What colors are these actors wearing?
In these pictures, they’re wearing the same costumes, but in different lighting conditions. On top of that, post-production adjustments to photographs and video will alter the color even further.
Determining color can be one of the biggest headaches for a cosplayer. Comics and anime have the advantage of a regulated palette and consistency, but when you’re looking to recreate something from a live-action source, it’s a whole other can of worms.
Light: A Primer
White light isn’t precisely white. Think about how different sunlight can be at midday as compared to shortly after sunrise. The variations in white light are described in terms of color temperature.
White light’s temperature ranges from 1800 degrees Kelvin – redder tones – up to 12,000 degrees Kelvin – where the really blue light likes to hang out.
Light with a higher color temperature is described as “cooler”, because of that blue. Light with a lower color temperature is described as “warmer” because it’s redder.
This can be a little confusing because, in scientific terms blue light is higher energy and “hotter” but this is art we’re talking about, not science.
Warmer light is more flattering for all skin tones and it’s easier for us to look at – which is why most exterior scenes in the movies are shot within a couple of hours of dawn or dusk during what’s known as “the golden hours”, even if if the script tells you it’s the middle of the day. It’s also why we put lit candles out during an intimate dinner and not LED lamps.
Colors seem to change when we’re out of doors because the environment adds a lot of blue to anything you see. How? There’s this huge blue ceiling overhead, reflecting it all over the place. Artists refer to this as “free blue” and it’s exactly what it sounds like. Everything looks bluer than it really is.
And that’s just dealing with colors in sunlight. Once you go into a studio, it gets even more complicated. Between the lights and the gels, you’ll get every color of the rainbow and a cinematographer is going to use a whole bunch at any given time.
The bridge of the Enterprise D has to be one of the most flatly-lit properties in modern fiction. Seriously, it’s lit like a TV news set. Take a look at Geordi’s uniform at the top of the page. When taken out from under a studio light and examined in daylight, that yellow fabric is much closer to green. Green. (Ask me sometime about the pink wall on a soundstage that turned yellow when I filmed it…)
Folks who have a chance to go see movie costumes on exhibit often express surprise at the difference between what they see on the mannequin as compared to what they saw on the screen. That’s what lighting can do to a costume.
Viewing conditions are a huge factor to consider. Go to your local electronics store and take a look at the wall of televisions on display. Do all the images look alike in terms of brightness and color? Of course not. The viewing medium also impacts what you see. I really wish every fabric retailer online would take their photos with a color test card – or even just a card of 50% grey – and then include that with the images of the merchandise. That plus a bit of help from Photoshop can help you get an idea of what the color of the fabric is, regardless of the viewing source.
So which do you re-create as a cosplayer? The costume as seen in the studio? As seen in an exterior shot? As seen on exhibit?
The answer that’s going to cause you the least amount of stress is “Look at a lot of pictures taken in different conditions and pick the color you like”.
“But, but, but,” you say. “I want the color to be RIGHT. I want it to be SCREEN ACCURATE!”
I wish the term “screen accurate” had never come into our vocabulary. The fact is that there is no such thing as “screen accurate” when it comes to colors. Between the variables created by lighting conditions AND viewing conditions, the only way to even try defining the notion of “screen accurate” would be to recreate how a costume looks to the naked eye, under natural light – not studio light. But that’s just my opinion.
Most cosplayers will take the path of greatest sanity, review a variety of sources and then choose the color they like best. Occasionally, you might be tempted to disappear down a rabbit hole of hunting for the PERFECT picture and the PERFECT color, but try to resist that urge. The costumers’ adage of “Perfect is the enemy of done” is extremely relevant in these situations. Perfect might exist within some aspects of cosplay – reproducing a prop, or matching a piece of jewelry, but when it comes to matching colors, perfect doesn’t exist. Do what’s going to make you happy and fit your budget.
If you think you can find the original fabric used in a costume, think again. Every Q&A I’ve been to with a professional costumer, every time I’ve read an interview online and the question comes up regarding a fabric’s source, the answer always seems to start with “Oh, we found it in Diagon Alley” – or some other impossible place – and ends with “…and we bought the entire stock.”
No, professional costumers don’t do this to make our lives difficult, they do it because a single costume usually has to be made several times over and that takes a lot of fabric. Look for the best match you can afford, but don’t stay awake at night expecting to find the exact same thing used for Maleficent’s dress. Odds are, there’s no more of it to be had.
If you’re really stuck when picking a color, use this as a tiebreaker: which color is going to suit your skin-tone best? The site’s a little annoying, but check out Color Me Beautiful to determine your color “season” and, from there, you can browse an infinite number of style-advice sites that will be only too happy to let you know which colors will suit you.