K-drama color: The power of the palette
I didn’t realize a strange drama habit I had until lately, but I’ve been doing it for years. When I’m sussing out a new show and trying to decide whether I should take the plunge, I often find myself scrolling through the recap or review post. So far so good, since a lot of us do our “drama shopping” like that, checking out people’s first impressions of the show.
But there’s a catch: I’m not actually reading. To read would be to get all sorts of information about the story, characters, and production, which actually I don’t want yet (I’m the sort of person that likes to start a story with as much of a blank slate as I can). So if I’m not reading yet, what am I actually doing while scrolling and scanning? I finally realized: I’m looking at the drama’s palette.
A color palette is something we respond to so organically that sometimes we don’t even realize we’re responding, much like me, scrolling through a My Ajusshi recap, looking at screenshots, and absorbing (through some strange osmosis) the tone of the drama. A few snaps from the show were all I needed to get the feeling of the drama as a whole.
The same thing goes for a drama I’m currently waiting to marathon through — Extraordinary You. I am familiar with the drama’s byline, but have stayed away from peoples’ reactions and thoughts. The only thing I’ve done is peer into the recaps, or even just take a quick look at the leading images — and again, the palette of colors the show uses confirms for me the sort of drama it is. And in this case, it’s pastel-y, warm, and with a high white balance. The palette — the very opposite of the dark and muted color palette of My Ajusshi — tells me that the story of Extraordinary You is charming, magical, youthful, and full of sparkle.
A production like my current drama crush, Secret Boutique, has a palette full of strong and highly saturated colors that adds an intensity to both the characters’ stories and the high stakes revenge scheme of the drama.
But dramas also drain their color sometimes, or use more “outdated” tones for flashback sequences or to mimic a color palette from the past — think Hyeri’s shabby, precious neighborhood in Answer Me 1988.
Sometimes, color palettes can even become such a strong element that a network’s entire body of productions fits into a tonal schema and almost becomes a part of their brand. A good example of this is OCN productions and their now-unmistakable dark and gritty look.
Things like color palette and tone are a huge part of film as a medium, but all this attention to it sometimes makes me wonder: which comes first, the chicken or the egg? Was the drama’s palette (from the filter on the camera to the wardrobe, makeup, and sets) carefully selected during production to create the aesthetically cohesive dramas we’ve come to expect? Or does that all come together as we are experiencing the drama as it airs and finds its unique flavor on the fly?
Since K-dramas tend to be pretty cohesive creations, I think for the most part the palette is carefully planned. Think of the gorgeous, moody, saturated colors throughout Hotel del Luna, from IU’s outfits and lip color, to the sumptuous sets around her. Such consistent imagery requires quite a bit of work and intentional planning.
Perhaps, then, the trick is to make a drama feel like the highly measured and intentional tone and color palette are effortless, or even accidental. That they’re organic to the drama and just a happy byproduct of the story, when actually they’re studied, curated, and are an integral part of how we experience the drama.
This idea of a color palette impacting a drama’s tone and theme isn’t the only way dramas use color, though. Because dramas are a visual medium, we can’t discount the fact of the simple pleasure they bring to us on a purely aesthetic level.
The fashion and makeup are easy to spot (and enjoy), for most of us. From the latest vivid lipstick to the colorful and inventive clothing characters sport, dramas are a great vehicle for playing with elements that people might not see in their day-to-day — glitter stilettos, parkas with hot pink fur trim, and polka dot headbands with giant pompoms on top. I remember way back when, when I first started watching dramas, how totally enchanted I was with how dramas used things as simple as costumes, hair, and makeup, to make their stories all the more entertaining, and fun for the eyes.
But it doesn’t stop there — aesthetics like color actually drive K-drama sets and scenes as well. Drama sets, and particularly the way homes are staged, are actually something I love to pay special attention to. Primarily, the homes are built to tell us more about the character (their taste, their social position, their emotional climate, etc.) as well as giving a place for the action to take place. But these more functional aspects of the set make it easy to discount the wonderful artistic effort that goes into making these spaces balanced, cohesive, and pleasant to look at — and actually feel like places where people live.
Did a colorful K-drama set ever jump out at you so strongly that you were left: a) marveling over its loveliness b) pausing and Googling to find something similar for purchase (me with Kim Se-jong’s multi-color pompom curtains in Let Me Hear Your Song), or c) wishing you could just disappear into the set? I loved the way Ji Soo’s house (and especially kitchen) in My First First Love looked like a garage sale collection of random, brightly colored, and well-loved items. You have to hand it to a production that’s able to make a space feel so incredibly warm, loved, and lived in.
The kitchen that really stole my heart, though, was in a drama that I never even finished — Warm Words. I might have passed on the drama, but the awesome use and balance of color in this kitchen has never left my brain (just look at it!).
Another favorite kitchen (apparently this is a thing for me), was in Memories of the Alhambra, where the color and design of the kitchen set (even the broom!) created this fairy tale-like setting that was perfect as the drama unfolded its mystery and magic.
There’s no limit to the storytelling power of color, and I’ve only just scratched the surface of how K-dramas sometimes use it. While it’s hard to miss when a color palette creates a strong tone and feel for a drama, color can also inject fun and visual interest into a story as well.
I guarantee if you pay special attention to color in the next episode of the drama you watch, you’ll be surprised at the how much it helps tell the story, how it creates a rich aesthetic — and who knows, vibrant pops of K-drama color just might find their way into your everyday life.