The governing body which bestows the best cinematography Oscar each year is The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. University of Missouri professor Brian Maurer is especially interested in the relationship between those last three words — arts and sciences.
Maurer, director of the information technology program in the College of Engineering, is in the early stages of research which would analyze award-worthy films, gathering and distilling each frame into color palettes. Researchers would then ask viewers to identify which colors register and resonate.
The idea came to Maurer, also an active filmmaker, while teaching cinematography at MU. Maurer helped his students trace color palettes across artist, genre and time. Certain trends emerged, but his curiosity steered him past simple labels or answers.
“Is this quantifiable?” he recalled asking himself. “Can we actually go through and predict what a successful color palette would look like?”
Directors tend to select directors of photography — or cinematographers — based on a common vision or aesthetic, Maurer said. Based on track record, directors have some idea of the colors their collaborator will employ and whether those colors will serve the story’s style and substance.
“I find color palettes are very representative of emotion that the director wants the viewers to feel. And very often that is a projection of what the character is feeling,” Maurer said.
The language of color isn’t necessarily universal, he added. Filmmakers can re-contextualize colors based on a narrative moment. Red, often associated with anger or passion, can represent “sadness and isolation” if the director and cinematographer effectively set the emotional content of the scene, Maurer said.
What all does Maurer’s research entail?
Maurer’s own work, which includes the 2018 feature “In the Wake of Ire” and numerous short films, “wrapped” color “inside of genre, but through the lens of the character,” he said.
Maurer’s research at MU is designed to see if viewers can identify the truest expression, mathematically speaking, of this artistic vision. The research will take place in three stages.
In the first and current stage, Maurer and his team are crafting a process by which Graphics Processing Units, or GPUs, analyze test films. This project will examine Academy Award nominees for best cinematography over the past 10 years — minus any black-and-white offerings.
This year’s nominees are: “Judas and the Black Messiah,” “Mank” (which is shot in black-and-white), “News of the World,” “Nomadland” and “The Trial of the Chicago 7.”
Researchers are starting with their own “own research machine, and then will migrate our process to one of the research clusters … to process at tremendously faster speeds,” Maurer said in a follow-up email.
In the second stage, researchers will harness their data to produce three palettes for each film. One will use the pixel data to create the film’s mathematically true color palette (or “mathematical top occurring colors,” Maurer said).
The second will randomly generate an average top-ten color palette. The final palette will be more “arbitrary” or “artistic” in nature, Maurer said — more of an estimate of the ten top colors “just based on looking.”
Viewers ultimately will be asked to examine these palettes and identify the one which best represents what they see in images from the film. In preliminary research, viewers gravitated toward the average more often than the true, Maurer said.
‘Math is just as beautiful… as a painting’
Beyond establishing an answer to his earlier question, Maurer sees several implications for the project. Cinema serves as a visual signifier of a culture or country’s mood at a given point in time. A close study of on-screen palettes can make suggestions about “how the population is handling things” and tell us “something about ourselves,” he said.
Stretching the process across the field of engineering might allow scientists to spot visual anomalies in mapping specific surfaces or landscapes, Maurer added.
And the project reinforces that any division of art and science is arbitrary. Maurer wants engineering students to engage with the arts to remember why their work matters.
“Divorcing art from science or art from engineering removes an element of our own humanity,” he said.
In doing so, researchers take their place in an important line of scientists who dive into the arts and surface with mathematical ratios, Maurer said.
“It’s always good to remember that math is just as beautiful, data can be just as beautiful, as a painting hanging in the Nelson (Atkins Museum in Kansas City),” he added.