How Color Correction is Used in Movies

By Phill Powell

Today’s blockbusters use visual effects to fool the audience. Another lesser-known trick in the film editor’s toolbox is color correction. Color is very important in film and filmmakers manipulate it to change the mood or establish a certain look or style.

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Color correction was used in The Matrix to give the world a moody feel. Only the bottom half of this image is color- corrected. (Image: Warner Bros. Studios)

Color correction involves increasing or decreasing a color’s saturation and hue, so we see more or less of a particular color. Take the color green. If you shot an exterior of a home in the fall and the lawn was brown (but as a filmmaker, you want to suggest a well-to-do family lives there), a colorist would increase the amount of green in the lawn.

Likewise, if you wanted to psychologically suggest that the household was down on its luck, the colorist might strip the lawn of some of its green, making it look less healthy and vibrant.

There’s a whole science dedicated to the psychology of color and what certain colors “say” to us.

“We’re biologically wired to care about color, because it’s a useful cue for telling us about people’s social condition and our environment,” says Bevil Conway, a neuroscientist at Wellesley College.

Color changes can also cue the audience that they’re suddenly watching some altered temporary state within the film, like a flashback.

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For some scenes in Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel the color was muted to make the 2014 film look years older. (Image: 20th Century Fox)

What Different Colors Mean
On movie productions, it’s the job of the colorist to adjust the saturation and hue to help the filmmaker tell their story. And although the activities performed by the colorist fall under the general heading “color correction,” the colorist is usually not correcting color levels, but is instead manipulating certain colors for particular purposes.

Here’s how most people psychologically interpret colors in movies:

  • Green: Green affects us on a primal level, because we identify it with so much of the natural world. So, if we see a rich, strong green in a movie, the psychological mood conveyed is positive and suggests health and abundance.
  • Fluorescent Green: On the other hand, if you want to suggest nausea, try a day-glo green, which looks completely unhealthy and weird wherever it appears. (Movies have taught us that any outdoor pond filled with bubbling, bright green liquid probably contains some form of toxic waste.)
  • Red: Red is used to suggest strong feelings, and it’s the go-to color for conveying love or anger. (Think about someone blowing their stack; people actually grow red in the face with anger.)
  • Blue: While blue is also a color heavily identified with nature (skies, oceans), it’s often not the feel-good color that green usually is. While blue can psychologically communicate tranquility, sometimes blue suggests negative states, such as emotional distance, or a somber mood.
  • Yellow: Yellow is known as one of the “warmer” colors, and as humans we naturally gravitate toward it. It’s as basic as being attracted to sunlight. Yellow is usually warm and friendly, such as the character of Joy from Inside Out, who radiates a constant glow of good cheer. (So, to make an audience identify with a character, increase the yellow saturation when that character appears on screen.)
  • Purple/Magenta: The wild card in the deck, purple (and magenta) is harder to classify, because it can mean different things, like royalty, love, fear and valor. Whatever it means, the colorist and director understand that these are two colors that naturally stand out wherever they appear.


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The emotion characters from Inside Out are all properly aligned with their correct psychological colors: Anger (red), Disgust (green), Joy (yellow), Fear (purple) and Sadness (blue).

Using Color in Blockbuster Films
While adjusting the amounts of a certain color is one form of color manipulation, there are certain colorists who take color into other dimensions of meaning. Wes Anderson is known to use color correction to set moods in his films like The Grand Budapest Hotel, where color correction was used extensively.

For the “Transformers” films, editors used a mix of turquoise and orange to create more dynamic shadows on the autobots. The strange mix of hues makes the audience feel that they’re watching something from another world – where the normal rules of vision have gone out the window, along with our sense of disbelief.

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Colorists on the “Transformers” movies change the color of robot shadows from black and gray to turquoise and orange to help the autobots feel even more alien.

Green Is the Color of Money
Becoming a colorist is just one of many rewarding careers in filmmaking, and there are so many more that you can explore at a Digital Media Academy tech camp this summer. DMA film camps approach the subject of filmmaking from different vantage points, led by industry professionals and teaching experts.

In DMA Studio film production camp, students “wear different hats” of production, getting a chance to experience the range of what filmmaking offers both as a hobby and a potential career.