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Color Sense: Enhance Your Animated Story with the Right Palette

What are the best color choices for your story? What is just the right amount of color to use, if any at all? How can you use color to enhance the emotional impact of your piece? This chapter from Animated Storytelling: Simple Steps For Creating Animation and Motion Graphics will answer those questions and give you some simple guidelines for how to plan your palette and enrich your story with well-informed color choices.
This chapter is from the book

Color has tremendous storytelling power. It can express emotion, clarify motivation, and even dictate the entire meaning of a piece. A farmer’s lush green field means something totally different if instead it’s yellow-brown; a hero’s ride off into the sunset becomes a ride into the depths of hell with a slight tweak in hue; a young boy’s first kiss has a different connotation if the recipient of the kiss turns green instead of blushing red.

So what are the best color choices for your story? What is just the right amount of color to use, if any at all? How can you use color to enhance the emotional impact of your piece? This chapter will answer those questions and give you some simple guidelines for how to plan your palette and enrich your story with well-informed color choices.


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Cody Walzel, Makeshift Satellite, Color Script

Color Vocab Hue, Saturation, and Value

First let’s make sure we’re all on the same page about basic color vocab. As you may know, there are three standard characteristics of color: hue, saturation, and value. When we ask, “What color is that?” we’re asking for the hue. Hue refers to the common color name in the spectrum like red, blue, green, blue-green, and so on. Saturation is the intensity or purity of a color. Highly saturated colors look vibrant and bright while low-saturated colors look dull, almost grayish. Value is the relative lightness or darkness of a color—basically how much light the color is exposed to determines its value. Low value means a color is closer to black. I’ll use these terms throughout the chapter, so please refer to the hue, saturation, value chart here if you need a refresher.

Create a Color Script

Let’s pull out those cue cards again. This time, instead of blank ones grab your completed storyboards. If you’ve already attempted to make an animatic, then your boards likely will be scanned and integrated into an editing program. If not, do so now. Scan each card into the software of your choice and lay out your boards in sequence—it’s time to start the process of creating a color script.

A color script is a sequential visual outline of how you intend to use color in your animated film. The process can be highly experimental, and, as usual, I encourage you to find a process that works best for you. The trick is to balance what you think looks right in your individual scenes with what helps to enrich your story as a whole. Story is always first, so you may need to replace colors that you absolutely love (aesthetically) if they don’t serve the big picture of your story.

To begin, take a step way back and try to define what color your entire story would be if it could be only one color. This is akin to figuring out the theme of your story, as it will influence each of your color choices as you move forward. We’ll discuss color symbolism soon, but I encourage you to go with your gut in answering the following questions to help you determine that one color: How does your film feel? Is it a pink film? A gray one? What is the overarching central mood of your film, and is it strong enough to base your film’s palette around? Figuring out the dominant, thematic color of your film will help establish the palette of your other colors moving forward.

Once you have that one color, the next step is to create what I call a pre-color script (PCS). This is your storyboard represented by a series of single colors, one for each board. Each color in the series can be repeated. Think of your pre-color script as a game of charades—you have to tell your entire story start to finish but you can use only one color per frame to do so.

The best way to start this process is by identifying the key moments in your story that will require color for emphasis. These are the moments that have to pop in your storyline—and then the color you choose in the rest of your film should act to support those moments as best they can.


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Louis Morton, Nose Hair Storyboards

Take for instance the story of a bear cub lost in the woods. Say the cub faces off against some dangerous predator during the night and by dawn finally makes her way back home to her family of bears. The moments where color is important seem straightforward: when the bear cub gets lost in the woods, when the cub fights off a dangerous predator, and finally when the cub arrives safely back home. If these key moments are to be represented by solid hues, which would they be?

I encourage you to go with your gut in answering that question, break some rules, and be creative. However, if the ideas aren’t flooding in, it doesn’t hurt to start your color thinking with popular symbolism that permeates Western culture. Red represents menace, anger, or danger, like Darth Vader’s red light saber or Captain Hook’s red hat and jacket. For instance, you may think to use a splash of dramatic red when the bear cub is fighting against the violent predator.

Symbolism, however, may not always best serve the scene. What about when our bear cub gets lost in the first place? For the disorientation and fear that the cub may be experiencing, consider changing the value of the existing green so that the whole forest goes a bit darker when the cub realizes that she’s lost.

Finally, for the cub’s return home, it may be neither hue nor value that best enhances the moment. Perhaps a change in saturation will work best. Through the cub’s travels the forest may have become desaturated to imply the sadness of the lost bear cub, but when the cub finally discovers home the forest could return to a saturated green. It will infuse your shot with sudden optimism and joy as the cub runs back towards her family.

Choosing the right hue, saturation, and/or value for the key moments in your story will help to amplify the emotion that you’re going for and will also clarify intent. You can assign to a color any meaning you’ve chosen—you simply have to define and establish it and be consistent with how you use it in your film. Whether you choose Western culture’s symbolism or you assign your own meanings, it’s important to consider saturation and value as well as hue—and most importantly...go with your gut!

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