On September 9, many West Coast residents looked out their windows and witnessed a postapocalyptic landscape: silhouetted cars, buildings, and people bathed in an overpowering orange light that looked like a jacked-up sunset.
You are watching: Blue and orange sky
The scientific explanation for what people were seeing was pretty straightforward. On a clear day, the sky owes its blue color to smaller atmospheric particles scattering the relatively short wavelengths of blue light waves from the sun. An atmosphere filled with larger particles, like woodsmoke, scatters even more of the color spectrum, but not as uniformly, leaving orangish-red colors for the eye to see.
But most city dwellers weren’t seeing the science. Instead, the burnt-orange world they were witnessing was eerily reminiscent of scenes from sci-fi films like Blade Runner: 2049 and Dune.
It is LITERALLY Blade Runner 2049 in California right now. pic.twitter.com/FAggbTQeNB
— Kevin L. Lee (
Set and costume designers can influence color schemes by sticking to certain palettes. But art directors can also imbue scenes with certain hues via “color grading,” in which they use software to shift colors around in the frame.
In her short film Color Psychology, video editor Lilly Mtz-Seara assembles a montage from more than 50 films to show the emotional impact intentional color grading can lend to movies. She explains how different palettes are used to emphasize different sentiments, whether it’s pale pink to reflect innocence, red to capture passion, or a sickly yellow to denote madness.
A screenshot from Lilly Mtz-Seara’s Color Psychology illustrates how different color palettes are used to evoke different emotional responses in viewers.
The most powerful complement of them all
So why orange and teal?
For moviemakers, this color palette can be a powerful tool. Human skin matches a relatively narrow swath of the orange section of the color wheel, from very light to very dark. A filmmaker who wants to make a human within a scene “pop” can easily do so by setting the “orange-ish” human against a teal background.
Filmmakers can also switch between the two depending on the emotional needs of the scene, with the oscillation adding drama. Orange evokes heat and creates tension while teal connotes its opposite—coolness and languid moodiness. For example, the orange and pink people in many of the chase scenes in Mad Max: Fury Road stand out against the complementary sky-blue background.
Oranges and teals are not the sole province of sci-fi movies. David Fincher’s thriller Zodiac is tinged with blues, while countless horror movies deploy a reddish-orange palette. There’s even been some backlash to orange and teal, with one filmmaker, Todd Miro, calling their overuse “madness” and “a virus.”