The Colour out of Space Opera: Index

An index to my series of posts on colour, symbolism, style and space opera, featuring Battlestar Galactica, Blake’s 7 and Star Wars (with guest appearances from all over).
Part One: What is a Space Opera?

Part Two: What is structuralist anthropology, and why should I care?

Part Three: Red And Blue

Part Four: Nature/Culture in Battlestar Galactica

Part Five: Blake’s 7 and the Colour Coded Universe

Part Six: The Anti-Hero’s Journey

Part Seven: White Hat Hackers

Part Eight: What Colour Is The Sky On Your Planet?

Part Nine: Nostalgia By Stealth

Part Ten: The Faustus with the Mostest

Part Eleven: Some Call Me The Space Cowboy

Bonus: The Mandalorian

Conclusion

The Colour Out of Space Opera: Concluding Thoughts

So, by way of ending The Colour Out Of Space Opera, I’d like to offer a few general thoughts and takeaways from this, and a few directions you can pursue yourself if you’re interested in learning, or researching, more on this subject.

  1. Everything uses symbolism to make its point, and, because we’re in Star Blazers: Space Battleship Yamato 2199 [Review] – Otaku USA ...“Western” society (in this case, blatant ethnocentric shorthand for the UK and USA), we tend to get a lot of symbols in our popular culture that fit our own particular set of nature/culture oppositions. There’s a reason why I’ve steered clear of talking about Japanese space opera; it might be an interesting thing for someone with more knowledge of their particular culture to explore colour symbolism in that context.
  2. The way space opera uses symbols, particularly colour symbols, is linked to the job space opera has to do: to introduce casual viewers quickly to casts and scenarios in a way that doesn’t alienate regulars, to provide new and interesting alien planets on a weekly basis in a way that keeps costs down but doesn’t get the viewer saying “Vasquez Rocks again?” (by the way, shout out to Star Trek: Picard for using the actual Vasquez Rocks as a location).
  3. What Made Lexx Such a Great Cult Sci-Fi Series? | Den of GeekNature/culture: is a big trope that designers and directors exploit big-time, for its emotional significance in “Western” (op cit) culture, but it changes over time. In the sixty years that we’ve been covering here, we’ve gone from culture-good, to nature-good, and now we seem to be going back into culture-good (albeit with some interesting fusion symbolism in The Mandalorian, but it seems to be the only one so far). Arguably in 1990s space operas like Farscape and LEXX you had a period of we-can’t-tell-what’s-nature-and-what’s-culture, which is probably not too surprising, given that it was a decade when people were having to rethink a lot of pre-existing social categories (and, come to think of it, that might make a good bonus episode/coda to this series; comment if you’d like me to write one).
  4. Finally, historical-futurism goes back longer than most people realise, and the reason it works is for the same reason that the colour symbolism works: because we have sets of associations piled up in our cultural knowledge that mean we go to certain places when we see certain things. But they work best when you’re evoking a time period sideways, as it were: making us think of Westerns not through Western-style visuals, but through other symbols that evoke the same sort of ideas.

So, I’m going to leave you here with those four takeaways. Obviously one could go on much further, and I might do more pieces later on exploring in depth what particular series do with particular sets of symbols. I should also probably mention here that I have a book coming out in Obverse Book’s Black Archive series of Doctor Who monographs: it’s #43: The Robots of Death, and the reason I mention it here is because there’s a whole chapter on Expressionist design, historical-futurism, and how Doctor Who producer Philip Hinchcliffe made use of it throughout his tenure on the show. So if you like what you read, there’s more!

In the meantime: go out on your own, play with these tools, look at what the designers of your own favourite space operas are doing with colour and visual trope, and have fun with it.

The Colour Out of Space Opera Part Twelve: The Good, The Bad and the Baby Yoda

Last time, I promised a special bonus blogpost, as it were, on The Mandalorian. This series wears its Western origins on its sleeve: it’s described as a “space Western” in publicity, and openly references Westerns all over the place. However, and here’s the thing: this barely shows up in the design. There’s everything else from the Middle East to Samurai to Athenian helmets in there: but there’s nary a cowboy hat, silver or otherwise, in sight.

The Mandalorian - Episode 1 End Credits Art 1920x1080 Wallpaper ...So how do we get our Wild West? Well, for a start, think about the political subtext to Westerns, namely, the USA in the last quarter of the nineteenth century (with The Wild Bunch and similar pushing us into the early twentieth). A country that’s just come out of a brutal civil war, largely over the issue of slavery; a sudden territorial expansion from the edges of the country into the centre of it; with a new federal government that’s physically incapable of closely monitoring everything going on in its territory.

Concept art from THE MANDALORIAN Episode 1 Is Stunning - NerdistThe Mandalorian gives us a Star Wars universe that’s just finished a brutal civil war. While slavery doesn’t appear to have been the driving issue in the middle three movies (and droids never seem to get emancipation, to judge by the last three), the character of Quill in The Mandalorian is a former Imperial indentured servant, and there’s also clear ambivalence about the status of droids (leaving aside the titular character’s racism against them, the pit-droids in “The Gunslinger” seem to be employees of the repair shop rather than slaves, and Zero in “The Prisoner” seems to be an independent agent). There are petty local warlords profiteering, unemployed ex-troopers from both the Imperial and Rebel sides making a living as hired guns, and people from the losing side attempting to start the war over again. The New Republic is in place, but blatantly doesn’t have the resources to keep order. So, in the same way that Kurosawa was able to set up a dialogue between Westerns and Samurai films by exploiting the similarities between the periods, so The Mandalorian works by playing on the similarities between the Wild West and the post-Empire universe.

The Art of The Mandalorian : 30+ Concept Art Collection - Weekly ...On top of that, The Mandalorian heavily references familiar tropes from Westerns. The setup, with a single-parent bounty hunter, is close to that of the 1950s TV western The Rifleman, and the driving thread of a morally questionable man who is redeemed through protecting an innocent, in some ways angelic, figure, is from The Wild Bunch. Individual episodes also reference specific Westerns, with “Sanctuary” most obviously being The Magnificent Seven (with aliens, and five gunslingers short of a full set). There’s even a comely widow for the Mandalorian to regretfully leave, and Cara Dune has antecedents in Annie Oakley and Calamity Jane. Even the concept art that runs under the credits doesn’t just look like Ralph Macquarrie’s original concept art for Star Wars, it looks like the sort of artwork that you might see in a 1950s or 1960s pulp Western magazine. So we have a Western that’s symbolic, rather than visual.

Finally, the colours. Getting back to the original subject of this essay series, The Mandalorian does something pretty interesting here. At first, I’d noticed that our hero is very much the triumph of Culture over Nature; not only does he have that sort of cool blue-spectrum colour scheme, he’s literally encased in chrome for the whole story (except for one brief scene, which, under the circumstances, is the exception that proves the rule.– reinforcing my theory that we’re starting to swing back from nature-heroic, technology-evil, to something more the reverse.

However, he’s not the only hero of this series:

Collection of Beautiful Concept Art For THE MANDALORIAN — GeekTyrantThe Mandalorian is also completely inseparable from the Baby Yoda: the Mandalorian smith-priestess even declares them a “clan of two”. And Baby Yoda is nature personified: green, dressed in shades of brown, at one with the force and expressing an astounding range of emotions on his tiny face. So what we have, in The Mandalorian, is the merging of nature and culture, to a positive outcome for all.

Next time: I’ll try and sum all of this up and come to some useful conclusions.

Don’t forget, the book bundle is still on sale! Go have a look!

The Colour Out Of Space Opera: Some Call Me The Space Cowboy

Last instalment, I talked about how to evoke the past well, and not so well, with a quick detour round Metropolis. This instalment, I’m back with our usual case studies, and looking at how each of them has used the Wild West as a reference point: successfully, and not so successfully.

We’ll start with the unsuccessful. Here, once again, is an image from the classic Battlestar Galactica “The Lost Warrior.” Now, this one really ought to work. The Wild West is an appropriate referent for the story, which riffs heavily on Shane and other Westerns of the “stranger rides into town, fixes things, rides off again to the great disappointment of the comely local widow” variety. To be fair, there are some creative design elements in the serial– making the buildings look like repurposed spacecraft, for a start– but the Western aspects include a lot of, well, silver cowboy hats and vests. And, while, as I noted last time we talked about this episode, it does bring home one of the symbolic associations of white clothing for a villain (plantation bosses), it also makes it really sort of too obvious:

Meanwhile, Star Wars is arguably the textbook example of Doing Wild West Space Opera Right. The Tatooine sequences especially are a coming-of-age Western at heart: young boy, dreaming of leaving the ranch and fighting in a civil war, teams up with a grizzled old gunslinger after his family are brutally murdered, and they go to a saloon in a disreputable little desert town in order to recruit a maverick mercenary pursued by all the local bounty hunters, and his brown partner who doesn’t speak English.

This is the sort of thing that generally goes unnoticed by the audience, however, and for fairly good reason. In order to make sure it doesn’t wind up being as on-the-nose as “The Lost Warrior,” the design team have drawn their past-times elements from the Middle East:

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Japan:

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And 20th century abstract sculpture:

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The most obvious nod to the Western genre is Han Solo’s costume. Even there, you’ve got an interesting mix of black and white, pointing to the idea that Solo’s morals and allegiances are a little variable (we don’t see the colour of his hat, after all):

Image result for han solo shot first

So people don’t tend to notice that the whole thing is a coming-of-age Western. They also don’t usually notice, by the way, that our protagonist’s  family have a plantation and own slaves, and he wants to fight for the “rebels”, which does add an element of ambiguity to the literally black-and-white distinction between the heroes and the villains.

But, and here’s the point where structuralism comes in: the symbolic connotations of all of these places overlap with the Wild West. The Middle East, in the 1970s, was seen as a lawless gold-rush area, province of hyper-masculine gangsters; Kurosawa, one of Lucas’ key influences, is best known for Samurai warrior movies which have later been remade as Westerns; abstract sculpture developed under the same chaotic global conditions that spawned the Wild West (war and extreme financial instability). So, unlike Padme Amidala’s forays into Japanese and Weimar imagery in the prequels, it doesn’t just Look Neat, it Tells Us Something.

And finally, you have Blake’s 7. On the one hand the Western is sort of baked into the programme’s DNA, since one of the reasons for the title was series creator Terry Nation pitching it initially as “The Magnificent Seven in space”.  Somewhat wisely, though, the team largely steer clear of using Western costumes and sets, presumably for reasons of not wanting to make that connection too obvious (also, presumably, because it’s hard to do well on the cheap– that’s a compliment, by the way, Blake’s 7 is a good example of how one can do even space opera well with no budget, provided you have a strong writing team and a creative production team).

The one episode where they do go a little further than usual is “Gambit”, where the Seven and the Federation have both tracked fugitives Travis and Docholli to a bar in a lawless frontier town. The name Docholli is also an explicit reference to Doc Holliday, meaning that it’s hard to ignore the connection. Consequently, both Docholli (right) and Travis (left) rock delightful big hats (Travis’ is, naturally, black):

However, Blake’s 7 does a Star Wars, and takes the curse off it, by heavily referencing the Weimar Republic in other aspects of the story’s costuming and design (for instance the Croupier, emceeing the Big Wheel casino with an aesthetic that’s half Joel Gray and half Marlene Dietrich):

This also, by the way, includes the brief use of South Bank as a futuristic location– famously a product of Bauhaus-influenced modern architecture (there’s not a single good shot of South Bank from the production, you’ll just have to take my word for it). In any case, this even makes the delightful big hats less obviously cowboy-related. Since Weimar fashion could also include big-brimmed hats (many lovely examples here, but take particular note of the gent on the far right):

Brothers Don't Shoot!' Placard During The German Revolution Berlin circa 1918-circa 1919 : News Photo

And Travis, in his hat and cape, looks like nothing so much as the Phantom of the Opera, subject of a not-unfamous film of the 1920s:

Image result for lon chaney cape mask phantom

So, again, one takes the curse off the Wild West aesthetic, by linking its imagery with the imagery of another period of lawless gangsterism, reckless gambling, hedonism, violent sexuality, interwar social trauma and extreme financial instability.

And then there’s The Mandalorian. Which I was going to talk about briefly here, but then realised I had enough to say about it to warrant another blog post, so that’ll be next time.

 

The Colour Out Of Space Opera Part Ten: The Faustus with the Mostest

Last instalment, I introduced the concept of using the past to evoke the future, and how it works, with a detour into The Fifth Element. This time, I’m going to go back into film design history for a bit, and talk about what makes this work.

My argument about this is that it can’t simply be done for its own sake, or because it Looks Neat. With reference, as we have done throughout this series, to structuralism, there has to be a fit between the symbols used, and the thing being symbolised (for more on this sort of thing, and for those of you who like academic references, look up Dan Sperber’s 1974 monograph Symbolism, or Lakoff and Johnson’s Metaphors We Live By).

Let’s take a look at Metropolis, one of the best known early SF movies, and also, though it’s frequently not mentioned, one of the earliest examples of using the past to evoke the future. In the picture below, we see our male protagonist, Freder, pampered son of an elite capitalist, in the Garden of the Sons, a sort of leisure facility for men like him:

Image result for metropolis garden of the sons

There’s a few things to observe here. One of them is that Freder’s own futuristic businesswear, with the natty jodhpurs, has ironically aged far less well than the 18th-century-inspired gear of the courtesans around him (supporting last week’s point). The other, though, is that the period chosen is more than a little appropriate: if you want a complex of symbols associated with decadence and sexual license, with an added dollop of twee pastoralism, you could do far worse than raid the closets of the Ancien Regime.

Now the story’s female protagonist, Maria. She’s kitted out in a costume evoking medieval peasant garb to evoke the fact that she comes from the poor labouring classes of Metropolis, as well as providing a counterpoint to the Ancien Regime costumes of the courtesans (since, like the peasantry of France, Maria, or [spoilers] her doppelgänger, will later stage a revolution to overthrow the aristocrats):

Image result for metropolis maria

And the story’s anti-hero, mad scientist Rotwang, wearing a flowing black robe over his work coveralls, evoking medieval wizards alongside industrial imagery (not incidentally evoking the Industrial Revolution which was also kicking off in the 18th century):

Image result for metropolis rotwang

So, one could say the use of a particular period aesthetic is appropriate because Maria is, symbolically, a peasant girl and Rotwang, also symbolically, a wizard (and the aristocracy they both severally oppose evokes the French nobility). But it goes further than that. This is a publicity picture from FW Murnau’s film version of Faust, showing Camilla Horn playing Gretchen:

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Note the resemblance to Maria’s costume. Gretchen is also a simple, good soul who remains pure despite the trials life throws at her, and, like Maria, winds up at the hands of a mob determined to burn her at the stake. Faust also revolves around the activities of a magician who is drawn to do evil. So Maria’s costume doesn’t just evoke the peasantry, but provides its German audience with a complex of fictional symbols they would instantly recognise.

So what happens when you start evoking the wrong symbols, or evoking them to little purpose? Here we need to return to Star Wars, and take a look at the Prequel Trilogy. Here’s Padme Amidala, from the first film (one example will suffice):

Image result for queen amidala

The costume’s certainly pretty, and certainly looks ceremonial. The film is also heavily based on Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress, so a Japanese aesthetic is, seemingly, appropriate. However, if you start to think about what it’s referencing, it’s not necessarily where you want to go. Padme’s hairstyles and makeup continually evoke apprentice geisha (rather than the tomboy princess who is the heroine of The Hidden Fortress), giving an undertone of sexuality that’s arguably not appropriate for a character who’s defined more by falling in love with the wrong man than by providing entertainment and sex to male audiences.

Another of her costumes appears to borrow heavily from one of the characters in Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen:

 

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The character in question, though, is Kriemhild:

Image result for kriemhild fritz lang
Kriemhild is a woman who avenges her husband’s death at the hands of her brother by calculatedly marrying her brother’s enemy, luring her brother and his men into a trap and burning a fortress down around their ears.

Kriemhild is one of my favourite characters in cinema, so actually I’d’ve liked a Padme Amidala who’s both a cultured and sophisticated woman and a calculating schemer who uses her sexuality and her power to wreak a terrible revenge on the people who wronged her doomed husband. But since that’s not the Padme Amidala we got, there’s a cognitive dissonance to the way she’s dressed.

Next time: cowboys in space.

The Colour Out of Space Opera Part Nine: Nostalgia By Stealth

Welcome back to The Colour Out of Space Opera (links to previous instalments: one two three four five six seven eight). One of my long-standing holiday traditions is to re-watch as many of the Star Wars movies as I can manage, which brings me nicely to the subject of the next couple of instalments: raiding the past.

From the first moment SF moved into the visual media, designers have made heavy use of the practice of evoking the future through, symbolically, evoking the past. The idea is that viewers may find it alienating when confronted with costume and styling meant to evoke a different, future society:

Image result for aelita queen of mars

While on the other hand, costumes which evoke a past era, give the viewer a set of symbolic cues to work from:

Image result for blade runner rachel

You can see how it works. The first image, from Aelita, Queen of Mars, is based on constructivist art, and consequently leaves us with a blank canvas, meaning the viewer is forced to learn about the society from other symbolic clues. The second, from Blade Runner, evokes the 1940s (while being different enough from actual 1940s fashions to tell us this is the future not the past); straight away the viewer can reach for a palette of associations about the 1940s to sketch in the background to the society (it’s probably repressive, hierarchical, subject to rampant surveillance and violent criminal activity, and with an undercurrent of misogyny. There you go, and Sean Young hasn’t said a word yet). As with our subconscious approaches to colour, filmmakers can use our associations about the past as a quick and dirty way of introducing us to a society in the future.

However, it’s a little more complicated than that. This image looks like it’s got more in common with Aelita‘s constructivism than Blade Runner‘s nostalgia:

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However, Milla Jovovitch’s costume is actually based on a piece of early 1970s kinetic art by Rebecca Horn:

Image result for unicorn avant-garde art film

So what we have is a costume which seems to evoke an alienating future society, but in fact evokes late Sixties pop-art, giving us a palette of associations: decadence, drugs, way too much day-go plastic.

The costume design of The Fifth Element more generally plays with this, usually giving us enough retro costume elements to evoke a mood or style, while changing them enough to remind us that this is the future, and keep us off balance:

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The mixing of periods also tells us something. Note the use of 1940s elements as in Blade Runner, but a shift towards a Sixties pop-art colour palette, and hairstyles more associated with the 1920s and 1930s. So what we get is not a straight set of associations, as in Blade Runner, but a mix: we can expect a society that’s repressive, hierarchical, fascist and over-surveilled, but also one with heavy elements of commercialism, of psychedelia, of decadence. By mixing elements of the past, you can develop complicated background world building.

So what does this have to do with Star Wars? Mainly that the early films are textbook examples in how to evoke the past, evoke the past by stealth, and mix the palette.

Image result for obi wan kenobi alec guinness

Dressing Alec Guinness in a gi, for instance, evokes associations to do with Japanese martial arts: skill, codes of honour, feudalism, hierarchies, self-control to the point of (in the movies, at least) feats of magic. Which takes the curse off the fact that he’s also wearing a wizard’s cloak, and means that, although we still have that association, it’s buried beneath, and mixed with, the other associations.

We’re so busy thinking of him as General Makabe Rokurōta, that we’ve forgotten he’s actually mostly Gandalf.

Next time! Carrying on with Star Wars, and considering what makes retro-futurism work (and what makes it fail).
Continue reading The Colour Out of Space Opera Part Nine: Nostalgia By Stealth

The Colour Out of Space Opera Part Eight: What Colour Is The Sky On Your Planet?

Welcome back to The Colour Out of Space Opera! As promised last time (catch-up links: one two three four five six seven), this episode will take a quick look at the problem of planets.

As we’ve seen extensively, one of the crucial issues in space opera is how to differentiate characters, and ideally give the audience some understanding of who they are and what their role is, in a quick and easy way that can help casual viewers tuning in to the series, while not alienating or boring regulars.

However, another crucial issue is that space operas require characters to visit different planets on a near-weekly basis. Which presents a twofold problem: first, how to make a landscape look convincingly alien on a budget– and, second, how to disguise the fact that the same location usually has to stand in for several planets?

(as an aside, I’d like to stamp very thoroughly on the idea that this is the result of space operas being done on the cheap. This is a problem that affects all space operas, from the genuinely low-budget Blake’s 7 through to original series Battlestar Galactica, at the time the single most expensive TV programme ever made. Because it doesn’t matter if you have the resources of a small multinational corporation, that budget still has limits– and, even if your budget was completley unlimited, physical and logistical considerations also mean your choice of locations is not infinite).

One easy, cheap and effective way of doing this is through lens filters. A simple filming or post-production effect can make a normal Earth landscape look alien, as in Battlestar Galactica‘s War of the Gods:

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This particular effect clearly led to problems, as in the same story vis-FX shots including laser beams and the revelation of Count Iblis’ demonic forms were incompatible with it and had to be shot in conventional colours. Nonetheless, for the audience, the planet has been established as alien.

Blake’s 7, on more of a budget, used a red lens filter instead in Time Squad to make the planet look more alien and less Southeast England, without the troublesome vis-FX problem (sometimes simpler is best):

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Which is rendered even more effective by the social and emotional connotations of the colour red, giving the adventure a sense of urgency and danger. Similarly, in Cygnus Alpha, the titular planet’s superstitious theocracy is highlighted early on by having the exteriors set in darkness:

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Colour and filtering can also be used to drive the audiences’ emotions regarding the setting more subtly. For instance in the New Caprica story arc of reimagined Battlestar Galactica, the lighting and post-production teams indicate the sense of frustration, monotony and despair associated with the colony and its later occupation by giving it a grey, rainy tone throughout:

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But, in the episode Unfinished Business, as characters remember happier days on New Caprica, the planet is seen in unexpectedly brilliant sunshine, reflecting how it can look with the rose-tinted glasses on:

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Finally, the Eye of Jupiter story arc shows us how lens filters and visual effects can be used to achieve multiple ends at once. The use of lens filters, first, disguises the fact that the team are filming in Kamloops (handy for Vancouver and nicely rugged) yet again, and sets up a harsh, bleak, washed-out emotional tone reflecting the characters’ increasingly frayed relationships as well as their feelings about the planet:

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And, when the revelation in the temple is about to unfold, visual effects can change the sky and the landscape to something more suitably terrifying and apocalyptic:

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Next time: A shift back to costuming, and how to get historical referencing right… and hilariously wrong.