House of Color Palettes

Normally I applaud descriptions of film form that refrain from attributing everything to nebulous psychological explanations. But I think Chris Wade's piece on recurring compositions in House of Cards for Slate could've used another paragraph. Wade points out that every shot on the show has something blue in the foreground and something yellow in the background. This is true [ref] Except for the recent episodes in season 3 I've seen that don't follow this rule... [/ref]; Wade includes a short video of scenes to illustrate his claims.

But when I watched the video, I noticed that most of the blue objects were characters costumes, and most of the yellow objects were lamps on the walls. Huh. Is this blue/yellow composition really an active choice by the filmmakers?

The color palette of a movie or television show is an incredibly important decision, and several people have a hand in it: the director, the director of photography (DP), the production designer, the art director...[ref] I suppose the colorist could also have a hand in things during post production. [/ref] House of Cards has a very cool color scheme- lots of blues, blacks, and grays, with some pale yellow and gold for contrast. Compare this to The West Wing, which has a much warmer palette: red, browns, bright yellow and deep golds.

Even similar shots in the same setting can have vastly different moods just because of the color. Don't believe me?

This all makes sense, of course. Where House of Cards is grimy and cynical, The West Wing is charming and optimistic.

But suppose you're working on House of Cards and you want this blue and pale yellow color scheme. How do you create it? You might have your costume designer put the characters in dark suits and blue shirts. Makes sense, given the setting. There's precedent for that, too. [ref] Yeah, I know the trope says "Blue is Heroic." Not on this show... [/ref] What else do we have? Offices with white walls? That works. How about interior lamps- we can play with the white balance so they look more yellow, especially compared to the outside daylight.

The DP doesn't need to be involved in any of this. But when they arrive on set and start working with the actors to compose the shots... The characters in their blue shirts will wind up in the foreground, since that's what we're interested in. And the sets, with their yellow lamps, will be behind them. Because that's where they are.

And then some guy writes about this pattern on Slate. You're a genius!