Color Theory in Everyday Life

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Summer's here, and this peach caught my eye. Set on the blue ledge of my office, it became the perfect example of complementary colors.

When we're preparing a movie, we think about complementary colors, and all kinds of color combinations. I ask my students to do the same for their video projects.

Colors convey meaning, emotion, and genre. They are part of telling a visual story. For example, thrillers generally have deep, dark blacks and highly contrasting colors. Documentaries -- or movies that try to feel documentary-like -- use a color palette that is narrower. When I was producing Titus, the first film Julie Taymor directed, she didn't want the color green in the movie. Green conveys hope, and Julie didn't think Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus should feel hopeful.

We can ask our students: Do you want the colors to pop? Do you want your video to feel more monochromatic? Simply paying attention to colors, and using color as part of your design, can make a video feel much more professional.

Blue and orange are "complementary colors," and when you put them next to each other, as in this photo, they seem to vibrate. I found it striking to see such a powerful example of color-in-action right in front of me. You probably remember the color wheel. It has six colors arrayed around a white central circle. Red is opposite green; yellow is opposite purple; blue is opposite orange.

The color wheel isn't random. Those opposing colors are called "complementary" due to the physical nature of the human eye. If you stare at a blue wall for a long time and then look at a white wall, you will see an orange after-image. Why? Because the color receptors in your eye become tired looking at the blue wall, so they relax when you look at the white wall, and your brain "sees" that as orange for a few moments. That's why complementary colors are so powerful when you put them right next to each other.

But enough of the science. Colors are just one more way we can convey narrative and emotion. When we use them in our classroom work, suddenly, subconsciously, things feel richer and more purposeful. I got so swept away after I took this photo that, taking a cue from T. S. Eliot, I decided to eat the peach.

About the Author
Adam Leipzig is an entrepreneur, filmmaker, producer, publisher, and author. He is the COO of CreativeFuture, a non-profit organization advocating for the creative community. He is also the CEO of Entertainment Media Partners, which provides informed guidance for independent media companies, financiers, and producers, and is the publisher of Cultural Weekly ( Adam teaches at Chapman University's Dodge College of Film and Media Arts, in the Executive Education program of UC Berkeley's Haas School of Business, and in UCLA's Professional Producing Program. He has overseen more than 30 movies as producer, executive, or distributor, including March of the Penguins; Dead Poets Society; Titus; Honey, I Shrunk the Kids; Amreeka; The Story of the Weeping Camel; and his newest documentary, A Plastic Ocean. Adam served as president of National Geographic Films and as senior vice president at Walt Disney Studios, and in each of those positions was responsible for the movie industry's most profitable film of the year. He is the author of Inside Track for Independent Filmmakers: Get Your Movie Made, Get Your Movie Seen, a how-to manual with tips for solving the problems most faced by emerging and independent filmmakers. Adam worked his way through college with a number of summer jobs, including a stint as a garbage collector for the City of Los Angeles. He says it prepared him well for his work in Hollywood. Adam loves to hear from his readers; contact him at