Why Color Grading is important to film (warm and cold colors)

Color grading is the finishing touch to your shots, the thing that makes them look gorgeous if you’ve used framing, shadow and focus in the right way. But why is it so important to film?


The color grading is mostly used to create a certain atmosphere for the film or show. The use of warm and cold colors can have a meaning behind it, or can just be used for practicality. I’ve chosen two examples in which color grading has some kind of meaning. Both are TV-shows, of which on is Fargo and the other is Thirteen Reasons Why.

In the first season of Fargo, we meet Lester, played by Martin Freeman and also the antagonist Lorne Malvo, wonderfully played by Billy Bob Thornton.  This first season takes place in 2006, so the color grading is expected to be more modern; the blues and grays are accentuated harder than the other colors giving the show a more cold and harsh feel, which really fits the season well. The colder colors are obviously chosen, because it’s also set in Minnesota, which is, in case you didn’t know, a cold place. But the color pallet doesn’t only stand for that quite superficial meaning, it also has a deeper meaning and it stands for how isolated Lester is and how “cold” he is on the inside, it pretty much describes a part of his character.

Martin Freeman in “Fargo” season 1 – 2014

In the second season of Fargo, we meet quite a lot of people, but I’ll try to explain the plot very briefly. This season is set in the 70’ and is partially about Peggy and Ed, played by Kirsten Dunst and Jesse Plemons respectively, who are trying to get away with a hit and run, in which they killed the son of a crime family. But this season’s also about a police force trying to investigate three murders who are linked to the person, who was hit by the car of Peggy and Ed. Well, that’s the plot very, very briefly described, but that’s not what this article is about.
In that season the color scheme is a bit different. The blues of the previous season are changed out with more warm colors (not as hard as in the upcoming season 3), trying to capture the more vintage feel the season is going for. I haven’t entirely seen that season (the story didn’t interest me, and some things I found to be a bit too absurd, so I’ve only watched the first couple of episodes), but I also think that they did that to have that warm family feel in a more ironic sense.

Patrick Wilson and Ted Danson in “Fargo” season 2 – 2015

Of course, the color grading of season one isn’t the same in all the shots, sometimes it also utilizes warm colors, just like season two doesn’t always utilize warm colors. It depends on the situation they are in, but overall I found that in season one the colder colors were more present and the warmer colors were more present in season two.

Thirteen Reasons Why is one of the more recent critically acclaimed Netflix-original TV-shows and you probably already know what this show is about, due to the popularity and quite a lot of advertising. In that show, a girl has committed suicide and left thirteen tapes behind, which she gave. Each tape is a reason why she killed herself and is about the person who was the cause of that reason. Clay’s one of the people on that list, and he doesn’t know why, because he was a good friend of Hannah. Now we discover as he listens to the tapes why Hannah took her own life. The story is told in a way that we see what she tells in the tapes, but also what Clay goes through in present day. To divide these two timelines, they’ve changed the color grading in both timelines. The timeline in the past has warmer colors, whereas the present day timeline utilizes colder colors. Both obviously have a deeper meaning behind them than just making a difference between present day and past. The past has warmer colors because at the time Hannah’s still alive.  In present day, the colors have changed to cold and sad colors, reflecting the sadness of Clay and how miserable he feels.  In the show, there are multiple moments when they do visually some cools things with it, by having the two different timelines happening at once, divided by a vague line, which also divides the colder colors from the warmer. There were also some nice transitions between present day and past, which were all integrated very well into the show. They really utilized the difference in colors to their full potential and it also pays off in the final result.


The images that I’ve chosen are both set in the same location, just at different points in time. The first image, the one with Katherine Langford, who wonderfully plays Hannah, is set before the death of Hannah and the one on the right with Dylan Minnette, who amazingly played Clay, is set in present day.

That’s where I’m going to end this article about color grading. I know that there’s still a lot to say and that I barely scratched the surface since I only talked about warm and colder colors and gave some examples so there might come a second part. I already did something similar to this article in Why the use of color is important in film.  Now I’ll quickly recap why warmer and colder colors are important to film. Using cold or warm colors defines the tone of the film you are going for. You want a cozy film? Use warm colors, but these can also be used to show what takes place in the past. If you want to show the cold, harsh reality, you are better off using colder colors in your film.

Images via: Hollywood Reporter and IMDb


4 thoughts on “Why Color Grading is important to film (warm and cold colors)

    1. It’s overused for sure, but I don’t really mind. It’s just something that we perceive as good looking due to how the colors are placed in the color spectrum and if films want to capitalize on that, good for them. Seems to be working out well enough if we take a look at the Transformers franchise!


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