Quantifying the unquantifiable: the color of cinematic lighting and its effect on audience’s impressions towards the appearance of film characters


This study is an attempt to investigate the ability of different colors used in cinematic lighting designs to affect audience’s impressions towards the appearance and mood of film characters. The study critically appraised existing cinematic lighting techniques and identified the two basic color groups (i.e., warm and cold colors) that should be examined in order to answer the research questions and formulate its conclusions. To provide the needed empirical evidence for this research work, some experiments with a representative sample of viewers were conducted. These experiments confirmed the existence of direct relationships between various colors of lighting and the perceived appearance and mood of film characters. Moreover, specific color hues of lighting appeared to be more effective than others in altering the perceived appearance and mood of film characters. The study concluded that audience’s perception of appearances and moods within cinematic shots is linked, even in part, to different colors of lighting.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3
Fig. 4
Fig. 5
Fig. 6
Fig. 7
Fig. 8
Fig. 9
Fig. 10
Fig. 11
Fig. 12
Fig. 13
Fig. 14
Fig. 15
Fig. 16


  1. Abboud, B., Davoine, F., & Dang, M. (2004). Facial expression recognition and synthesis based on an appearance model. Signal Processing: Image Communication., 19, 723–740.

    Google Scholar 

  2. Adelmann, P. K., & Zajonc, R. B. (1989). Facial efference and the experience of emotion. Annual Review in Psychology., 40, 249–280.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Bang, M. (2016). Picture this: How pictures work. San Francisco: Chronicle Books LLC.

    Google Scholar 

  4. Berlyne, D. E. (Ed.). (1974). Studies in the new experimental aesthetics. Washington, DC: Hemisphere.

    Google Scholar 

  5. Berry, D. S., & McArthur, L. Z. (1986). Perceiving character in faces: The impact of age-related craniofacial changes on social perception. Psychological Bulletin., 100(1), 3–18.

    Article  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  6. Bloomer, C. M. (1990). Principles of visual perception. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Company.

    Google Scholar 

  7. Boyle, G. J. (1987). A cross-validation of the factor structure of the profile of mood states: Were the factors correctly identified in the first instance? Psychological Reports., 60, 343–354.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Brown, B. (2018). Motion picture and video lighting (3rd ed.). London: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  9. Castellanos, J., Delicado, J., & Dominguez, C. (1994). Hypermedia method to teach concepts of color through art. ACM Transactions on Graphics., 10, 321–327.

    Google Scholar 

  10. Chen, M. (2011). Visual literacy for theatre. New York: Linus Publications.

    Google Scholar 

  11. Dondis, D. A. (1973). A primer of visual literacy. Cambridge: MIT Press.

    Google Scholar 

  12. Durling D (2000). Reliable knowledge in design. Working papers in art and design. Volume 1 (on line). https://www.herts.ac.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0019 /12286/WPIAAD_vol1_durling.pdf

  13. Ekman, P., & Oster, H. (1979). Facial expressions of emotion. Annual Reviews in Psychology., 30, 527–554.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Ericsson, K. A., & Simon, H. A. (1993). Protocol analysis: Verbal reports as data. Cambridge: MIT Press.

    Google Scholar 

  15. Glenn B L (2002). The three penny opera: Designing lights with brecht. Mphil thesis. Louisiana State University.

  16. Gooch, B., Reinhard, E., & Gooch, A. (2004). Human facial illustrations: Creation and psychophysical evaluation. ACM Transactions on Graphics., 23(1), 27–44.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Grawitch M J (2004). Comparing the structural and functional approaches to mood: Design and validation of the approach-avoidance mood measure. Ph.D. thesis. Saint Louis University.

  18. Henry, R. C., Mahadev, S., Urquijo, S., & Chitwood, D. (2000). Color perception through atmospheric haze. Journal of the Optical Society of America A, 17(5), 831–835.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Holtzschue, L. (2017). Understanding color: An introduction for designers (5th ed.). New Jersey: Wiley.

    Google Scholar 

  20. Hornung, D. (2012). Color: A workshop for artists and designers (a practical guide on color application for artists and designers) (2nd ed.). London: Laurence King Publishing.

    Google Scholar 

  21. Kang J (2004). The effect of light on the movement of people. PhD thesis. University of Minnesota.

  22. Kaufman, D. (2004). Light conversation. Back Stage., 45(17), 45–48.

    Google Scholar 

  23. Kingdom, F. A. (2003). Color brings relief to human vision. Nature Neuroscience., 6(6), 641–644.

    Article  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  24. Lam, W. M. (1992). Perception and lighting as form-givers for architecture. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold.

    Google Scholar 

  25. Landau D (2014). Lighting for cinematography: A practical guide to the art and craft of lighting for the moving image (the CineTech guides to the film crafts). Bloomsbury Academic.

  26. Lee H C, Hao X & Varshney A (2004). Light collages: Lighting design for effective visualization. IEEE Visualization 2004. October 10–15. Austin, Texas, USA. P.p. 281–288.

  27. Malkiewicz K (2012). Film lighting: Talks with Hollywood's cinematographers and gaffers. Revised Edition. Touchstone.

  28. Mc Nair, D., Lorr, M., & Droppleman, L. (1971). Profile of mood states: Manual. San Diego: Educational and Industrial Testing Service.

    Google Scholar 

  29. Moyer, D., & Flynn, B. (2019). Visual literacy workbook: For graphic design and fine art students (1st ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  30. Park, Y., & Guerin, D. (2002). Meaning and preference of interior color palettes among four cultures. Journal of Interior Design., 28(1), 27–39.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  31. Pierman B C (ed) (1976). Color in the health care environment. Proceedings of a special workshop held at the National Bureau of Standards, Gaithersburg, Maryland. November 16, 1976. Washington: Department of Commerce.

  32. Rotem O (2003). The world as one whole: The syntactic role of color in film. KINEMA. Spring 2003.

  33. Russell P. M (1999). Focused instructional multimedia design guidelines. Volume one. PhD thesis. Staffordshire University.

  34. Scanlon, T. J. (1970). Viewer’s perception of color, black and white television: An experiment. Journalism Quarterly., 47, 366–368.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  35. Schwartz, S. (2017). Visual perception: A clinical orientation (5th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill Education.

    Google Scholar 

  36. Serafini, F. (2013). Reading the visual: An introduction to teaching multimodal literacy. Teachers College Press.

  37. Seif El-Nasr M & Horswill I (2004). Automating lighting design for interactive entertainment. ACM Computer in Entertainment. 2(2): Article 05.

  38. Van Gorp, A. J. (2000). Guiding issues of artificial light use in urban landscape architecture. MPhil thesis: University of Manitoba.

    Google Scholar 

  39. Vanstone, K. M. (1998). Media images and effects on mood and eating: A function of dietary restraint? Mphil thesis: University of Manitoba.

    Google Scholar 

  40. Wright, P. (1980). Message-evoked thoughts: Persuasion research using thought verbalizations. Journal of Consumer Research., 7, 151–175.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  41. Yousry Matbouly M (2007). The effect of three-point lighting design on television images. PhD thesis. Staffordshire University.

Download references



Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Mustafa Yousry Matbouly.

Ethics declarations

Conflict of Interest

Not Applicable.

Ethics Approval

Approved by university research board. Moreover, all participants involved in this study were treated in a manner consistent with the ethical guidelines of the American Psychological Association (APA).

Informed Consent

Participants were informed about all aspects of the experiments, and the participants voluntarily confirmed their willingness to participate.

Additional information

Publisher’s Note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Data collection for the purposes of this research followed the well-known ethical standards for research work.

Electronic supplementary material


(DOC 41 kb)


(DOC 71 kb)


(DOC 1199 kb)


(DOC 484 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Matbouly, M.Y. Quantifying the unquantifiable: the color of cinematic lighting and its effect on audience’s impressions towards the appearance of film characters. Curr Psychol (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12144-020-00900-3

Download citation


  • Color
  • Cinematic lighting
  • Film
  • Perception
  • Appearances
  • Moods