As we are entering a whole new era of streaming, with services fighting to stand out from their competition, it becomes increasingly clear that in order to fully know your customer, you also need to know your content. By observing patterns in a range of variables such as the colors, pacing, audio, or stress levels of what your customer is viewing, you can find valuable information that will in turn help you provide them with better recommendations and increase the time they spend engaged on your platform.
As previously discussed in the article “How Movies Use Color To Create Emotion”, OTT services can truly benefit from a deeper understanding of color’s effect on emotion and how this can be used to connect with their user base. To further illustrate its importance, we have applied our internal movie-buff knowledge combined with Vionlabs’ Emotional Fingerprint technology to create a deep color analysis of Ari Aster’s motion picture Midsommar (Aster, 2019) which, compared to other horror movies, separates itself in its use of color.
Midsommar is a vibrant break-up movie set in the land of the midnight sun — bright daylight, striking yellows and greens, nature and captivating whites blasting at you everywhere you look. This is a stark contrast to what audiences might be expecting when they think of the horror genre, but the film ultimately still succeeds in its mission to creep us out. With a deeper understanding of how this is done, combined with knowledge of the movie’s different variables an OTT service could make sure this uneasy desaturated technicolor metaphor of heartbreak lands in front of the right customer at the right time.
Why Horror Has Become Synonymous With Darkness
Horror films heavily rely on creating a mysterious and uneasy atmosphere to put the viewer on edge. As darkness is one of the human psyche’s greatest fears, what you can’t see is sometimes scarier than what you can. Filmmakers know that plenty of horrors exist in the shadows and use this to create suspense and to make your imagination run wild. This can be compared to infomercials which tend to showcase a lack of darkness, shadows and contrast. In this case, shadows would cast doubt on the desired message and should be avoided if you intend to infuse your target audience with blissful optimism.
Using darkness as a cinematic technique also limits one of the senses on which we rely most — sight. As a viewer, you are forced to make do with what you can hear and what little you can see, which intensifies the fear response in our bodies. Horror films use something called haptic visuality, a technique that creates sensations in the body through visuals. By showing us things such as grainy imagery, characters indulging in sensory activities like smelling, seeing, or feeling, as well as over- or underexposed shots, a remembered physical response can be triggered. These cinematic experiences create a bodily sensation in the viewer, so by featuring darkness in your film you are limiting one of our senses, and thus amplifying the rest. Horror makes us jump up in our seats and possibly tense up all throughout our bodies.
Midsommar — A Technicolor Horror Film
But what happens when a movie does something unexpected? To illustrate this we will take a closer look at one movie that deviates from the norm, Midsommar — a technicolor horror film. We are used to horror films being set in the dark, but here it is quite the opposite. Let’s take a look at how the film manages to make us feel uncomfortable despite having a color palette that on its own might make us think we’ve been placed inside a joyful dream.
In order to fully supply you with a deep analysis of Midsommar, the rest of the article will include spoilers, so if you haven’t seen the movie yet, make sure to start there before you read onward.
The film follows the disintegrating relationship of a couple, Dani and Christian. Christian wishes to break up, but before he can, something tragic happens to Dani. Christian, who now feels bad about dumping her, invites her to travel to Sweden together with his friends to visit the character, Pelle’s rural hometown, Hårga, and participate in its fabled, once every 90-years, midsummer festival. But what is supposed to be an idyllic retreat quickly escalates into an increasingly violent and truly bizarre pagan ritual.
Midsommar is Ari Aster’s second movie, and a follow-up of his folk horror film Hereditary (Aster, 2018). In Hereditary, Ari Aster and his cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski exploited the dark. They explored just how dark dark could get. In Midsommar however, they have flipped a full 180 and we are left unsettled by what can hide in plain sight.
Using Symbolism to Play Upon Our Fear of Ritual
While the story in itself uses several techniques to play upon what frightens us, the Hårga commune’s way of life alludes to our fear of ritual. In our modern secular age, we have grown weary of the spaces in which ritual exists. In everything from the Hårga’s synchronized eating habits, the way in which they pick their flowers while walking backwards or how they toast before they drink, to the collective way in which they experience pain, you can tell that there is a certain way in which things should be done, and the entire group seems to act like one single unit.
The film plays upon this fear of ritual, but also showcases how ritual can benefit us — giving us a sense of purpose, comfort and community, as well as tools for how to deal with life. Like Pelle says when he is speaking to Dani about the loss of her parents; he lost his parents too, but never once did he feel as if he wasn’t loved or held.
The film also uses symbolism to foreshadow what’s to come. The paintings on the walls around them constantly tell us what will happen to our protagonists. Aster allows this to be a part of the story the same way his violence is, it is bright, clear and out in the open. Despite knowing what will happen, we as viewers can’t seem to look away, the same way the last stages of a breakup can feel like a trainwreck you are unable to take your eyes off of.
Haptic Visuality and Overexposed, Desaturated Colors
In Midsommar, the shots are overexposed, sunlight is constantly poking through as if you’re walking around with sun in your eyes, unable to see clearly. The lens flares help perpetuate what we already know, that the characters can’t see clearly what will happen to them. We are left to watch in horror as they face what we already know is coming.
The colors are desaturated, contributing to the film’s dreamlike state. Everything, from the upside down shot as they enter Hårga to the prevalence of hallucinogenic drugs, blends masterfully with the over-exposed, desaturated technicolor theme throughout the movie, making us in turn feel as if we’ve lost hold of reality. And with dreams you are always left to wonder, could this be a nightmare?
This is how Aster introduces haptic visuality to the viewer without using the component of darkness. Overexposed shots, shots of characters experiencing life through a drugged lens, as well as the brightly lit gory close-ups featured in certain scenes bring sensations of tension and suspense to the body. One can’t help but physically flinch when you hear the screams of the Hårga people as the sacrificial building burns to the ground in the closing scenes.
As pointed out by Byrdie Gaither in an article in Story Screen, the colors yellow and blue in Midsommar can be seen to signify youth vs age. The Hårga elders are wearing blue robes as they are sacrificed in a ritualistic manner, something which can be connected to the beginning of the movie, where Dani’s parents, both die wearing blue. However, Dani’s sister, who also passes away, is dressed in yellow. Yellow here comes to represent a youth that must be sacrificed. You can see this in the yellow sacrificial building where a select group of Hårga’s lives end prematurely as well as the yellow flowers picked by Dani and handed to Christian, foreshadowing of what might come later on. With Aster introducing these colors at the beginning of the film, we come to understand what they represent and feel uneasy about their existence. Similarly, White holds a specific meaning to the story as well.
In a Truthdig article written by Noor Al-Sibai she states that:
“From the dizzying and near-perpetual sunlight to the clothes worn by the Hårga, whiteness symbolizes the unity of the cult. Color, on the clothes of the outsiders and especially on the skin of Josh and British visitors Connie (played by Ellora Torchia) and Simon (Archie Madekwe), is an instant visual cue of otherness.”
Aster uses the color white to show us the alienation and otherness of our main characters. This becomes especially apparent when Dani is crowned the May Queen, Christian being the only person in these shots dressed in darker clothing. His alienation, alongside his bad trip, instills an uneasy feeling in us. We know he doesn’t belong to the group and we’re anxious to see what will happen to him.
Violence As a Truly Haptic Visual Experience
As mentioned earlier, Aster’s violence is played out right before our eyes, allowing us to take in the full extent of the blood, the flesh and the gore. The bright color scheme ensures that there is nothing for us to hide behind as we encounter the Hårga people’s violence, resulting in a truly haptic visual experience.
When researching our attraction to scary movies, experts have found something called the “excitation transfer theory” to be at play. While watching something scary or uncomfortable happen on screen, research shows that our heart rate, blood pressure and respiration all increase. Excitation transfer theory states that the uncomfortable feelings and sensations we experience actually increases the relief and satisfaction we feel when said horrific event is over, contributing to a higher enjoyment of the film. Allowing your audience to fully experience a violent aspect can thus intensify these feelings.
With this, Ari Aster shows us that horror doesn’t have to take place in hidden spaces, covered in darkness. Sometimes the most horrific acts can be performed right before your eyes.
Emotional Fingerprint Data Analysis
Vionlabs’ AI-driven Emotional Fingerprint API measures several important variables of a movie to produce deeper analysis and data that OTT services can use to better understand their content as well as their users.
The graphs above showcase Midsommar’s stress levels, color scheme as well as the positive and negative feelings associated with the content. While watching this in theatres several people decided to leave when the first gory images appeared on screen. The stress levels connected to this scene are high and enables the OTT provider to trace a potential similar pattern while observing their user’s watch history.
Using this information and comparing it to other content data can help you find the patterns interesting to a specific user. Do they happen to like a film for the specific actor involved, or are they maybe into really bright colors? Maybe you noticed that they turned the movie off when stress levels got too high and you notice this keeps happening every time they watch something too stressful between 9–11PM in the evening. With this valuable deeper analysis, you can provide your users with better content recommendations, and a personalised platform.
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