How to Use the Three Color Rule to Produce More Cinematic Films

We are complex creatures, and as such, most of the thoughts we have live below the surface of our basic senses; to correctly share our experiences we have to go to the next level of perception and tap into our basic instincts were color has a deep meaning.

Color is an important tool in visual story telling. It lets us know who is good, who is bad, and most importantly, it tells us where to look and what to see. Artists have been studying the use of color since the very first drawings were ever created with the goal of determining how to best convey feelings, emotion, and importance through their designs.

The three-color rule isn’t exclusive to movies, it’s used as a basic component of all design but wolfcrow is going to breakdown how it is used in major films, and give you insight on how to incorporate this concept into your projects to take them to a deeper level.

Color Theory

There is way too much to cover that falls under the umbrella of color theory to discuss in this article, but to simply define it, color theory is a guide for how colors mix, and the visual effects of a specific color combination. It is the study of the psychological impact that color has on people. 

For our purposes, it’s best to just understand that cool colors, and warm colors effect people differently. Warm colors are friendly and inviting. Cool colors are cold, distant, and isolated.

The Three Color Rule

The essence of the three color rule, in film, is that every scene should have 3 important colors (60% Primary, 30% Secondary, 10% Accent), and the combination of the 3 colors should make up a palette and be a thematic element of the film.

You could technically use any two colors as the primary and secondary, but it is always best if they compliment each other – the color theory, which, again, is a whole beast in and of itself.

Often in movies (movie posters too) you’ll see primary and secondary colors of blue and orange. This is because they sit on opposite ends of the color wheel and stand out against one another. 

Skin tones have orange elements and stacked up against a blue environment, actors stand out nicely and draw the audience’s attention to them.

Let’s take a look at how this is used in the examples provided.


As you can see, the primary color in Her is brown, the secondary color is red, and through the film there are accents of blue. For the most part, the primary color of any film is going to be some shade that matches skin tones, as long as the movie is about people.

This color scheme stays consistent from scene to scene for the entire movie.

I know a lot of people love the movie Her, and it did win an Oscar, but for me, personally, I’ve never really liked this movie and one of the reasons might be the color. I suppose the color is intended to contrast with the depression and longing of the main character but I’ve always felt the look of the movie was simply a gimmick. That is just me, though.


The colors in Her compliment each other in that they are both earth tones and part of the same family, but sometimes you need a little bit of pop like in the movie Amelie.

Amelie’s primary color is orange, secondary color is green, and it has accents of red. Orange, again, is a skin tone and skin tones will almost always be the primary color.

The secondary color of green, which contrasts with orange to make everything seem a bit off while still allowing characters to stand out. Red is often used as an accent color, but sometimes as a secondary color – and at times, the film introduces a fourth color, blue, as an accent color as well.

The use of color in this movie is unique and fantastic, and really adds a level of communication to the image that couldn’t otherwise be stated.

Thematically, the mixture of colors make the film feel a little off – It helps the viewer submerge themselves into Amelie’s world, which is a little off and fanciful too.


Orange, blue, and red make up the colors of Drive and work perfectly with the theme of the film. Driver, the main character, is distant from the world and the contrast of the colors mixed with the composition of the shots help illustrate that emotional distance from life that the character faces.

Red represents speed, but also anger and rage.

The amount of blue in the frame often changes in the film depending on the theme of the scene, but those colors are always very much present.

Common Uses

As I’ve touched on, the most common uses of color in filmmaking is really just to make characters stand out and keep the backgrounds from distracting the audience.

Good design is about telling people where to look and what to see. Fantastic design is using those elements you’ve chosen to guide your audience’s attention to further the depth of the story telling.

Assigning colors to characters or locations, and then mixing and matching those colors at times to reference those people and places to elude to things on a higher level of thought.

The Three Color Rule In Your Work

If you’re just starting out, always keep this in mind but don’t overly obsess with the use of color in your films. This is a detail that few people will ever consciously notice, and often only finds its way into big budget films.

Instead, focus on good skin tones that make people look natural and healthy (unless they’re not supposed to be), and use color as a design element to help draw in the viewer and tell them where to look.

Choose a location, and wardrobe that contrasts or compliments the skin tone of the actors, and (if you can) paint the walls in the room to help give the space some extra pop. You can always find and use props with colors that stand out against the background.

But don’t get bogged down with the minutiae of a professional, big budget art director when you’re just starting out telling stories on a tight budget, but definitely keep these ideas in the back of your head. The most important thing is the story you tell, and just do the best you can. 

[source: wolfcrow]

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