TRENDING NEWS:  Thursday, Jan 29th, 2015

Why Every Movie Looks Sort of Orange and Blue

Still from Jupiter Rising an upcoming scifi thriller


Maybe you haven’t noticed, but in the past 20-or-so years there’s been a real catchy trend in major Hollywood movies to constrain the palette to orange and blue. The color scheme, also known as “orange and teal” or “amber and teal” is the scourge of film critics – one of whom calls this era of cinema a “dark age.”

You’re probably skeptical, so check out the following. Warning that once you know what to look for, it will be very difficult for you not to notice see this color scheme every time you look at a screen, at least for a little while:

Still from The Imitation Game (2014) a historical biopic about Alan Turing
Still from Into the Woods (2014) a fantasy musical
Still from The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
This still from the Mad Max (2015) trailer looks a little yellower than the preceding three.

And then, of course, there’s every movie poster ever. Because they need to be flashy, they’re a lot brighter and more saturated. But they’re still on the whole very orange and blue:

It isn’t every scene, in every movie. Some films, and some filmmakers, tend towards novel color schemes. But the rest tend towards orange and blue. The trend was already in full force a few years ago, when a blogger sampled the colors in a bunch of film trailers. This is what he came up with:

What the hell is going on? Well, back in the day, the colors projected on the silver screen depended first on how you shot and developed the actual, physical film, and then whether or not you had somebody go through and painstakingly, expensively apply more colors to every frame.

Now, most movies are shot digitally and it’s a lot easier to go back and rebalance things to achieve whatever affect you want. But someone still needs to actually do it. And if it doesn’t look good, that person gets in trouble.

O’ Brother Where Art Thou(2000) gets referenced a lot as an early movie to heavily digitally color grade. The Coens reportedly wanted it to look retrograde at the expense of realism, which is why it was graded so heavily: the entire movie is a nice warm sepia. The cinematographer on the film has said, “They wanted it to look like an old hand-tinted picture, with the intensity of colors dictated by the scene and natural skin tones that were all shades of the rainbow.”

But how did we get from “all the shades of the rainbow” to “orange”?

The big change that digitization made was it made it much easier to apply a single color scheme to a bunch of different scenes at once. The more of a movie you can make look good with a single scheme, the less work you have to do. Also, as filmmakers are bringing many different film formats together in a single movie, applying a uniform color scheme helps tie them together.

One way to figure out what will look good is to figure out what the common denominator is in the majority of your scenes. And it turns out that actors are in most scenes. And actors are usually human. And humans are orange, at least sort of!

Most skin tones fall somewhere between pale peach and dark, dark brown, leaving them squarely in the orange segment of any color wheel. Blue and cyan are squarely on the opposite side of the wheel.

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Headlines: Thursday, Jan 29 2015