top of page

Color Scripting for Animation

a tutorial by MT Maloney

I work with a lot of filmmakers on the development of the style and content of their animated films and more than the character design, character animation, or overall visual storytelling, one of the largest problems I've encountered is the development of COLOR and VALUE within the frames themselves.  I've shown this technique to a number of animators (many of whom were confident that they had these problems under control) and without fail this extra attention to color and value has - as per their own feedback - improved their films.  This is how we do it at Black Rainbow and it works great.  That being said, this technique isn't mine.  This is a fairly universal practice among professional concept developers in commercial animation houses, mid-sized studios, and big studios like Disney / Pixar.  In fact, search for "Pixar Color Scripts" and be prepared to see a command of color and value unequaled in the industry.   


Let's get to it, shall we?

Step 1 : Admit that you have a problem.

....with color!  The hardest part about his process is "seeing" color for what it is.  Most animators create assets like characters and backgrounds looking at color only.  They use every color in the rainbow and creating those colors as if the colors were self-existent or existed independently of the rest of the colors in the frame.  For example:  the character has brown skin, a yellow shirt, red pants and stands in a forest with green trees and a blue sky.    

In reality, color palettes are typically limited in well-designed professional work to one of the systems below.

Monochromatic - A single color used at different values and temperatures, mixed with neutrals.

Binary - Two color used together along with neutrals, equally or with one of the two colors dominant.

Tertiary - Three colors used together, typically with one or two colors used predominantly and a third used in moderation or as an accent color.

Frames that do not limit color stand out to anyone with even modest aesthetic training.  Check out this image from Disney: 

Is that a still frame from the film?  No, of course not.  It's promotional art.  How do you know this?  Because even though you may not have any formal training in color, your eye is accustomed to viewing  work that has been properly color-corrected.  That image is far too colorful and the colors seem to generate themselves instead of responding to light in the environment around them.   Now let's see frames from the actual film:

Here, we can see that  the frames are actually color corrected so that the various hues in the characters seem to be impacted by the light in the environment around them.  Our eye is intelligent enough to know they haven't gone through a costume change.  Beast's shirt is white, not pink.  However it is impacted by light.  If you were to use Photoshop to color pick around this frame, you might be surprised as to how different the colors appear out of context.  Look at the frames.  How many colors are we actually seeing?  They are binary, maybe even slightly monochromatic.  (Brown is a neutral and doesn't count!). Here's another one - a seemingly 'colorful' and bright day shot:

But, after investigation, we find it is still controlled and limited.  We'll see this again and again if we look for it.  Very limited color palettes.  One, two, or three colors used together with neutrals at different values.  Spend some time checking out film frames.  This is not just for animation, by the way.  You'll see that live action films do the exact same thing.  I usually encourage artists to pull a palette from both animated and live-action films to explore what colors and values are actually at play.  Just look at the examples below.

Again and again, we find binary, tertiary, and monochromatic color systems.  You may or may not be impressed with this, but when I first discovered this, it blew my mind.  Moreover, I was then noticing color worked very much the same in the REAL WORLD as it did in film and television.  Look up from your computer screen at the room around you.  Other than black, white, and neutral brown, how many colors do you actually see?  


Once you acknowledge and accept that color is specifically controlled in animated work, we can move on to.....

Step 2:  Select a frame to use as a base in Photoshop

I'm using a playblast capture from Autodesk Maya for this which has no lighting, only color and hardware texturing.  You can follow these steps with a drawing, a photograph, or ANY image that depicts your character and background together.  Many artists will make this image from scratch, but I've also used so-called "finished" frames of film with lighting and compositing which needed improvement in value and color.   Whatever you decide to use,  just make sure that this "frame" represents an accurate composition from your film.  I'll be using 1920 x 1080.

Here is a playblast screen capture of the frame I'll be using.

You can see that there is color information, but no texture and no light.  As a color image, it looks fine, right?  Good enough to move forward to the next phase of production.  However, our next step will reveal some major problems with the composition that might not be visible to us.

Step 3:  Convert the image to black and white.

In Photoshop, using Hue/Saturation, convert the image to grayscale by lowering Saturation to zero.  (For you Photoshop newbies, this is found under Image : Adjustments ) I do this instead of simply changing the image mode because I still want to be able to add RGB information later.

Once I'm left with the resulting image, I can see some issues.

The characters, though a different color than the background, are nearly the same hue.  The moon, which is supposed to be a light source, is actually darker than the bed it is supposed to be illuminating.  The night sky is also darker than the exterior garden wall and the floor of the castle. The trees are so dark that they act as a magnet for the eye, dominating the composition.  (The eye is drawn to CONTRAST, not to BRIGHTNESS as we might believe.).  


The color that was in the frame was merely distracting us from seeing these issues.  


The image is flat, poorly composed, and broken in every aesthetic or technical measurement.    Need more proof?  Squint.  Literally squint your eyes while looking at this frame.  We call this the "squint test" - coined so by artist, animator, director and producer Becky Wible-Searles.  Although it sounds like nonsense, this is an excellent practice which will serve you well in professional life.   Squinting at this frame, we lose all of the characters and are left with a white blob where the (glowing) bed sheet is and also a black blob wither eat trees are.  Much of the rest is lost to a milky gray nonsense.  


Before we move to step 4, I would mention that the practice of converting a composition to grayscale to TRULY assess its value without the color distracting us should be used in all forms of image-making.  For example: I have my character designers do the same thing after completing their character silhouettes.


Step 4: Break the composition into 3-4 layers.


Don't be meticulous about this.  Use the polygonal lasso or any crude selection tool to chop the image up into layers.  These should be flat, raster layers.  Nothing fancy.

I recommend starting by chopping up the foreground, mid-ground, and background.  That should give you three layers to work with and, believe me, this is more than sufficient.   Resist the urge to be meticulous about this.  We want this to be quick and dirty.  

Step 5: Adjust Brightness/Contrast for each individual layer

This is about choices.  You have only so many levels of brightness at your disposal. With the 3-4 layers you have, control the brightness and contrast of each layer so that they distinct and are uniquely visible.  Consider that your characters or foreground layer may not be the brightest layer in the composition. ( We'll see an example of this later on. )

When you are done, look at the resulting black and white image.  Try the squint test again.   How does it look?  Are the characters more visible?  We're not done, but this is a much better place to start.  We now need to do some freehand painting .  As we move forward, resist the urge to use adjustment layers or anything fancy.  Restrict yourself to no more than 4 layers and make sure they are rasterized.  Don't hesitate to Merge layers down by selecting a visible layer and hitting  Command + E (CTRL + E on the PC).

Step 6: Paint lights and darks on a new Layer

Again, we are after a rough 'paint-over' on this frame, so do not use small brushes.  Create a new layer and select a big, bold brush to use for your painting.  We will be painting only in black and white at this stage.  

While you paint, think about light.  Also, don't forget that we want to be able to clearly distinguish forms at different values, so continue to apply the squint test to see if the composition reads clear. We DO NOT CARE ABOUT DETAIL at this stage. This should be a rough, loose, but clear allocation of lights and darks.  The result is going to look a little ugly, but stick with me and you'll see that we are going to end up in a good place.

Again, this paint-over is done on a separate layer.  Once you paint in strong lights and darks, you can adjust the opacity of the layer to view different intensities of this effect.  Don't use fancy layers yet.   Just standard, raster layers with an opacity setting.  

Just look at the original vs the new version.  Even thumbnail-sized, we can see a marked improvement. 

Step 7:  Colorize your frame.

Once you have lights and darks where you want them and your composition still passes the squint test, go ahead and colorize the frame using Image : Adjustments : Hue/Saturation.  

There is a colorize box in the corner.  Use it! I suggest actually flattening the frame first so you can colorize it in a single pass, but a lot of artists colorize each layer, applying subtle differences to each layer.  Just remember what we said about controlling your color palette.  If you don't flatten your image, at least make sure you colorize each layer to roughly the same hue.

The result will be an intensely monochromatic version of the frame with the carefully placed light and dark forms still with their specifically designed values.    

Step 8: Add a little color back


Odds are, this is too monochromatic  for you, but what a great start for a unified color palette.  I've also added a bit more backlight to the trees in the mid ground and punched up the light on the moon.   You may want to do the same after seeing it with the first pass of color.  You can adjust the saturation or brightness/contrast of the image as needed.   When you are happy with the result, it's time to add a little color back into the frame.

Now we will allow ourselves to carefully free-hand paint some color back into the frame, however there is a specific way this should be done.  

Use the eyedropper to grab the existing color from an area.  We'll pick the trees in this case.  Then simply change the hue using the vertical color selector just to the right of the large square hue/value selector.  This will allow you to change the hue without changing the value you have already placed there.

Now you can selectively add some color back into certain areas.  


In addition to this, try overlaying the current image on the original at a slightly lower opacity.   This will allow you to gently bring back some color information from the original. Be subtle.  You only need the faintest suggestion of color within the base hue you have established.

This is the result.  We have greens back in the frame, but they are bluish-greens.  We have violet and gold back in the composition, but they are actually very neutral versions of those colors.  It is our EYE that creates these colors  out of a mainly and mostly BLUE composition.   Squint test again!    Can you view our characters?  Does the frame seem well composed and clear?  Does it have a unified color palette?  To best assess this, you should view the result as a thumbnail like this:

Step 9:  Get Creative

Now you can experiment with some effects.  I've painted a vignette around the border of the frame and I've added some gaussian blur to create a swing and tilt effect.  This is above and beyond for a standard color script, but it is JUST RIGHT for a Style Frame.

Let's compare thumbnails....

And this was an easy one.  Quickly, let's look at one last example which follows all of these steps and deals with a more binary system.

This is the original frame.  We have taken it into Photoshop and reduced it to grayscale.  This time, we will dramatically change the values and do most of it with freehand

Again - too dark, too flat.  A poor composition with no sense of light.  Note that the character is actually visible against the background, however he is LIGHTER than the background.  We will reverse this.

Our first step is to paint the light source from above, throwing light on the wall and cabinets behind the character.  I'm using a large brush with a low intensity.  Once that is done, we can add some darks.

Here, we have re-established our character and cauldron by using dark.  I'm painting over with a big brush at a medium opacity.  I don't care about losing detail.  Again, this is about lights and darks.  I won't bring out smaller brushes until the last step of adding backlight.  This comes next.

Now I've painted on my backlight.  This was a slightly smaller brush.  I've used it to pull detail back into the character and some of the foreground objects.  The character is still darker than the background.  See?  Our eye goes to CONTRAST, not brightness.  Let's assess as a thumbnail.

Considering we don't care about line-work detail at this point, which is more successful?  Clearly the image on the right.  If we're happy with our rough values, we will colorize just like before.  This time, however, I will duplicate the Black and White Layer and do  one colorize pass in PURPLE:

And a second colorize pass in GREEN:

Now, placing one of these layers on top of one another.  I will use the Eraser Tool at a low opacity to selectively remove the top layer from certain spots in the composition.

You can see that we're also going to add a little of the base color back in to select areas.  Just make sure you don't get carried away and lose your nice, focused binary color system.

And there you go!   A  quick way to improve the look of your films.  For the final images, it is typical to arrange them at thumbnail size and put them in a rough sequence so you can see how color changes throughout your film.  Imagine how easy it would be to light and texture a film if you were given this information.  Imagine how helpful it would be to work this way when preparing a style frame for a pitch. 

These samples are all from our digital short Gryphon Animo, but a simple Google search of "color scripts" will show you many other examples.   Check them out in grayscale as well - notice how well-balanced the values are.  You'll see this techniques used across the board in a variety of different media.

bottom of page