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Balance and Discordance

Balance and Discordance

What is tone? The filmmaker’s guide to balance and discordance in visual storytelling.

Color discordance is a deliberate disruption of the established palette. Often used by filmmakers to address certain characters or direct viewers’ attention to important details. In order to use discordance we first need to understand how to establish balance in a scene.

Film Tone

Great filmmakers are visual artists that tell stories by the use of emotions. A universal language that we all feel and understand even when unable to explain exactly how. The underlying reason why we long for new movies is not the watching per se, but rather the emotions we feel as the story progresses.

In order to tell a convincing story, everything on and off screen must work together towards that goal. The set, score, characters, light and color, each component of a scene is meant to make us transcend, to make us believe. This is what we call tone.

Balance and Color Harmony

The tone of a scene dictates the emotional state of the viewer and also acts as a prerequisite of what can be expected. The tone can reveal unspoken desires, truths and often shows the emotional growth of key characters. When it comes to color, tone is influenced by hue, saturation and brightness.


When a single base "hue" is stretched out by its shades, tones, and tints, it is called a monochromatic color scheme. White is used to create tints and black is used to create shades.

One color that conveys only one emotion at a time.

This essentially means that working within a monochromatic palette is to work with a single color. One color that conveys only one emotion at a time. This can provide a scene with a cohesive feeling and turns the world's atmosphere into a separate character that plays its own role.

Subtle and Homogeneous

The feeling that monochromatic schemes create is subtle and homogeneous, yet clear and unambiguous. It is similar to how natural light affects objects in a real life setting. Its applicaion into the production of a movie is an extension of how we naturally perceive the world.

Analogous Colors

When the goal is to have a very natural flow between scenes without disturbing the viewer’s attention, an analogous color scheme can be extremely effective.

Analogous colors are positioned next to each other on the color wheel and are often found together in nature. As this color scheme choice is gentle to the eye it can be used to create a solid tone that does not distract due to its lack of discordance.

Complementary colors

Complementary colors are yet another popular color scheme that can be often observed in movies. As colors positioned opposite of each other on the color wheel compliment each other, they make for a very easy yet effective tone choice that adds dynamics to the scene.


There are many techniques that cinematographers can use to draw the viewer's attention onto a certain part of a scene. One of the most effective such methods is the use of discorance through color to redirect the audience's focus towards an important place, person or object.

Discordance is the process of adding something to a scene that does not quite fit with the rest of the theme or color scheme. An easy example would be to add one extremely saturated object that will redirect the audience’s attention and give them a brief moment to relax or collect their thoughts before an intense scene.

Discordance can also be used to highlight something new but important to the plot or to signify a character’s rapid emotional development that will have major consequences for the rest of the story and the involved characters. By using this technique we can ensure crucial visual cues are noticed or if needed, hidden from the viewer by means of distraction.

Color Association, Progression and Psychology

Color consistency throughout a movie can be effectively used to create associations towards and between characters or locations. We, as viewers, subconsciously try to find links between all the small factors that build the story and color is exactly one of those links.

If a character is introduced with the color red dominating around them, we will continue to associate that color with said character for the rest of the movie. We can then use it to highlight links between that character and the world around them.

Color can also transition in order to signify a change. A change can be gradual, like from the focused and logical blue towards the superstitious and nostalgic violet as if to represent a character losing their grip on reality. It can also be instantaneous, like engulfing the screen with white light to show a character’s imminent death.

It is important to note that although there is freedom in using color, there are some deep psychological associations that all humans have in how color is perceived and understood, regardless of their culture or values. Having a good understanding of these perceptions can greatly assist in the creation of more believable cinematic worlds.

Hot summer days are usually portrayed as filled with the greasy heat of orange and yellow. Daylight scenes that lack refreshing blue as well as green to counterbalance the warm spectrum, will feel dusty and suffocating.

On the contrary, night settings painted with the exact same warm palette will create the feeling of coziness and familiarity. As if a remid of our primal history when the first acts of organized discussions took place around the protective warmth of the fire.

With the same reasoning, using a monochromatic palette of blues will be perceived as cold and depressing. A reminder of the harsh and grim prehistoric conditions when humanity actually had to make an effort to survive.

These relations between hues is the heritage of our species and thus most of the viewers have predictably similar psychological responses to certain colors. In a way, these meanings lay far beyond our personal preferences and this is the main reason why they work so well.

When it comes to applying this knowledge, however, anyone who says “this is how you use color” is essentially wrong. There are no rules, no limitations, merely guidelines and suggestions. What is even more important than “meaning” is the actual relationship of all the colors on screen.