Cinematic complexion and “feeling” colour: Pi

by Toby Woollaston



I have explained in a previous post the significance of cinematic colour complexion to aid our ability to “feel” a film. You can read my entire thesis on Aronofsky and phenomenology by following this link. In my series on the use of colour in Aronofsky’s first five feature films I will conclude with the barcode of  Aronofsky’s only black and white feature film, Pi.

Although this investigation into colour excludes Pi, there are still some salient points that can be garnered from its “colour” barcode. I have illustrated that Aronofsky’s first four colour films make deliberate use of their tonal range. Pi‘s tonal range, albeit monochromatic, is also employed deliberately. Where the other films favour a hue to communicate and engage the cinesthetic subject, Pi achieves the same through the monochromatic treatment used to portray Max. For this character (who is constructed as being somewhere on the autistic spectrum), the world is black and white, reduced to a binary world of numbers and mathematical equations. Max’s world is presented in monochromatic terms. This is evident in Pi‘s “colour” barcode, with its binary nature presenting frames of deep blacks or stark whites. In Pi‘s synthetic world, black tones are either on or off, and are emphasised by chiaroscuro lighting and high-grain film (shot in high-contrast black and white reversal film stock). The feel of the film, which is insistently stark, aggressive, and high contrast, emphasises the obsessive nature of Max’s quest for a mathematical answer to the world: “I’ll find this structure, this order, this perfection.” The binary nature of Pi‘s cinematography leaves little room for the middle ground of greys and soft lighting. Grey is associated with the realm of nature, which the film only shows twice: first when Max visits the beach post-seizure, and then, significantly, at the end of the film after Max has had a mental breakdown, thus escaping his mathematical obsession. In Pi‘s final moments Max looks at the trees in blissful ignorance of the mathematical world. The trees sway in the soft greys and Pi‘s final softer tones suggest to the spectator, through cinesthesia, an experiential return to nature.

In conclusion, what is immediately apparent when examining the colour barcodes and signatures of Aronofsky’s four colour feature films is how they all differ in their dominant hue and shade. The role that colour plays in feeling these films cannot be understated. Colour not only provides a background, colouring the spectator’s mood so to speak; but more importantly, hue and shade are not static but shifting, assisting mood change. As illustrated in my previous posts, the films present the change of hue and shade deliberately — to generate a non-cognitive feeling state cinesthetically, which alters the mood of the spectator.