Using color as a storytelling tool
Rahul Purav
June 22, 2023

Using color as a storytelling tool

The role of the TV and film colorist has changed significantly over the last 20 years, and the science of color on screen has also continued to evolve. While studios were previously producing content for basic standard-definition TVs and older cinema screens, technology has moved on. HDR, which boosts contrast and brings a wider range of colors to the screen, is rapidly becoming standard, while greater screen resolutions mean that we are now working in much higher detail. The shift to digital has changed the way that we process images, and audiences are now consuming content on a wider range of devices and screen sizes. 

As a result, color grading is now more important than ever before, with the industry moving towards color-based narration for audiences. Long before becoming a full-time colorist, I first studied color theory and how it affects human psychology at university, and later worked for 15 years as a VFX compositor. With more than two decades of experience, I’ve worked across multiple areas of production, from commercials and episodic shows to Bollywood blockbusters.


Coming from a family of artists and architects, I’ve turned a lifelong fascination with art and the use of color into a career in VFX. I was especially inspired to work in VFX by pre-CGI films like Star Wars and The Ten Commandments, where I was intrigued by the famous scene in which Moses parts the Red Sea and how the effect was achieved.

After completing a degree in Commercial and Advertising Art in 1990 at the Sir J. J. Institute of Applied Art in Mumbai, I took a background course in computer programming to get into animation, since there was no formal training for this in the 1990s. Learning programming languages was challenging at first, but it laid the foundation for a strong understanding of how to implement different software and processes. 

Following my time as a VFX artist, I moved on to set up and supervise different areas of post production. This included setting up VFX divisions and organizing digital correction workflows. Later on, I became a consulting specialist for Shemaroo Entertainment for a short term, with a focus on digital restoration and color correction.

I got involved with FutureWorks before it officially took off in 2007, working with the management team. Since its inception, FutureWorks has become a leader in end-to-end film production from visual effects and post production, to the supply of high-precision cameras and lenses for productions all over the world. As head of imaging, I now work across multiple feature films and episodic shows. Among my most recent projects are the period drama Jogi, and dark comedy feature film Darlings, both from Netflix.


At FutureWorks, we have made substantial investments to upgrade color technology to stay ahead of the game and ensure that we can continue to grow as the industry evolves. One of the key innovations we have made is on-set color grading. Live color correction gives us a good idea of how things will look in the final cut. Working in close collaboration with the director and DoP, we’re able to focus on quality control, identifying issues in the VFX ahead of post production. 

We’ve been using on-set color correction as far back as 2010 on the film Dum Maaro Dum, but in those days it was an expensive analog process, with a delay of up to two days to account for film processing. When digital cameras came along, the process became much faster and easier, transforming the industry. On-set color previs is now much more prevalent, and as we have our own camera division, we were able to create a process with a very quick turnaround. We put this workflow into use in 2019, just ahead of the COVID pandemic, first monitoring live SDR signals from the camera for color correction, and now also HDR.

We are now encouraging more cinematographers to take advantage of the on-set color process. We have already used it on several projects, including the 2022 independent film Jersey. As more films and TV shows begin to use virtual production, we’ll see more of a shift towards on-set color correction. The main challenge is bridging the knowledge gap and getting everyone on board. Being able to make live color corrections on-set is a huge advantage for the whole production team. As well as the director and DoP, other departments, such as costume and make-up, can also benefit from an understanding of how the color will look in the final cut.


Long-form content gives colorists the opportunity to spark different emotions in the audience, using different color palettes and tones. Darlings is a good example of how fine-tuning colors in the post production process can elevate a scene’s emotional impact. In the film’s dramatic finale, the interplay of image, light and color helped to build tension and heighten the drama, drawing the audience deeper into the on-screen world with color narration. When something I’ve worked on gets an emotional response from the audience, that’s when I know I’ve done my job well. 

Color can bring a certain feel to any piece, without the viewer even knowing it. Simply by tweaking the luminance and chroma, or by changing palettes between scenes, colorists can completely change the tone of a story, or subconsciously immerse the viewer into a totally different world. Recent films like The Matrix Resurrections and Avatar: The Way of Water are good examples of color narration transporting viewers into their worlds, and making the storytelling more immersive.

As the industry continues to shift, more people are embracing the importance of color, and more exchange of talent is happening on a global scale. And while the technology may have changed, being a colorist is still all about captivating the audience with a compelling story and provoking an emotional response.

Rahul Purav is the head of color at FutureWorks ( in Mumbai, India.