The science of color in video production

The Science of Color

Learning how to operate the camera, set-up lights, and record are the basic skills required for video production. Understanding how a camera captures light, the physiology and psychology behind composition, movement and color help elevate a production.

With technical advancements in LED lighting and camera white balance control, we’re now able to dial up any color temp or white balance within the visual spectrum. This added creative feature requires a base understanding of the Kelvin range and how to enhance a production with the appropriate settings.

We know light is composed of multiple wavelengths, and we can witness the visual part of that spectrum when viewing a rainbow or sending light through a prism. The scientific measure of that rainbow light spectrum is defined with the Kelvin Scale.

Kelvin Scale for video lighting graphic

Prior to digital technology, production lighting was done primarily with tungsten-based bulbs, making the 3200K setting a universal standard. We then applied 9000K colored gels to find a balance in the 5000K range to match daylight. Now, just dial a knob and assign the exact Kelvin color needed.

Utilizing the right tools to balance and shape the light, adjust intensity, angle, or simply applying strategic positioning… lighting becomes more an art than science. Think of it as painting with light. Mixing color, shape and position to enhance depth and/or contrast to a scene.

blue light
Breaking Bad

Mood and tone can be defined by tint and color. Blues are applied to create calm or define the past. Reds infer danger or anger, while orange and yellow hues convey warmth or warning depending on the context of the scene. One good example is from the hit series Breaking Bad. Before production started, they created an entire color pallet with specific meanings for the entire series. That allowed every member of the crew, from on-location to post-production, to apply the pallet depending on which scenes were being shot or edited.

Next time you watch a few episodes, pay attention to the color selection of the clothing for each character. When Walt is in a dangerous situation, he’s wearing red hues. Green implies desperation, envy, and greed. Orange hues reflect warning, while yellow was applied to the meth cooking and selling scenes. The underground lab screams danger with all the red floor and hues. Of course, now we understand, Walt is the danger, and the one who knocks.

Every production is only as good as its weakest element. Understanding the science of light and color adds another layer in the creative toolbox and additional depth to enhance any production.

Breaking Bad producer and cast at the Golden Globes