Color Grading Your Story

Happy Good Friday/Regular Friday (if the celebration of Good Friday is not your thing).

Days ago, I watched a YouTube video on the digital color grading for Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movie trilogy (2001-2003). I know. Random. The following is not the video I watched that day. But it provides a really good explanation about digital color grading for film.

Lest you’re sitting there, unable to muster concern about the subject, let me just say there’s been a lot of talk of movie color palettes. While some praised the Lord of the Rings movies for their color palette, others denounced Jackson’s The Hobbit (2012) for being “too crisp and bright.” And while some Marvel’s movie palettes have been praised for their brightness, some DC movie palettes have been criticized as too murky. Even when DC tried to brighten things up with Justice League (2017), some people still criticized them. Movie fans can be fickle, I guess.


In an article by David Geffin, “The Power Of Color Grading And The Benefit It Can Have On Your Work Summarized In Two Minutes” (and yes, all of those articles and prepositions were capitalized by this author, so please don’t feel the need to point out capitalization errors in the comments), we find this truth:

Color is so important because, like lighting, it affects a mood and feel of a piece, and therefore how we interpret the final image.

Geffin includes the two-minute video mentioned in the title that you can check out if you click here.

I’m a big fan of color to enhance mood. But what can you do in a book where the imagination is the only screen you have to work with?

I like to use thematic colors in narration. In my young adult novel with three protagonists, I have a fire wielder, a plant wielder, and one person in between who is neutral. (While he does not wield an element, he has the ability to block magic.)

Let’s say Rosie Bloom (left) is my fire wielder while Macy Macaron (right) is my plant wielder. (Okay, the fact that Rosie has roses kind of messes up the analogy, but work with me here.) Shuri (middle) is my neutral person.

My plant wielder might be dressed in natural colors on the cooler side of the spectrum (green and blue) to make you think of a forest or a river flowing by trees. Emotionally, she’s a bit down also, so the blue palette does double duty for her.

My fire wielder was trickier. As an assassin, I couldn’t put him in warm, fiery colors, because he’d stand out. He prefers the shadows. So, I had to use color in a different way—to highlight his emotion, i.e., through phrases like “the red blaze of his anger.”

My neutral dude was a lot easier. He wears a lot of gray, because some of his actions fall into a gray area morally at times.

Another way to color grade a story is to make sure the colors that emphasize mood are the ones emphasized on a page.

19063In this passage from The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, what do you see? (SPOILER ALERT. Look away if you don’t want to know something that could possibly spoil a plot point in the book or the movie. I will tell you when to look.)

   There were shocked pajamas and torn faces. It was the boy’s hair she saw first.


She did more than mouth the word now. “Rudy?”

He lay with his yellow hair and closed eyes, and the book thief ran toward him and fell down. She dropped the black book. (Zusak, 535)

In this aftermath of a bombing, I see two colors: yellow and black. This scene involves Liesel Meminger who makes a grisly discover concerning her friend, Rudy Steiner. Zusak mentioned two colors that enhance mood: the bright yellow of Rudy’s hair, which shows the brightness of a life tragically ending in death—reminiscent of the black book Liesel drops. Ending with the black book after the yellow hair is like watching a solar eclipse. (END SPOILER)

In what ways have you seen colors used effectively to enhance mood? Perhaps you’ve seen filters and other highlights done well on Instagram or Facebook. Do tell!

Zusak, Markus. The Book Thief. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006. Print.

Color grade image from Book cover from Goodreads. Justice League movie poster from The Hobbit movie poster from Rose Bloom and Macy Macaron are Shoppie dolls made by Moose Toys. Shuri, from the movie Black Panther, was made by Hasbro. Photo by L. Marie.

24 thoughts on “Color Grading Your Story

  1. I love to use color to enhance my writing space and my overall mood. Don’t you feel your energy rise when the darkness of winter fades and everything outside slowly turns colorful? Have a wonderful Easter, L. Marie!

    • Yes I do, Jill. I’m seeing flowers poking up from the ground. Though the temperature is a bit daunting lately. But I’m glad they’re still trying to grow.

      Happy Easter to you too!

  2. “Lest you’re sitting there, unable to muster concern about the subject, let me just say there’s been a lot of talk of movie color palettes.” ~> sorry, Marie, that’s me . . . unable to muster concern about the subject. I pay more attention to dialogue than visual imagery.

    Except ~> I HATE watching movies that are so DARK that it’s hard to see the action on the screen. I feel like a minion constantly saying, “WHAAAT?”

    • I know what you mean, Nancy. That was the complaint about DC films like Batman v. Superman which have a dark palette.
      But it’s okay if the subject isn’t your cup of tea. 😋 Weird things like this tend to lodge themselves in my mind until I get them on paper. Then I can move on!

  3. Great cross-over ideas (from visual arts to written arts) and I like your own applications, Linda.

    As for movies – long before the digital age, movies made in black and white were not just b&w filming of actors in any color or pattern of clothing – the clothing was made/chosen for the affect it would translate into the b&w film (value) that’s why many of the earlier attempts at ‘colorization’ of old b&w films looked so hideous…magenta skirts with orange polka dot blouses and such. Not to mention the whole ‘film noir’ palette and effect of its movie content.
    I’d also like to mention that the Godfather films were meticulously ‘color/light’ filtered to reflect the warmth of family/food/subtle skin tones which translated into a subconcious ‘like’ towards those who did such awful things…Of course more than that, but just to give a ‘color’ example before the digital age.

    • Great thoughts, Laura! I loved the Godfather movies (well, at least the first two). And interesting about the clothing choices. Totally makes sense!

      Yes, film noir is a great example. I can’t help thinking of Fred MacMurray skulking in shadows in Double Indemnity. Another film I think of that looks fabulous is Seven Samurai.

      I have to wonder if filmmakers who do food-oriented films (like Mostly Martha) pay special attention to color to make the dishes look even more appetizing.

  4. I enjoyed your post, L. Marie, and the string of comments here. Interesting topic and yes, I do pay attention to color in films. As I was reading this, the Wizard of Oz came to mind and how many viewers were so intent on the movie that they (including me, but, hey, I was just a kid) did not realize it morphed from black and white to color.

    • Me, again . . . I’m trying to remember the ending of The Giver. Wasn’t color an important part with most of the book being rather grey? Ah, well – it is Good Friday and part of our tradition, so, I thank you and wish you the same.

    • Penny, I didn’t notice either about The Wizard of Oz being in color, mainly because at one point, we had a black and white TV! So everything was still in black and white! But yes, that was a great use of color.

  5. Interesting insights. Writing historical fiction, I research using old black-and-white movies, so I have to overcome that initial visualization to bring color into the story. In general, I seem to focus less on color and more on light.

  6. I’m such a careless watcher/reader I never notice things like this unless they annoy me, like when films are too dark. I feel kinda guilty that authors and directors go to so much effort and I just gloss over it all to get to the story! Maybe it affects me subliminally… 😉

    • I know what you mean. When reviewing manuscripts, I have sometimes skimmed over the authors’ precious words simply out of boredom. But I know that person spent a ton of time lovingly crafting his/her work. I’m trying not to race through, even if something bores me. But the fact that it does is very telling.

      I guess we can’t help it if something simply does not interest us. I didn’t see 99% of the Oscar-nominated films because I couldn’t muster up the interest. And I know those directors and writers worked hard at their craft.

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