I can’t keep my eyes off Adventure Time. The stories and animation are reason enough alone to watch the show, but I’m specifically talking about their choice of color. Why is it so captivating? How can I emulate that engaging style?

Dan Toth has a pretty cool color swatch gallery from each of the episodes in Seasons one and two, but I’m looking for patterns in the colors that I can use elsewhere. I’m no expert in color, but I figured I’d take a stab at this, so I spent some time poking at the different colors in the title sequence and I found some interesting stuff.

This is the first frame where Finn and Jake appear in the intro. First, let’s look at them.

Since Finn and Jake are the main characters, their most prominent colors (and basically all of Jake) are both almost completely saturated and at full brightness. The HSV samples show that, and the RGB and CMYK samples show that they pretty much dropped out everything but the color they’re trying to highlight. This makes them really visible and recognizable. In other scenes where they’re in shadow, the brightness drops but the saturation stays super high, and they’re still pretty much the brightest things in the scene.

The really high saturation appears pretty regularly in the intro. Check out this frame:

I dropped this in a color analyzer, and the histogram for this is pretty nuts. It’s almost entirely in one small range of hues since it’s all blue, but look at that saturation! Almost the entire frame is fully saturated. They’re really just varying on brightness here.

This seems to be a pretty regular strategy throughout the show: very saturated colors pretty much everywhere, with variation in brightness. Here’s a nice counter example from the intro, though: the Candy Kingdom entrance.

This frame is pretty much all the same brightness: crazy high. Instead, they’re varying the hue and saturation to make the palette. Those spikes in the saturation histogram are the sky and the trees.

To drive the brightness idea home here: Both colors of pink in the trees, the tree trunks, three of the four colors in the rainbow, the cloud above the castle, all three colors in the candy corn and the pink candy guy, the donut frosting and the cupcake frosting, the yellow ground and both colors of the path are ALL 100% BRIGHTNESS in the HSV scale. Pretty much everything else is 80% or above, and most of that is above 90%, it’s nuts.

I find this kind of color palette choice fascinating. We’re kind of narrowing in on a pattern here that I wasn’t really familiar with before: Using RGB and CMYK to choose colors in a palette isn’t really helpful, but rather you should go after it with a HSV selector and vary brightness or saturation to make this kind of unreal color style.

I touched on the rainbow briefly in the last frame. I love rainbows, so lastly I want to jump back to the characters and talk about Lady Rainicorn for a sec.

The rainbow in the last frame was pretty much all 100% brightness, and there’s no difference here: All the fill colors in this frame are at full brightness. So is there a pattern with Lady Rainicorn’s rainbow?

I… kind of can’t tell. This is the limit of what I can poke at here. Each color has a max value in one RGB value. This sort of coincides with the max brightness in the HSV scale, though, since it looks like one of these has to be maxed out to have full brightness. Pretty much nothing else is uniform, so this is kind of a stab in the dark.


Final notes: I am a total noob here. Hopefully I’ll figure out more of this later, but if you’ve got some insight into the colors here lemme know because you’re rad. I skipped over the scenes with Marceline and the Lich which take all the punch out of the colors to show the deadness because I’m just not that interested in making similar things yet and MUH. I’d also like to note that I find the colors in Futurama equally fascinating, but they don’t have that same SHAZOW that Adventure Time does, so I didn’t use it as an example here.


Updates as I find out new stuff here, lots of good discussion in my Facebook share of the post:

Rob Beschizza says this strategy with the high brightness or saturation “is why magic/lightning/laserbeam style painted SFX from 1980s movies looks so awesome, same thing with color channels.” Rad!

My friend Tara Helfer brought up that these differences in saturation and brightness are also used to distinguish between the foreground and the background. It’s a little less obvious in the title sequence, but check out the sky as they’re flying through the world in the very beginning: It gets progressively brighter as the camera moves forward and that shows the motion really nicely. “The mountains in the background have a lower saturation. Objects further away from the eye are duller in color. It makes the foreground and the characters pop. Check out the backgrounds in MLP too.”

Tara also says she picks colors from photos or from what the picture needs, then boosts the saturation of important figures afterwards to make them really pop. Cool!

  • Juan Fernandez

    A great jumping off point for making digital palettes that I’ve been using for a while is to take image files containing color combinations that I like and then reducing them drastically in file quality. The file will then be dominated by the primary colors that were composing the color interaction that you found so pleasing.

    • deanputney

      I’ve used Photoshop’s “pixelate” filter for this before. It’s mostly the same thing as reducing the file size with nearest neighbor reduction turned on, and it makes the same color index you’re talking about. Thanks for mentioning this!