symbolism should not be taken at face value and therefore careful consideration of the cultural context and target audience should be taken before planning, producing and delivering your project.
Some Filmic Clichés
Luckily, over 60 years of colour film and video production some useful generalisations have emerged and formed systems of filmic conventions and expectations.
From indigo-blue night scenes to fiery-orange romantic beach scenes, we have become reliant on colour clues to be able to predict and decode the narrative and emotive complexities of films and stories:
- Horror films simply must be blue
- Apocalyptic thrillers must have a washed-out grey-beige tint throughout
- Augmented reality should look and feel emerald green
The downside of this over-reliance on colour, however, is that it can quickly become worn-out, uninteresting and clichéd. Here are a few examples of colouring that has become too tightly associated with certain genres:
From horror to romance, teal to orange, the cold/warm colour distinction is very useful in any visual medium. It provides two main spectrums of emotions and meaning that are generally recognised and understood throughout the world, as well as being rooted deeply in our evolutional and cultural development (unless you are particularly traditionalist Scandinavian).
A basic understanding of colour temperature could easily explain why these work in a variety of production contexts and is the first step into the intricate world of colour grading.
But there is so much more to it – it takes real artists, both in production and post, to utilise the full capacity of colour to enhance meaning, affect mood and communicate messages without drawing too much attention to itself.
Colour in Post-Production
When it comes to using colour in post-production there are a few technical aspects that probably need clarifying. The difference between colour correction and colouring (colour grading) is the most important one to start with.
Colour correction is the process in which every clip is manually tweaked to match the colour temperature and exposure of the rest. It is a slow and somewhat tedious process, but it is the absolute bare essential for any high-quality production.
Nothing shows sloppiness and amateurism as a badly or inconsistently corrected video. But despair not, as this is where the use of Scopes comes in.
Scopes are graphical representations of the image and therefore the only actual data you can trust in this process – not using them in colour correction is basically leaving it to guessing. This is problematic because our eyes are simply not as good in seeing colour as in seeing luminosity.
Our perception of colour is dependent on a variety of factors – from the colour of the room, to the ambient conditions, screen calibration, our tiredness, etc. This is why learning and using scopes would help you achieve consistency and overall much better results in creating a realistic feel to your footage.
And this is precisely where colour grading differs. Grading or colouring is a creative process in which colour and filters are introduced to the image to further enhance its properties, add to the overall mood, and elicit emotional response.
This could mean adding colour themes, re-lighting areas of the frame, emulating film stock properties, gradients, and so on.
There are no Scopes to help you here, as colour grading is a fully blown art form in itself. Colouring could be very subtle or strongly stylised, and this is where the challenge lies.
The tools are powerful, abundant and often free (such as DaVinci Resolve Lite) but it is a journey that needs to be taken with a lot of careful consideration, testing and precision in order to result in adding and not decreasing the value of your production.
Grading With a Purpose
Colour grading in commercial video might not be as heavily discussed topic as in feature film, but it serves an equally important role. Colouring with an understanding of colour psychology and a specific creative purpose in mind allows you to add targeted mood and emotional power, enhance visual and narrative dynamics, create campaign or brand coherence, and establish features of a brand’s visual identity.
Let’s take a look at some good examples.
Using a strong warm pallet of saturated yellows, reds and ochre makes BBC Music’s God Only Knows ad feel sunny and celebratory, yet somehow very personal. The dreamy colour grading transforms the footage completely and makes the conglomeration of stars in the video seem reachable and homely, but also extravagant and fairy-tale like:
In a much subtler way this ad for high-end bowties by Bradford and Young uses colour to achieve a particular mood and emotional disposition. Similar to waking up in a sunlit room it uses soft pale-yellow light, low contrast and almost no darks or shadows to create the atmosphere of that perfect morning. Notice that even though the product is aimed at the male market, a careful balance has been achieved here – the colours are pastel and the light is warm, but room is still decorated in blue. This is how art direction and post-production together have the power to create a feminine appeal in a male-orientated product ad:
Another great use of colour grading is to achieve brand or campaign coherence and consistency. In this series of short ads for Lexus NX on Channel 4, the deep indigo-blues and greens, the high contrast and dramatic palette of whites, blues and just few reds becomes synonymous with the whole campaign, and each new ad is already partly familiar to us. Not to mention that the short narratives of these ads, their sound design and taglines are very creative and memorable anyway:
A brand that has been known to utilise the same colour pallet in most of its advertising is Dior. The gold and yellow combined with an A-list star or well-known fashion model are a very recognisable feature of the brand’s identity. The associations are rather clear – glamour, luxury, timeless appeal, quality:
In a similar way Fosters’ recent campaigns are all set in clearly designated Australian settings of warm sunny-yellows and vivid blues. Not only clearly associated with Australian beach culture, but the colour scheme is also reminiscent of the drink itself (or the drinks container):
This last use of creative colour grading shows just how powerful colour psychology is. In these two ads by John Lewis and Dove Men, colour is used not only to create situation-specific moods and emotions, but to contrast different scenes to show different experiences, the passing of time, and the sheer variedness of our lives (of which the brands are an integral part).
The contrasting colour pallets of different shots strengthen the narrative structure and add visual dynamics which make the videos more watchable and increase their emotional and commercial appeal, as well as positive brand associations:
By analysing successful commercial production it quickly becomes clear why colour is such a powerful creative asset and that making use of its full capacity could literally do miracles for your videos.