The Art of Dominant Color in Film

In a recent post to the nettime list, Florian Cramer gives a slightly tongue-in-cheek description of his recent work on his Floppy Films project
In my own attempt of compressing this year's Oscar-nominated films to full-length 1.44 MB files as part of my Floppy Films project, I also crunched "Slumdog Millionaire" to a 7x3 pixel/8fps/128 colors animated GIF. In such a stripped-to-the-bones rendering, the dominant color palette of the production design becomes quite visible. In the case of "Slumdog Millionaire", the dominance of red-brown-yellow 'curry' colors aptly reveals the whole exoticism of the film. [In contrast, "Milk" uses a bright pastel - milky - color palette while dark sepia tones dominate the 1940s/50s period setting of "The Reader", and a frequent combination of olive greens and magenta violets sets the white trash tone for "The Wrestler". Since everything else seems predictable enough, I didn't bother watching higher resolution versions of these films.]

Watching the Floppy Films version of "Slumdog Millionaire" in a web browser may produce upscaling artifacts that create the illusion of there being more pixel information that there actually is, but it really is just 7x3. Here is a zoomed look at the actual information opening frame of the film:

At the heart of the artist's playfully irreverent abstraction of the Oscar lineup is a good question. Can we describe cultural objects like feature films by characteristics such as "dominant color palette"? Can we meaningfully compare them? Is such knowledge practical and useful, and will we learn anything we didn't already know?

We can, but the methods and outcomes are not always obvious. Here is one quick cultural analytics approach to Florian's Floppy Film take on "Slumdog Millionaire". Rather than impressionistically assessing a "red-brown-yellow 'curry'" theme, we can visualize the film's appearance, average states, and histogram distribution.

What does "Slumdog Millionaire" look like overall?

A montage of the entire film reveals a dark image dominated by unsaturated light tans, greens, and blues, with a few bright oranges and blues at the beginning and end.

What is the "Slumdog Millionaire" dominant color and composition?

Taking the mean of the entire film produces an olive green image with slightly brighter center-shot.

What is the "Slumdog Millionaire" dominant color pallete?

Black and grey are main colors, as in most realistic cinema - this perhaps goes without saying, but maybe it shouldn't go unsaid, as it probably isn't true in things like cartoons, ads, or music videos. Besides black, a quantization of the top 12 colors shows greens, blues, and tan, with a little bit of orange. Reds and browns aren't anywhere near the top, and yellow is a minor note.

This olive-blue "Slumdog Millionaire" revealed above seems very different from the red-brown-yellow one in the artist's tongue-in-cheek description, however we can find that palette in the film. Here is the same process applied only to the opening two minutes of the film:

What does the opening look like overall?

What is the opening's dominant color and composition?

What is the opening's dominant color pallete?

Here in the opening we can clearly see the red-brown-yellow 'curry' colors that the artist described, and perhaps begin to guess at how a general aesthetic assessment arose out of this strong opening impression.

This process of exploring "Slumdog Millionaire" suggests several things:

  1. We can characterize the palettes of films as a whole, and it can be useful to do so.

  2. We can characterize shots and sequences as differing from or typifying the character of a film as a whole.

  3. We can examine the individual or group aesthetic impression of what typifies the "essential" character of a film and identifies which shots or scenes best correspond to that assessment.

Cultural analytics approaches to film can be a useful tool for cutting through confirmation or selection bias and seeing the character of the object clearly -- however, it is not simply a method for trumping aesthetic impression with quantified data. Inquiry can flow just a easily in the other direction, beginning with the fact of the impression, and asking what in the film best corresponds to or typifies that perceived essence. For example, if the impression of a critic or a group was that red-brown-yellow typifies the essential look of "Slumdog Millionaire," we could begin with the opening and closing shots and ask how / why / if they serve as an essential representation of the film as a whole. Or we could take the histogram of each frame (or of a rolling average for a short window of frames) and search it.

This brief exploration is fairly far afield from the original provocation of the Floppy Films project, however the process of engaging Cramer's off-hand comment on color has helped me understand that work's method (and others like it) a bit better. Many forms of artistic and visual abstraction (e.g. "unfocused / pixelated video" type projects) may not actually help us come to grips with how color changes over time, even though their abstract idiom gives us a strong impression that they are doing so. Histogrammatic visualizations are direct and explicit, while simple frame montages (after the style of projects such as Cinema Redux by Brendan Awes) is both visceral and has the added virtue of Tuftian high information density. By contrast, Floppy Films: Slumdog Millionaire is much more effective at communicating the "dominant color palette" of the moment -- which is an important kind of knowledge of a very different order.