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):

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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):

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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):

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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:

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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.

Jolene is shortlisted for the BSFA Award for Shorter Fiction

My short story “Jolene”, published in Interzone 284 (the one about the cowboy whose wife, dog and truck have left him), has been shortlisted for the BSFA Award for Shorter Fiction! It’s lovely to see Jolene in such distinguished company.
This is the skull I bought for the sale of “Jolene”; it’s heat-treated agate, in the same colours as the titular pickup truck, and I think it looks rather like Fordite.

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 Stepford App

My short story “The Stepford App” is in the final issue of Mad Scientist Journal.  Fans of Driving Ambition might want to know that, although it’s a stand-alone piece about the perils of looking for love in an age of AI, it’s also a prequel which explains Liz’s allusion to her former job as a chatbot. Buy a print or e-book at the link.

Universite de Paris-Est in the Twenty-First Century: A Photoessay

I’m currently adjusting gradually back to life in 2020, but one of the things I did over the December/January break was to make a collaborative visit with colleagues at Universite de Paris (shortly to become Gustave Eiffel University). The campus architecture is simply amazing, and I want to share the highlights:

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.

 

The Colour Out Of Space Opera Part Seven: White Hat Hackers

Welcome back to The Colour Out Of Space Opera, a blog post series on the uses of colour and style in many familiar space opera series! Here are the catch-up links if you need them: one two three four five six

The last two installments focused on the use of colour in Blake’s 7, to colour-code the heroes for quick characterisation, and also to show characterisation arcs. This time, let’s turn back to Battlestar Galactica, Blake’s 7‘s near-contemporary.

One particular use of colour in 1970s Battlestar Galactica is the use of white as a shorthand for villainy. This appears to start as a sly political dig. The series itself generally followed a strongly neoconservative line, to the effect that politicians are untrustworthy, pacifists are naive, and governance is best done by reluctant leaders who swoop in, solve your problems, and go away quickly. In the pilot episode, the Council of Twelve (or Quorum) ruling the Colonies appear dressed in Roman-style white senatorial robes. Naturally, one of the Quorum is a traitor to his species, and the rest are naive idiots who basically let him get away with it:

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However, there’s another referent. The 1970s saw a renewed dialogue over the history of slavery and its fallout in the USA, so what’s a better shorthand for villainy in a multiethnic neoconservative series than a costume recalling, white-clad, plantation owners:

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The re-use of this trope also gives us white-clad corrupt politicians (again) in The Gun on Ice Planet Zero, white-helmeted prison guards in The Long Patrol… and this guy.

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In one of the more interesting, and subtle, uses of this trope, Count Iblis in War of the Gods first appears to the Fleet as a man wearing a uniform not unlike Adama’s, but white. This appears like a way of inspiring trust while also subtly hinting at Iblis’ supernatural, “angelic” nature… but, if you’ve been following the series, also a hint that he’s the anti-Adama, who will potentially lead the Fleet to destruction. And then, in the same story, we meet the Lightship People:

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Angelic creatures, also dressed in white. Seemingly benign figures who can even restore the dead– but who are also plainly working to their own agenda and not necessarily the good of the Fleet.

This is echoed later in their implied messenger, “John,” an ambivalent figure who Starbuck and Apollo find less than trustworthy:

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And, while the re-use of the white uniforms in the godawful Galactica 1980 was, on one level, simply a way of saving money, it could also be taken as a sign that something in the series has gone terribly, terribly wrong.

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What about the new series? The colour-coding comes in first of all as a way of differentiating individual Cylons, perhaps most obviously in the case of burgundy-Doral and teal-Doral, identified by jacket colour:

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Given that the series sets up a nature/protagonist, culture/antagonist differentiation early on, though, we can also see styles, rather than colour per se, used to set up the opposing characters of Sweet Eight (nature) and Hard Eight (culture) in The Face of the Enemy.

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As with Blake’s 7, though, reimagined Battlestar Galactica also uses changes in colour and style to show the journeys of various characters. Leoben, for instance, starts out as a fanatic, obsessed with Starbuck and what he believes to be her spiritual destiny:

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As this obsession leads him into darker, sadder areas, he abandons the rough bright colours and wears black. Significantly this is also true of the Head-Leoben who appears to Starbuck in her visions, symbolising his role in allowing her to come to terms with her destructive nature and her own death:
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One of the more interesting examples comes with another of the Head People, in this case Head Six who appears to Baltar throughout the story. When she first appears, it’s in a red dress, symbolising her connection to the Cylons but also seduction, destruction and conflict…

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(…as a side point, note that a red dress is also, so to speak, a red flag about the true nature of Ellen Tigh…)47

During the Pegasus story arc, though, Head Six dresses in darker colours, as Baltar has to confront and navigate the abuses perpetuated by humans on Cylons (and on each other):

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Later, as Baltar becomes a spiritual leader to the Fleet and begins encoding the monotheistic religion that Head Six has been encouraging him towards, she varies her colour scheme somewhat:

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Significantly, when she is most encouraging Baltar towards his spiritual role (at the end of the first season, and later on after Baltar’s cult forms), she dresses in white:

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Which, of course, has connotations of spirituality and angelic nature, and weddings, and other positive associations that one might expect.

But let’s not forget: right from the start, a white costume in Battlestar Galactica marks you out as, at least to some degree, a villain.

Next time: a step away from costume and a look at how to differentiate your planets.

The Colour Out Of Space Opera Part Six: The Anti-Hero’s Journey

Welcome back to “The Colour Out Of Space Opera”! Here are the links for people wanting to catch up: one two three four five

Also a more-than-usually-massive spoiler warning for Blake’s 7.

Before we go on, a question from Pat McMurray:

“How conscious was all this?”

The answer is, it’s complicated. I do very much doubt that the costume and set designers were going out there armed with copies of Levi-Strauss when they made their designs. However, they did all have a specific task, to wit, evoking a particular emotion relative to a character (or group of characters) quickly and unobtrusively. Meaning they were probably looking for something that “feels right,” leading to the sort of imagery we’re seeing in the space operas we’ve been looking at so far.

For example: if you look at the pilot of Star Trek, they clearly aren’t there yet with the primary-colour functional scheme, but they’re also just as clearly putting a lot of thought into the task of making the characters and their roles instantly recognisable in a way that they aren’t in Forbidden Planet, which will eventually evolve into the distinctive three-colour uniform scheme.

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It’s worth noting as relevant to last post’s topic that in this case they’re clearly not just differentiating characters through costume, but through recognisable distinctive physical traits; you’re not going to get those three chaps in blue confused in the way that you might the officers in Forbidden Planet.

Furthermore, Farah Mendlesohn also commented that colour-coding as a deliberate strategy was very much in vogue in the 1970s, citing, among others, the acclaimed school production of “King” (later filmed by Channel 4), which used yellow and red T-shirts to symbolic effect.

Sometimes we have documentary evidence of how and why certain colours were chosen: outside of genre, the designers on Breaking Bad have been quite forthright about their use of colour coding to define characters. Other times, there’s a clear thought process going on but it’s harder to define the inspiration.

This post’s main topic, however, is to look at another distinctive use of colour: namely, to illustrate the emotional or narrative arc of a character or characters (something else for which Breaking Bad and its prequel series Better Call Saul provide a high-profile recent case). For this blog, though, we’ll return to Blake’s 7 for our first example.

Servalan, the titular rebels’ antagonist, starts the series with an all-white colour pallette. This makes her stand out visually against the, usually black-clad, Federation troops and our multi-coloured heroes. It also continues even after June Hudson takes over as designer and our heroes lose the colour-coding.

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And then, in Season Three, she switches to black. For those unfamilliar with the story, the shift comes in the episode “Children of Auron”, in which she attempts, and fails, to have herself cloned. As Jacqueline Pearce explained it, after that point she’s always a little bit in mourning for her loss, and so this continues to be her colour palette long after the events of “Children of Auron” are of immediate relevance to the storyline.

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The only story where Servalan isn’t in either white or black is “Gambit”, where she wears red– and significantly, in “Gambit”, her presence is entirely unofficial and the activities illicit, so the red highlights for the viewer the fact that she’s off the record.

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Servalan isn’t the only character this happens for, though. Dayna Mellanby undergoes a mini-arc from her wild and free days as the daughter of a rebel who has fled to a primitive backwater:

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To her re-absorption back into society as a gunslinger and weapons expert. Note her colour palette is bright and youthful and the cut of her clothes recalls the Greek tunic she wears in her first story (and she’s wearing her now-deceased father’s medallion, symbolising her sworn quest for revenge against Servalan):

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In the final season, after the Liberator is destroyed and the titular rebels have largely given up their political activities, she adopts a much more austere look (and lost the medallion):

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Also note that, at this point, our heroes are generally clad in shades of black, white and grey, rather than the bright colours of earlier seasons:

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This is more than a little significant, given what we were talking about before regarding nature and culture imagery. At this point, there is no longer an opposition between Blake’s rebels/nature and the Federation/culture, so the heroes’ colour palettes become more and more culture-aligned, and much more along the lines of the Federation’s own monochrome palettes.

Which brings us to the most significant example of the way this happens in Blake’s 7. We’ve had a look at some of Avon’s earlier costumes in the last installment, but what’s worth noting is that from Season Three onwards he goes from grey:

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To more and more black (with occasional silver and white bits):

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So there’s a few things to notice. One, his palette is becoming more and more cultural, and more and more aligned with the Federation, as Avon himself becomes more and more of an anti-hero. Second, that as he becomes the focus of the series in Season Four, his costume makes him stand out very clearly against the muted greys of the rest of the crew. And finally, it makes the last scene of Blake’s 7 very much not just a victory of the Federation over the rebels, but a victory of culture over nature. Watch who dies first, and watch who’s standing at the end:

Next post, a look at how Battlestar Galactica does something rather similar.