Creating Specific Color Schemes in 3D for Filmmaking


Learn to convey the perfect mood with color palettes in 3D rendered scenes just by modifying your lights and colors.

In this article, we’ll be focusing on creating specific moods in 3D rendering. As you probably know, achieving good lighting in 3D can be one of the hardest challenges. This requires a good knowledge of technical tools, but most of all, your talent, creativity, observation, and prowess as a 3D artist.

Furthermore, a solid theory of color and lighting in filmmaking helps a lot for the purpose. As a good starting point, you can also rely on image references and organize them on a mood board. You can then filter the list by picking up the best takes.

Ultimately, you take inspiration from a few aspects of your reference images and create your mood. A color palette can be helpful in collecting the key colors. As a result, you can use them in your 3D render to achieve a similar look.

Color Palette used in “The Revenant.” Image via Digital Synopsis.

Step One: The Importance of Support Material

While developing your idea, you should always gather references for modeling and lighting.

Some artists create concept designs by painting rough light indications. Conversely, some pick images from the Internet and start filtering what they like the most. Either way, what you have at the end should reflect your intentions in terms of mood.

I decided to create a straightforward scene with a few downloaded models in the project I’m going to introduce right now.

An introductory scene with a few trees and a house. Personal Project.

Below, I am going to show you how to create a haunted house scene just by the use of lighting–that means no textures! I’ll show you how to use some simple methods to make the scene appear more affluent and attractive in terms of lighting details.

For this purpose, I collected different images, and this is what I chose for reference material:

Overall the references appear dark, and that’s interesting! At the same time, a warm tint from the window introduces the proper contrast with the rest of the shot.

From my moodboard and inspiration this is the list of lighting features I decided to keep:

  • Warm light at the windows
  • High contrast
  • Hard shadows
  • Dark scene with some props visible in their silhouettes
  • Brighter sky with an interesting pattern

Once the main light elements have been decided, it’s time to discuss the color scheme.


Choosing a Proper Color Scheme

At this point, let’s consider the previous reference images to build up a good color scheme. Here are the observations about color from the reference images:

  • We need contrast and tension by introducing a complementary pair—like orange/blue or red/green.
  • Alternatively, we could dampen the tension by adopting a split complementary color scheme.
  • Remember that red and green, in a few contexts, are related to danger or darkness, and that’s what we need here.

That being said, I first decided to use a split complementary color scheme and tested the result with the following camera perspective.

Split Complementary Color Scheme. Personal Project.

Let’s take a closer look at the color wheel.

We have a warm color grabbing our attention from the windows—the orange that moves a bit towards the red under the porch. On the other side, the two cold colors, green and blue, dampen the contrast a bit.

Indicating part of the color palette and a color wheel to understand the color scheme.

This scheme works well when you want to weaken the impact that a pure complementary color scheme produces. Nevertheless, other elements help make the composition even more dramatic apart from the colors.

Let’s return to our photo references and notes to reveal other essential elements in the composition.


Dark Elements Create More Drama

While working on shots like ours, consider accentuating the sense of drama. While colors have a significant impact, the presence of trees makes the scene more interesting. The trick is to reveal their dark silhouettes against a colored background.

You can also tint the trees differently, but remember to maintain a relevant contrast. It’s interesting to notice how a single portion of the shot can already convey a dramatic mood due to elements such as:

  • tree shape
  • green background
  • overall a high contrast
By the silhouettes, we can convey a more dramatic mood. Note that a few trees are textures rather than real 3D models.

Hard Shadows and “Cookies”

In the beginning, we said that the shot doesn’t have any textures applied. Everything works well due to the lighting and color scheme, plus a few elements which add detail.

Amongst them, we quote the presence of hard shadows and gobos—aka “cookies.”

As explained in this article, a gobo is identified as an object put in front of a light in order to project a specific shape.

In our case, we see a bunch of tree shapes on the ground and some on the house. This is good for:

  • adding more drama with hard shadows
  • conveying the presence of off-screen elements
  • adding shadow details on the floor and the house

Also, in two parts of the scene, I intentionally overexposed.

Sometimes like in this particular case, overexposure might work, as it gives two essential accents to the scene—even if it burns part of the surfaces. But generally, if there is not a good motivation with practical lights (the moon, a streetlight, ect.) it’s better to avoid overexposure.

Using a “cookie,” you add fake details and make the scene more interesting.

Using a Different Color Scheme

Working with colors in 3D rendering allows experimenting with the mood—apart from giving a solid grasp on color schemes used in filmmaking.

Next, we will set up a different atmosphere, made of a different color combination.

If you remember, we said that a complementary color scheme could work for scenes like ours because it accentuates the contrast and makes the scene more vivid.

A complementary color scheme with red and green tints.

A clear signal to stay away from this house! The color scheme used in this shot is a very saturated red with a “toxic” green.

Indicating part of the color palette and the color wheel to understand the color scheme.

A few notes about the composition. This time the gobo lights affect the building more than the ground. We already have some trees in the foreground, enriching the composition.

Furthermore, it’s interesting to observe the left side of the shot: here, we have very dark trees and some tree branches tinted by the “toxic” greeny color—an excellent combination to give the image a darker look.

Also, the sky color creates a nice transition from green to brown. You can create this tint by mixing up the complementary pair of red and green, which gives a brownish color.

This time the trees are tinted in green color. Also, notice the transition of the sky from green to brown.

Moving on to a Different Mood

Let’s use a third color scheme that conveys a feeling of isolation.

As described in this article, each color has its meaning, or better, more than one. If it is dominant in the shot, with lighter and darker variations of the same tint, we have a monochromatic color scheme.

So far, we have utilized high contrast colors to increase the sense of drama. This time, instead, we’ll focus on the blue color, which has a different impact on the scene’s look.

A colder scene that conveys isolation.

It’s a backlit shot where the moon is the only light source in the scene.

As you can notice, the shot uses little fog to remark the sense of isolation. In relation to the color scheme, we see different shades of light blue, especially in the area around the moon.

A monochromatic color scheme.

The moon illuminates part of the sky by leaving the foreground and the side of the shot barely visible.
Despite revealing the silhouettes of the different objects in the scene, the feeling is different than before.

Here we don’t perceive drama, but it seems that the house is abandoned and located in a remote place.


To sum up, we demonstrated that lighting itself is able to tell a story, represent different contexts and situations, and express emotions. Thank you for joining me on this study of color and light in 3D and if you liked this article, follow me on my Linkedin page for more news to come!





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