Color Theory & Hannibal

Today I’d like to talk about color theory in film & photography.

I’m not going to explain color theory in-depth – you can Google that if you’re really interested. Instead, I’m just going to highlight it’s importance when it comes to photography and film, because it’s something most people seem to completely forget about.

Paying The Lens A Compliment


We’ve all been schooled on the color wheel – primary, secondary, and tertiary – but we hardly ever put to practice what we’ve learnt. Just take a look at the color wheel here. It looks pretty rad and the colors flow perfectly into one another. So it goes without saying that visually, blue, and the colors to the left and right of it, go well together. And at the same time, we can see how orange, on the opposite side of the wheel, might go well when placed alongside blue, which happens to be the ‘complimentary’ color. Understanding why they’re complimentary isn’t really necessary, so long as you understand that complimentary colors just look great together.

Set Design & Wardrobe

So colors matter, and most of the time when we pull out a camera to snap a picture, we’re doing it because nature has provided the color stimulus that invokes us to take a photo in acknowledgement of the color complement.

Unfortunately we’re not in control of the colors, so those photo moments happen at random – but when you’re making a movie or photographing models in a studio, you have the ability to create the colors that work best.

Sadly most people don’t think much on this, and choose to work on the colors in post-production. While that’s a useful and important part of the process, it shouldn’t be the only focus when it comes to color, and on indie film shoots, this can often be to the detriment of the film.

That’s why color is such an important part of set design and wardrobe – getting it right early on means grading in post-production renders better results, and takes less time.

Hannibal – Color Theory At It’s Best

If you haven’t watched NBC’s Hannibal yet, I suggest making the time for it. Apart from a well delivered story from quality performances, the production team has done an outstanding job with the set, and of course the color. Every shot is stunning, and in trying to figure out why, it occurred to me that over and above the fact that it’s shot on Arri Alexa’s, with fantastic shallow depth of field, nearly every shot has complimentary colors in it.

In this case, teal and blood-red seem to be the main complimentary’s used throughout, and with those colors, different levels of vibrancy (darker or lighter shades of the same color) are used. Those colors also makes a lot of sense, given that Hannibal has a lot of blood in it, but there are also scenes that incorporate an orangey-yellow with greens and blues – also beautiful to look at.

Then of course, the footage is color-graded by Mark Kueper from Technicolor Creative Services in Toronto, Canada. Apart from sewing everything together so nicely, he’s hugged onto the shadows extremely tightly, letting them envelop areas of the image constantly. The entire production team from set, through to post production, has created an image-style that tells you in no uncertain terms, “viewer discretion is advised”.

The collection of images below illustrates the case in point nicely. So if you haven’t seen it yet, and you’re not overly squeamish, I’d highly recommend you watch it. *If you live in the US, you can watch Hannibal on iTunes or HULU, and if you’re a DSTV subscriber in South Africa, it’s been airing on the SONY channel (127) every Tuesday at 20:40, since April 23rd 2013.


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  • Phil Wesson

    fantastic collection. The color grading of the show is what’s drawing me to it right now. While watching with my wife, I was annoying her by talking about how beautiful each frame looked!

    • Hi Phil! Thanks for the comment :) Glad to hear someone else appreciates the color theory :)

  • Brandon Obey

    At first, I thought I was the only person who felt this way about Hannibal. I honestly feel they should re-grade Silence of the Lambs with the grades in this show. One thing I truly love about this show is that the grade is dark and not just crushed (trust me there is a difference).

    • Hi Brandon, thanks for the comment :) Glad to hear there’s someone else out there who can appreciate it.

    • Luca-Borbála Varga

      I also immediately fell in love with the visual communication of Hannibal. Thank you, for the article and the mentioning of the masterminds behind it.

  • 4 More

    I’ve been a colorist for 17 years, and today when somebody asks me what shows or movie is my favorite I say ‘Hannibal’ and ‘Gangster Squad’. Glad to see I’m not the only fan.

  • Abdul Kader HD

    It’s amazing how each shot of the show looks like a perfect Kodak moment. Their set design is brilliant!

    • Absolutely brilliant indeed Abdul. There is no other show I’ve ever seen with this kind of meticulous attention to detail. It’s outstanding.

  • Guest

    Yay yo no soy el único que se da cuenta de eso, es totalmente genial este espectáculo y Sherlock me dan ganas de seguir viviendo de la industria

  • Milena Pérez

    Yay I’m not the only one who notices that, is totally brilliant this show and Sherlock make me want to keep living of the industry

  • Seagram Pearce

    You put into technically correct words what I’ve thought about Hannibal since the first episode. I often just pause a scene & look at the gorgeous colour pallet. I’ve tried this coloration method with my own footage, but you need that raw 444 footage to really crank out the colours in the shadows like they do. It works with Alexa footage but not with anything in the h264 category (at least not nearly as creamy)

    Nice post!

    • Completely agree. DSLR h.264 is useless when it comes to achieving such beautiful cinematography.

  • Jonno

    I agree with all the comments below, beautifully shot, every episode. as we are now in the second series the green and red colour contrast seems to be more prevelant, my personal take on this is to highlight the discord and conflict going on in wills mind, and dr lector seems to be at times half in the shade and half highlighted, maybe to show how some people view him ie. good and bad. This is just my view and would really like to know your views on this.

    • Hey Jono, thanks for the comment. No doubt the way it’s shot, including colours, serve to emphasize metaphorically, what’s occurring in the story.

  • If I didn’t felt in love with the color grading ( and more ) I won’t be on this blog right now. Amazing job.

  • mj cooper

    honestly I haven’t come here to be a troll but I really don’t like it the blacks don’t feel deep and has the look of someone sticking it through VSCO filter I don’t know much about color grading but though it looked bleached out