Category: movies

The Future is Electric Blue, Part II

What do Luke’s Lightsaber, the main deflector dish of the USS Enterprise-D, and J.J. Abrams’ ubiquitous lens flare have in common?

What characteristic do the engine of the Millenium Falcon, Dr. Manhattan of the Watchman, and the diva of the Fifth Element share?

I’ll make it easier.  What color unites the N’avi of Avatar, the light-cycles of Tron: Legacy, and the cover art of Prometheus?

The answer to the riddle: All of these things are electric blue.  I’ve written in the past about how electric blue is a kind of signal of science fiction, one that shows up in a statistically robust way when performing an unbiased analysis of the color spectrum of movies.  Electric blue can be found in your major sci-fi franchises:




And in the box art of minor box-office bombs:


In your kitschy classics:


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The Evolution of Star Trek

12 feature films.

Nearly 50 years.  6 television shows.  Billions of dollars.  Millions of fans.

Innumerable video games, novelizations, toys.  An entirely fabricated language.  Conventions galore.

The cultural impact of Star Trek is staggering.  It has saved lives.  It has broken barriers, attracting Martin Luther King’s attention.  There is arguably no other modern, fictional universe so influential and so long-lasting.  Gene Roddenberry’s creation, a little stilted and hokey and Panglossian in its vision of the future, has grown into a vast commercial and literary and cinematic empire.  Whether you love it or hate it, Star Trek exercises a massive impact on the world.

From the perspective of film, despite the prodigious quantity of Star Trek movies, none of them has really been exceptional in terms of quality.  Granted, Star Trek is a niche product, but with a dozen movies to its name, you’d think there would be at least one great one just by chance.  Yet, the most acclaimed Star Trek movie–J.J. Abrams’ 2009 reboot–rates presently an 8.1 by IMDB’s metrics, occupying a pedestrian rank of 247th on IMDB’s list of the best films in history (given the propensity for recently-released movies to be temporarily boosted, its true position may be even lower).  Even though the films have been praised for lavish special effects and at times interesting cinematography, they’ve never really achieved widespread critical acclaim or broken through into the cinematic canon.

There is, however, another reason to examine them: time.  There’s no movie franchise, excepting James Bond, with as steady and persistent a historical record as Star Trek.  From 1979 to 2013, fully 12 Star Trek feature films have been released; the longest gap between films was only seven years.

Furthermore, whereas Bond has changed his setting and actors and style, there are common elements, both thematic and visual, throughout each of the Star Trek movies–for instance, the Enterprise itself.  To Star Trek’s enduring credit, the franchise has never really lost its charming, nerdy, futuristic individuality.  Even though actors have aged and been replaced, even though styles and fads have come and gone, some core principles of Trek have remained constant (more than some series can say).  Like the Ship of Theseus, Star Trek has maintained its identity, despite nearly every constituent piece having been replaced.


Visual Analysis

I digitized and examined 11 out of the 12 movies, representing the full span from 1979-2013.  In brief, this analysis consists of taking still pictures, one per second, from each movie, chopping those stills into small segments, and then storing the mean color in each segment for analysis (see here for more information).  Here’s some vital statistics on the movies, overall:

NameYear of ReleaseMetacritic ScoreGross Box Office (in millions of dollars)
The Motion Picture19794882
The Wrath of Khan19827178
The Search for Spock19845576
The Voyage Home198667109
The Final Frontier19894352
First Contact19967192
Star Trek200983257
Into Darkness201372228

(nota bene, I failed to digitize Star Trek 6: The Undiscovered Country)

Using such an analysis, we can examine several important traits for each movie.  Let’s start with brightness, or how light each movie is.  Take a look at these stills of the bridge of the Enterprise, a sort of common point of visual reference for each series of movies, and guess which movie is the brightest.


From top left, that’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture (the very first one), Star Trek 6: The Undiscovered Country, Star Trek Insurrection, and the 2009 Star Trek reboot.  If you guessed that the bottom right, that is the reboot, was the brightest of the four, you’d be right.  Indeed, look upon the overall trend of brightness in the movies, and you shall find…


… that it’s been pretty static over the course of the original cast and second generation movies, before abruptly spiking in Abrams’ retellings.  The two severe drops correspond to Wrath of Khan and First Contact, both reasonably dark movies (in both tone and setting).

Another statistic of interest is color speed, which measures how fast colors change throughout a film.  Looking at that produces a slightly different pattern.


Color speed increases strikingly throughout the run of films, to a significant extent.  Towards the end of the run–again, Abrams’ portion–Star Trek begins to exhibit levels of color speed characteristic of action movies.  Unlike in the last graph, however, when you remove the last two films, there remains a significant positive trend of color speed.  In other words, Star Trek movies were getting faster before J.J. Abrams ever sullied them with his populist hands.  Star Trek movies have been getting faster since the 80s, and Abrams’ reincarnation merely reflects that trend.


Star Trek Became Electric Blue

In a previous post, I found that a particular set of colors is especially associated with science fiction, so much so that a machine learning algorithm can accurately distinguish science fiction from non-science fiction using only those colors.  Foremost among those colors was electric blue.

Since I wrote that, I’ve kept a keen eye out for electric blue in movies of all kinds.  Looking for it in Star Trek, I found an interesting trend.  Take a look at the Enterprise’s main deflector dish, which is the round thing at the bottom of the ship (I am slightly ashamed of myself for knowing that, but you don’t watch as much Star Trek as it took to put this together without figuring out what a deflector dish is).


This picture is the first head-on depiction of the Enterprise (in the films, anyway).  Note its color, a sort of bland grey.  Now let’s fast forward to the fifth movie in the franchise.


The deflector dish has turned blue!  And not just any blue, mind you, but a beautiful fluorescent electric blue.  It has remained this color for the duration of the run, with few exceptions (e.g. Star Trek: Insurrection).  As it happens, a similar thing happened to the warp nacelles (oh god what’s happening to me…)…. these are the things sticking up at the back of the ship like ears (to the right in the below picture).

This one coincided with the beginning of the Next Generation era, that is the cast headed by Sir Patrick Stewart.

Just in case that wasn’t enough electric blue, all of the screens got a serious dose around the same time as the deflector dish.


Leave it to Abrams to take that trend up to 11:


Now the whole bridge is outlined in shades of electric blue.  Oh, and the reactor.  The bottom line is that Star Trek became more and more electric blue as the series has progressed, usually with the blue elements being attached to the most advanced bits of imaginary technology.


Brighter, Faster, Blue-r

The Star Trek movies form an incredible resource for examining visual trends in movies over the 40 years of their continued existence.  In this preliminary analysis, I’ve found three striking trends in the evolution of these movies.  First, the movies have gotten brighter, but really only due to the last two entries in the franchise, both directed by J.J. Abrams.  Abrams loves him some lens flare and explosions.


Second, the movies have gotten faster, which correlates well with pacing.  Unlike the above pattern, which was driven by the most recent outliers, the increase in pace seems steady through the whole, decades-long run of Star Trek.  Does that increase in velocity hold generally, for all movies?  A question to be addressed in the future, for sure.

Third, electric blue shows up quite strongly in Star Trek, usually with reference to a futuristic piece of technology such as the deflector dish or the engine nacelles or the warp core.  This occurrence reinforces the notion that electric blue is acting a bit like a subconscious signal of futurity (“here there’s science fiction things happening!”).  Given its outsize influence in the history of science fiction, I don’t think its outlandish to suggest that Star Trek’s early (1980s) embrace of electric blue may have primed viewers to associate the color with the genre in later movies.  Maybe that’s how the future became electric blue.

The Visual Anatomy of a Masterpiece

2001: A Space Odyssey

… is a helluva movie.  For starters, it’s one of the consensus best movies ever made, by nearly every maker of such lists.  It’s a landmark in cinema history for its complexity, its astounding special effects, and its genre-defying ways.  Its release was a watershed moment in the history of science fiction, too, marking perhaps the first time this type of story reached the mainstream.

Spoilers follow, although — if anything — I suspect that they will improve your enjoyment of the movie.  In rough outline, 2001 concerns the discovery and subsequent contact with an alien artifact whose purpose is unclear.  It begins in prehistory, as a group of apes are somehow evolved by the artifact into using tools (the Dawn of Man).  It continues in the year 2001, when the same artifact—or perhaps an exact copy—is discovered on the Moon, and emits a mysterious transmission to Jupiter (To the Moon).  The third section is the most famous, and concerns a mission to Jupiter to figure out precisely what the artifact was transmitting to (Jupiter Mission).  This segment is the site of Hal’s battle with David Bowman (“I’m afraid I can’t do that, Dave”—that Hal), who eventually disables the artificial intelligence.  Bowman continues on to Jupiter, where a bunch of trippy ???? happens, and the movie closes with a giant fetus called the Starchild—who is perhaps David Bowman?—floating above the Earth (Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite).

Go back and reread that paragraph.  I assure you, it will make even less sense the second time.

Stanley Kubrick, the director, and Arthur C. Clarke, the writer, are said to have designed the movie to be purposefully inscrutable, to be not easily comprehended.  For the most part, that has withstood the test of time: scholars and denizens of the internet debate to this day what the movie means.  I set out to see what color analysis had to say about the mystery.


The Match Cut

The Match Cut

The first thing that struck me was the Match Cut.

I say “the Match Cut” because this is literally the paradigmatic example of a match cut.  A match cut is when the movie cuts (changes frames) between two objects that look approximately alike but aren’t—in this case, the bone flying through the air, and the space station hovering over the Earth.

This cut is famous most of all for its implied message.  In the context of 1968 (when 2001 was released), the space station on the right was viewed to be a spaceborne nuclear weapons platform; while the bone symbolized prehistoric man’s desire to destroy.  The implication, then, is obvious: despite millennia of progress and the technological feat of space travel, humans are still bound by their primordial need for ruination.

The cut is astounding, too, because it separates two sections with incredible abruptness—almost violence.  It is the single fastest frame transition from the movie, and the side-by-side picture ought to convince you of why: the Dawn of Man image, in light blues and the bleached white of the bone, gives way to the obsidian black of space, with the only object being the grey nuclear weapons platform.  Although shape-wise these two frames are nearly identical, the violent color shift confirms the significance of the transition.


Incredible Stillness

Besides the match cut, 2001 is an incredibly slow-moving film.  That’s not a criticism, it’s a statement of fact: Kubrick is happy to let the camera linger on a visually-astounding zero-gee maneuver, with music swelling in the background, and only the tiniest bit of motion to break the visual monotony.

Take a look at this histogram of mean frame color speed (definition here).

Histogram of Color Speeds for 2001

There’s a peak at zero color speed.  What means is that there was literally no motion in frame, for the length of at least one second.  Notice, too, that this zero motion bin is the mode of the distribution: the single most common value was zero.  In fact, fully 403 seconds of the movie had zero color speed, or almost 7 full minutes.  Another ~3 minutes had color speeds <.001, which is effectively nothing, for a grand total of 10 minutes of stillness.  That means that more than 5% of the movie was spent with nothing happening on screen.  This fact staggers me; no other movie I’ve seen spends so much of its time in stillness.


Color Structure

2001 is unusual on account of the way it is segmented into four parts.  Before three of the parts, there are title cards naming the subsequent sections, while “the Dawn of Man” is separated from the second segment (which I whimsically named “To the Moon”) by the famous match cut discussed above.  While all works of narrative possess a structure, not all demarcate the borders between elements as obviously 2001 does.

This segmentation provides a natural way to analyze the color structure of the movie: by analyzing each of acts separately, I hoped to gain some insight into the flow of the movie.  I computed the mean values each of the three predefined color statistics in each section.  As a reminder, color lightness represents the mean brightness of a frame, or how close to pure white it is; color diversity, the overall spread of colors within a set of frames; and color speed, how quickly the movie transitions between colors.


2001 color diversity by section VA_collightness VA_colspeed

The message is consistent for the three statistics.  Segments 1 and 4 are relatively similar, while segments 2 and 3 stake out a different set of parameters.  More specifically, segments 1 and 4 are brighter, faster, and more colorful than segments 2 and 3.  Colorwise, it is not entirely surprising to see the middle two segments together and darker, as both take place in space and primarily involve space travel.  What is more astonishing is that the Dawn of Man and Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite co-segregate so closely.  One of these takes place on prehistoric earth, and concerns a group of apes evolving; the other in some liminal timeframe, as David Bowman is mutated into the Starchild by the monolith.  And yet, with regards to these genre-markers, those two segments are quite similar.

Moreover, the pattern of each statistic is mostly consistent.  Two graphs has segments ranked 1, 4, 2, 3, and color diversity is the lone outlier at 1, 4, 3, 2.  The movie becomes darker and slower-moving towards the middle, and most especially in the climax of the film, wherein Bowman battles Hal.  In a previous analysis, I found that darkness and low color speed effectively marked “Drama” movies in contrast to other genres.  I wonder now whether these same patterns hold within a movie, so that each movie’s most dramatic moments are its slowest and darkest.  Regardless, one can clearly view the path of the story as the tension increases towards the middle and is relieved at the end.



What struck me most from the color analysis of the movie was Kubrick’s clever pacing.  In the movie, Kubrick plays with extremes of transition: from moments of complete inactivity, to the violence of the match cut, to the steady building of drama in the middle of the film, there is a constant tension between motion and serenity.  It helps that Kubrick’s shots are composed like paintings and surrounded by orchestral sound, so that the 10 full minutes of silence come across not as padding but as some hushed contemplation.  It’s impressive how bold Kubrick was to let the action unfold at this glacial pace.

What can we make of all this?  I’m not sure, and I won’t pretend to be.  This movie has baffled critics and fans.  It was designed to do so.  I will hazard an interpretation which I hope you’ll forgive, as it’s a bit far afield.

There aren’t many stories that are arranged in four parts—that is an unusual number.  We are accustomed to considering stories in three; that is, beginning, middle and end.  2001 lacks much of a beginning; it’s first segment is disconnected from the next two by the match cut.  And after you’ve waded through an hour or so of space travel and the relief of Hal’s defeat, you are once again greeted with a non sequitur, a section literally entitled “Beyond the Infinite”, a contradiction and a paradox.  Suddenly there are bright colors again, abstract landscapes, a domestic scene; but there is no conclusion but the sight of a giant fetus hanging over the Earth.  I was not the first to sit there slackjawed for several minutes, desperately attempting to piece together what it all meant.

The four part structure makes me think of Kishotenketsu, an Eastern narrative structure.  Whereas the traditional three part structure is founded on the notion of a conflict between characters, Kishotenketsu has no such conflict.  The idea of it is to present 4 seemingly disconnected observations or ideas, which then somehow reconcile towards the end to imply—but not directly state—a meaning.  This four-panel cartoon is an excellent example (coupled to a great explanation here).

I wonder if 2001 isn’t a kind of Kishotenketsu.  While all of the segments are disconnected—there is no single character who appears in all four, and thus there can be no consistent conflict—there is the lurking specter of a deeper meaning behind it all.  That meaning is profoundly hidden, certainly, but it’s not unreasonable to see a message about evolution in there somehow.  Maybe the stillness of the movie, and the ambiguity of its purpose, are there not to communicate some message but rather to pose a question about the ultimate destiny of mankind.