Using colour and light to tell your stories.

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Ok that title may be a little misleading as it suggests that I may actually be able to teach you the best practices of colour and light.

So first off I want to say that I am in no way an expert on colour theory or a professional in colour grading and lighting.  So what I’m about to say is based simply on what I’m learning as I delve into the art of lighting and colour correction.

Colour theory is an art in itself.  Many books have been written on it and as with most things in life there are trends in what looks good and what doesn’t.

I’ve recently just finished a music video, which is one of the reasons why I haven’t been blogging these last few days and also STILL haven’t finished The Great Spieron. Don’t even mention episode 3!!

The great thing  about music videos is they allow you to experiment. I feel you get a lot more freedom to play with colours and try new things out. So seeing as the art of colour correction is pretty new to me I thought I’d try out some ideas I had.

So here are some tips on colour correction and a bit on lighting. Like I said these aren’t written by a pro they’re simply things I’ve either read up on or played about with.

Tip 1:   When shooting your footage always use a waveform monitor. If you haven’t got one of those then use Zebras. If you haven’t got one of those then just eyeball the bright areas of your footage and make sure they don’t look like they’re clipping. It’s so important to get your footage right from the off.  You want to get maximum dynamic range in your pictures so that you’ve got more information to play with later in post. If you don’t do this then it doesn’t matter how good your post production software is, it’s not going to be able to magically add back details that you never captured in the first place. It’s like building a house without laying down foundation.  It’s just going to fall down straight away…ok that was a bit of a crap analogy but you get my point.

By the way if you don’t know about dynamic range then have read about it here

You might be after a dark and moody shot and think that it’s best to just whack the aperture down so it looks right on the monitor.  If you do this and then realise it’s too dark in post, you can’t add detail back in. But if you capture all the detail, even if it doesn’t look right in the monitor, as in it’s too bright for the mood you want. You can then knock the levels down in post to get the look you want.

Tip 2:  Set you black and white points first of all in post.  To do this open a waveform monitor in your post production software and make sure that you’re still using the maximum range.  You want the brightest spots to hit the 1 mark on the waveform monitor and the darkest to hit zero.

Tip 3:  Create a colour board/mood board.  Think about your story and what you’re trying to tell. Is it a light hearted comedy or a dark thriller.  What do you want to say in each scene.  If you take any film  and snapshot each scene you’ll notice different colours that change throughout the duration of the whole film.  Take a look at Pixar’s UP.


Now if you haven’t seen Up then I’ll warn you now there’s a mini spoiler ahead.

Look at the area I’ve crudely highlighted in red.  This is the part where Carl’s wife dies.  If you look carefully you can see the first few slides are nice and colourful. There’s then an orange sun set  which is his last days with her. We associate orange with sunset and warmth so this is why they chose such a scene.  The following scenes are a lot greyer with hints of blue. We usually associate grey and blue with sad times or open spaces.    Here’s a another tip, if you want to make your room look bigger paint it blue.

So as you can see, a lot of time and thought has gone into this film before they even shot a single frame. All this to make sure the audience got the mood they were after just through the use of colour.

Now the above example was made before the film was created and ideally that’s what you want to do too. Not only will this help in Post production but also help with set design and the art department.  But there’s no reason why you can’t do one for post and grade your film to fit.

Here’s some screen shots from my music video.


The video is all about a guy suffering from insomnia.  Now I don’t suffer from this but I’m guessing it must be very frustrating and you probably constantly have things playing on your mind.   So in this shot although his eyes are closed I wanted the audience to feel a little uneasy.  It’s set at night so the most obvious thing to do would of been to tint a slight blueish tone.  But I wanted it to feel a little off, a bit like he must feel. So I added a slight green, something that threads its way through the whole song.  Green is always good to use to make people feel a little uneasy or sick.  Some great examples in films are Seven and the Matrix.


This is one of his dreams.  Most of his dream sequence I’ve given a more harsh look too but because this was meant to be a past relationship I wanted to give it a warm nostalgic look. It was already warmly lit simply because of the sunlight. So I just exaggerated this into the shadows and added a flare and slight bloom across her face. This makes her feel a little more distant as if she’s a memory. Of course this could just be my interpretation of what I think memories feel like. I guess it’s a psychological effect from seeing old photos that naturally had flares from the cheap lenses.


In this above shot I wanted him to feel isolated in a place he didn’t know.   We’d shot in some woodland which although isolated didn’t have the same feel, as say being isolated in a massive quarry.  So I wanted to just push it as far as I could,  I desaturated the woodland to give it a slightly unnatural feel  and over exposed the sky to make it more bleak.  By keeping him saturated it meant that he really stands out and shows more vulnerability.

To be honest I feel a little like those art critics that spout a lot of crap to try and justify why a white canvas with some splashed paint on it is a work of art.  But I do feel that if you have a purpose of some kind to what you’re trying to achieve then this will read with your audience even if it is in the subconscious.

This sort of leads me onto the next tip.

Tip 4: Don’t get too bogged down in the technical.  This is similar to people that get so wrapped up in what camera to use that they end up never making any films.  You can read so many books on this and then worry if you’re doing it right. Just DO IT. If it looks right and feels right then it’s right!!  It’s good to know the rules so you can break them but at the same time it’s good to just play with stuff, you’ll learn so much quicker. And then when you do read books from the masters you’ll have things to reference from. You’ll find yourself going “Oh yeah, that’s why that shot I did just didn’t work no matter what I tried” Things will sink in so much quicker then if you read the book from start to finish with no reference to what they’re talking about.

Tip 5. Now after saying that here’s a little rule…well guide.  The colour wheel is really useful.


If there’s one word to remember in all forms of art it’s CONTRAST.  Seriously if you want you images/music/animation/stories to stand out, you need CONTRAST.  You need things to conflict, If you don’t have CONTRAST you have something that more than likely is flat and BORING.

Hey check out the above paragraph.  Looks a little more interesting the the usual ones, you know why? Because it’s got contrast! Capital wording peppered between non capped.

It’s the same with colour.  Ever wondered why sometimes turning an average  colour photo into black and white suddenly makes it look better.  Guess what, it’s because of the CONTRAST!!! You’re removing any confusing colour and saying to the viewer, just look at the simple blacks and whites.  Suddenly the viewer can focus on certain parts because they’ve got nice contrast.

So back to the colour wheel.  On a colour wheel you have your primary and secondary colours. But here’s the important bit.  The colours that sit opposite each other are complimentary colours.  This means that they make each other stand out.

I decided to try this out on a shot in the music video.

Here is the ungraded shot


It’s not bad but it’s also a bit grey and boring.  The idea was she was almost an angelic figure, this really wasn’t getting that across.

Here’s the graded version


That’s better…well I think so.  Now why does she stand out so much more. Well for starters, I increased the exposure on her to give her a slight glow. But what really separates her from the water is the colour difference.  Now the water is a lovely blue colour and what colour is she? Well skin colour of course but what colour is that close too?  Roughly yellow red and pink. If we look back at the colour wheel, what do we find?  Well I’ll be damned look at that, the reds, oranges and yellows are opposite the blues. COMPLIMENTARY COLOURS which is basically contrast for colour.

Tip 6:  Now this one is more to do with lighting but I thought I’d put it in here as it’s still part of the whole cycle of getting images that stand out.

Place your lights so they make things looks interesting.  It’s very easy to start getting too technical and thinking “well I can’t put a light there because that just wouldn’t happen in real life”  This is sometimes worth following, especially if it’s a gritty drama but even then I’d argue that cinematic story driven lighting is more important then what’s technically correct.

Here is an example from the music video .


Technically this makes no sense what so ever. I placed a light at the bottom of the stairs pointing up to cast those lovely bannister shadows.  In real life the moon would of had to of been coming through his floor. Now unless he lived in a tree house in a very tall tree this just wouldn’t happen.  But who cares? It looks cool… well I think so. And no one has questioned the lights placement so far.

Once you start doing things like this you start seeing it in professional film productions all the time.

So I guess to sum up that tip, just make it look cool!

Tip 7:  Ok this is another lighting tip but I’m going to add it as I’ve realised this over the past few months and it could save people a lot of time and even money.

You don’t need to have super expensive lights for every shot. I’d go as far to say that you don’t need them at all for close up shots.  Big expensive lights are great when you need to light a large room  or some where outside. I can honestly that some of the best shots I’ve captured have been through using a torch.

Take this example below.


This shot was achieved with one simple torch.   The room was completely dark apart from that one light source. We placed it on a shelf behind his right should to get the rim light off his cheek. He’s looking in a mirror and so the light bounced back to reveal his face, also acting as a key.  It captured everything we needed.  I also had a similar experience when shooting the Lollipop lady Killer. There’s a shot where the killer is getting ready.  I needed to capture the look of a TV set flickering in his eyes. I used a torch and just moved it about a bit.

So again don’t get wrapped up in big expensive things, be inventive, you’re be surprised at what you can achieve.

And that’s all for now.  Now like I said at the beginning, I’m no expert but I hope some of these tips have been of some use.  Let me know in the comment box and if you have anything to add I’d love to hear from you.

In till next time, keep shooting!



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