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A Space Opera, a Mystery and an Intrigue Walk Into a Bar

Promotional Image from The Expanse on SyFy

Promotional Image from The Expanse on SyFy


It was more subtle than I expected, for some reason.  In the Expanse we are following, essentially, three different types of stories with three different visual directions.

The first is Noir Detective tale about a cop, hard-boiled right down to the hat.  Gritty, morally questionable, bloodied knuckles and twitchy informants, you could separate this tale out and have a tidy, stand along show all it’s own.  Yes, it’s set on a space-station, but you could take this story and plug it into the back-alley’s of any major port city in the world, it would be just as tight as well-handled.

The second is is pure Space Opera.  Borderline dysfunctional crew on an away-mission watches in horror as their ship is blown to smithereens.  As they work together, first towards safety and survival, next towards identifying the target of their revenge, they start to form a cohesive, if wary team.

Third is an absolutely gorgeous Palace Intrigue tale.  Lush environments, vaulted ceilings, wardrobes and fabrics to die for.  No fists, no guns, only words, sharp, lethal, beguiling and clever.  Careers and lives are ended without our characters lifting so much as a finger.

Each story follows it’s own thread, with the environments and directing styles built to match.  The interior of the Ceres is befitting a noir tale, dark, dimly lit with sharp shadows and more than your usual share of detritus in the corners and alleyways.  The crew of the Canterbury goes from ship interior to ship interior, always well kept and orderly.  Even the old workhorse of the Canterbury was tidy, even in it’s moments of disrepair.  The intrigues on Earth take place in similarly appropriate surroundings.

All three stories are following the same mystery from different angles, giving us, the viewer, a complete picture.  A roundabout, if you will, where we can see the same event from every angle and every lens.

The interesting stuff is going to happen (for those of us with a yen for the visual design and thought processes) when these stories collide.  We had our first taste of it here at the end of Season One, where we see our Noir Detective meet up with the Plucky Space Crew.  It’s almost a shock to see those different presumptions, those different visual canons come together.  The same room with the Plucky Space Crew getting shot at takes on an ENTIRELY different light once our Detective shows up, our Detective looks out of place, a Noir character dropped into a blaster-fight in a brightly lit space. Once they ascend the stairs, we have a shift again, we move all the characters over into the Noir where our Detective looks entirely in his own element as they find the room where the person they have been searching for is holed up.

The visual language is just going to get more complex, and I am hugely interested to see if they continue this trend of casting the environments into a different light depending on which character is the lead in any given bit of the story.  I’m hoping they don’t end up with a homogenized look at the end of the day, but seeing it here, in the first season, suggests that the visual designers and directors are telling us this story on many levels, not just with the words and actions of the actors.


Background Noise in: The Force Awakens

Screenshot of Rey and Finn running from a tie-fighter


Normally I like a bit of punnage in the title, but I couldn’t think of a good one this time, my apologies.

So I’ve been to see the force awakens. I don’t think the below’s going to be terribly spoilery unless you’re an art nerd like myself.  Just in case though, stop here if you haven’t seen it yet.



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Okay, you’ve been warned.  Shall we press on?

One of my pet peeve’s in cinematic design is the recent trend towards the overuse of the visual noise used to kick environmental realism up a notch. We have a long pushed towards making scenes and backdrops lush and complex in order to make them feel like they are actual places. Like they are lived in.  The original Star Wars, Episode IV, was one of the first to make their universe feel really lived in. Spaceships were worn and dirty, robots had rust marks, random bits of sprue and geometric shapes could be seen littering the backdrops and worlds. Occasionally a random creature would wander through the establishing shot. It began a new way of looking at environments as characters (okay, not wholly new, Jim Henson and Co. laid some of the groundwork, you got me there.)

But the addition of wear and tear did not mean they had allowed their backgrounds to become busy. There is balance within the shot.  Background information is conveyed in layers of gray on gray on blacks, rather then each individual object being distinct and easy to recognize. Objects are vague, without an actual purpose to attach them to.  It conveys the impression of depth without giving us enough detail to linger and be confused.

The Star Wars prequels made the mistake of becoming self involved. The environments were glorious, hugely, delightfully detailed.  They are what you get when you allow your environment designers to pour all of their love into a project. But the environment designers are not supposed to be the guiding eye of any given scene.  They build their piece or pieces with an eye towards making that single part the best it can be.  They will build you something so beautiful it can make you weep, but once you throw characters into that environment everything changes. From a cinematic perspective it was easy to lose track of the action in those films, sometimes you had to hunt for the characters in scene. It gave you a more “real” world, but at the cost of the story.

The Force Awakens has taken lessons from both the classic Star Wars and the CGI heavy prequel. They still have enormous set pieces, epic scale architecture that reminds us just how small these characters are against the backdrop of the world, but the detail is dimmed by elements like atmospheric perspective, by thoughtful use of color and contrast (and often lack of contrast). There is just enough to tell you that the detail is there, but not so much that you spend all of your time trying to pick your characters out against it.

In TFA this extends to a depth that I have not seen very often in modern cinema. There are scenes in the film where stormtrooper battles take place in front of dark environments, the bright white of their suits making it easy to follow the action.  We see black empire ships silhouetted against the light sandy dunes of an alien world. The visual design is very thoughtful and goes along way towards enhancing the viewing experience.

The Art of the Eye in Limitless

Title image for LIMITLESS, the TV Show.

Is anybody else geeking out about the visual direction in Limitless?

I mean, every show every movie has its own visual storytelling techniques. Ways and methods of manipulating viewer emotions, foreshadowing, context-setting etc. It’s a known part of the art of visual storytelling, and every production team has their own distinct style.

Of the shows that are currently on the air, however, Limitless has the clearest vocabulary. You can turn the sound off and read the show like you might read the pages of a comic book. You don’t need the words, the changes in luminosity, contrast, color saturation all of these serve the story at all times, and they tell the story so clearly sometimes that the actors don’t need to say a word.

You’ve noticed, I presume, that when our main character, Brian, takes the drug that allows him to be smarter than everybody else (NZT), The entire world gets slightly more saturated. In the occasional shot where they overdo it, Brian looks like a bit like he’s glowing.

They counter this with the rare occasions where Brian is not taking NZT. Everything looks like you would expect human saturation wise, but Brian has a penchant for oversize, ugly, comfortable sweaters and the occasional hoodie thrown in for good measure. Because the “every-man” always wears a hoodie these days.

On the super-negative side (also rare), rather than making the scene go gray, or dimming the lights, when Brian is having a bad emotional reaction, whether it be to his actions on the show or whether it be to negative side effects of NZT, they hype the contrast. Everything in the scene develops a hard edge because the difference between the darks and the lights has been heightened to an almost uncomfortable degree.  Couple this with some handheld camera work and you have scenes that are visually painful to watch.

Usually this type of lighting language is handled in a much more obvious fashion. Characters having a bad day, they have him sitting in the dark. If your characters having a good day, the sky is blue and there’s not a cloud to be seen. This is the first time I have seen them overtly manipulating things like saturation and contrast in the service of a small-screen story. Adjusting contrast, saturation or hue after-the-fact is a garden-variety post processing effect. Almost every show or movie out there does to some degree, but most of the time it’s done to correct issues that could not be worked around any other way, like having to film on a cloudy day or tweaking the lighting so that a scene shot in the sunset looks like it’s been shot at sunrise.

It’s delightful to see this kind of aggressive visual direction showing up on the small screen. It goes along way towards adding polish and sophistication to an already excellent cast and script.

Fallout was the Future

The thing about Fallout 4, for my generation this was the future that was dangled in front of us. We had movies like Mad Max that codified this post-apocalyptic world in such a way as to make it easier to deal with. It became less of a boogie man as our TV, movies, our books dug into the idea and familiarized us with the potential outcomes.

This game is riddled with touches, with background moments and still life’s that are like getting an ice pick in the ribs, emotionally. There are lots of things to shoot, there are lots of unreasonable enemies who never seem to fall their morale checks, but they’re all set against a visual backdrop of unspeakable tragedy.  By and large Fallout 4  is a slow game, it’s an exploration RPG at its heart and it gives you plenty of time to mull over the state of that game world in comparison to the state of the real world.

The artist in me goes so far as to note this is reflected even in the brightening of the color palette. We are given an option to play in the pre-apocalypse world, just for a time. This 1960s that might have been, were all the colors are bright and the sky is clear. That hopeful imagery, that feeling of immortality, those bright colors underlie all of the texture development, all of the environment development in the game. There are very few places so blasted and destroyed that you can’t help but be reminded of that Utopia that the game began in. Bright blue shelter in place pods are scattered throughout urban environments, few of them contain corpses, but all of them contain reminders of the people who sheltered there, protected and preserved until you open them to take a look.

And as a parent, because by now many of us Cold War Kids are, you can’t help but place your family in the scene. You can’t help but look at the well preserved, scattered toys inside of a shelter and think, that could have been my kid in there.

If you couple the emotional devastation of the world with the agency of being a player, it can double down.  The attraction of being a player in a world like this is that you can do something.  You can save the town, you can eliminate the Raiders, you can actively engage to make the world a little bit better. But at the same time you are constantly reminded of the tragedies you could not affect. It’s an implicit failure, one that underlies every action you take in the game. And when the adrenaline rush from mowing down super mutants is over, you are still left with the world that may never recover.

Unnecessary Apology

I think this may not be apology-worthy.  I mean, I can appreciate that the advertisers seem to have, essentially, shot themselves in the foot.  Sucking up bandwidth, chewing through the battery on mobile devices, ensuring that users are so darned sick of video ads that they are now willing to pay EXTRA for pop-up blockers, as opposed to having their browsing experience infringed upon.

Okay, yes, they may be apologizing to EACH OTHER, or maybe to new and upstart ad companies out there, but this overreach on their part is going to have broader ramifications.

More than a few science-fiction writers have given us a vision of the future in which branding and advertising pay for everything, where the primary currency becomes, in effect, the user’s attention-span.  Which has, ultimately, been the progression we have seen here on the internet (I happily pay of all kinds of things by letting ads play through).

But what this may herald is a shift in the way advertising handles things and that might mean that, in the future, our eyeballs might not be worth quite so much.