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How Great Movies Use the Three Color Rule to Focus the Viewer’s Attention

Photographers can learn a lot about composition and color theory from great cinematography. Case in point: in this video, filmmaker Sareesh Sudhakaran of Wolfcrow explains how great movies will often use the ‘Three Color Rule’ to capture and keep a viewer’s attention.

We’ve shared many tips, tutorials, and breakdowns about color theory over the years, but Sudhakaran’s video takes a simple approach. He picks a few critically acclaimed films like Joker, Her, Amelie, and Drive, and shows you how the cinematographer, DOP, and editors used the so-called “Three Color Rule” to focus the audience’s attention on the story.

The basic rule is as follows:

You have three important colors in your frame: about 60% of the frame is the predominant or primary color, about 30% is a secondary color, and the last 10% is an accent color.

In the movie Her, for example, Sudhakaran identifies the primary color as a brown, the secondary color as red, and the accent color as a barely noticeable blueish shade:

Of course, it’s not always this obvious, but great films are remarkably consistent about the color grading choices they make in order to maintain a mood, direct the audience’s attention, and sometimes outright tell the view what’s going on, using color as the vehicle for that message.

This video is a great reminder of the powerful role that color can play in bringing a series of work—or even a single, still image—together into a cohesive whole. Everybody’s approach to using color will (and should) differ, but if you’re trying to develop a personal “style” that is recognizable, it would be foolish to pay close attention to things like genre, composition, lighting, posing, props, or even camera brand, and leave color as an afterthought.

As the great Harry Gruyaert once said, “if you shoot in color, it has to be the first thing.”

(via Laughing Squid)

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