What’s your favorite color? More importantly, why?
Art contains a lot more content than pure style which influences whether we like it. It’s similar to how smell or texture somehow influences our overall sense of flavor. So there’s no way to completely isolate style in a way to understand why it is one style is attractive to some rather than others. Pure style is more in the realm of beauty than meaning. This leads to the phrase “style over substance”. The accusation of style becoming more important than substance is wrapped up in the idea of decadence, the sign of the tragic decline of civilization itself.
Pop culture is wrapped up in the idea of passing fads or fashion trends. Entertainment represents disposable culture. Novelty is used as a form of planned obsolescence. Out with the old, in with the new. This became a hallmark of the latter half of the 20th century. As a GenX observer of culture, my take on this procession of fashion trends is that it leads to an exhaustion of ideas, after which they begin to repeat or to rely on mashups. Things go out of style only to be revived decades later. What was once reviled as hopelessly out of fashion becomes hip once again. And yet nothing really has much staying power. If fashion has little to no meaning other than simple sensual stimulus, then there’s no reason to become permanently attached to it. That’s not to say people don’t become passionate fans of a style, they do, but it tends to play out like a passing infatuation. This is true both at an individual and societal level.
Arguments about the merits of a style can be just as heated as any other like/dislike discussion, and yet because style is so thinly connected to substance, it’s extremely hard to prove that a given style is objectively “better” than any other. Again, this doesn’t stop people from trying (including myself).
Since we are at a post-post-post-modern stage of evolution in which every artistic idea has already come and gone, it seems culture has no further option than to keep reaching back to reboot, reimagine, continue (through imitation), or combine what has come before.
As a (fairly obvious) case-study, let’s examine the stylistic evolution of the half-century-old Star Trek franchise. In the 1960s, television was in the process of transition from black and white to color. Early color series tended to feature vibrant color palettes in order to show off this new technology. The original Star Trek pilot (The Cage) featured relatively drab colors, but when the show went to series, the decision was made to make the colors more distinct.
There are few pop culture artefacts that have been more analyzed than the 1960s Star Trek. There’s no way I’d do a better job of deconstructing its look than others. The best essay I found about it is located here, and is well worth reading. While the essay covers a lot of ground, the most important aspect, IMHO, is that the look of Star Trek was achieved by professionals who were still firmly rooted in lighting for black and white. As a result, there is a curious mixture of vibrant colors and almost expressionistic use of bands of light and shade. As filming for color took root, the idea that you need so much contrasty zones of light and shade diminished and you wind up with a more flat (evenly lit) stages.
Here’s an example of bold chairoscuro Star Trek was lit in the 60s. It’s not very realistic, done purely for dramatic effect.
Another signature technique is to bathe walls with colored gels, sometimes mutliple colors on a single wall. This is perhaps the most striking example.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture was directed by Robert Wise, who was the editor of Citizen Kane of all things. One thing he tried to do was to get the stage appear to be lit by “practicals”, which are the native displays and fixtures in the scenery. You can see that here most strikingly with the blue lights in the corridor. This was done in order to try to heighten the realism rather than having a flat “TV look”.
Wrath of Khan was shot on something more akin to a TV movie budget. As such, the lighting is highly variable. Some shots are very carefully crafted, and others have more of a generic flat TV series look.
This look remained a template for the TOS films, certain special shots were given more care, while the rest were lit in a quickie generic TV fashion, as time is money with lighting setups.
By the time Star Trek returned to television with The Next Generation, it was shot in a novel process whereby the camera negatives were directly converted to video, and then it was edited on video. This gave the entire show an almost Dr. Who-like appearance of being shot on video when it wasn’t. This wasn’t helped by the brightly lit sets. The shadows all but disappear and the picture becomes washed out. However, this change in look was happening industry-wide in the mid to late 80s. The employment of digital cost-cutting measures were largely eliminating the process of shooting, editing, and processing TV series in a purely analog fashion. Other shows from that period started adopting these techniques, whereas holdovers like Cheers that got their start earlier held onto a richer filmic tone.
When TNG went from the small screen to theaters, it started with Generations, which didn’t really have a big budget cinematic look. It was First Contact that shows this transition the most. The lighting has shifted back to something more like Wrath of Khan, and the uniforms have also lost most of their TOS influences, reflecting the final rejection of bright colors in the 90s which has led to the string of superhero costumes with duller coloring.
And now we get to the biggest stylisic jump with JJ Abrams in 2009.
It’s easy to see why this change in particular divided the fanbase. The look went from dark and moody to overly lit with constant lens-flares. The bridge was derided for looking like an Apple Store. At the same time, the uniforms seemed to want to hearken back to TOS, and yet the blue and red were more muted, and they felt the need to add a frivolous scale-like textile pattern because…high-budget.
Meanwhile, the overall production design of the Kelvin timeline (as it’s now called) is filled with detail for the sake of detail. All other Trek eras did this, but the way it was done here comes across as thoughtless and totally lacking in technical rationalization. A great example of the production-design cluster-f*ck is the shuttlebay.
(If it seems like I’m pivoting from merely describing stylistic evolution to rendering judgment, yes, this is the review part of OTH Reviewer.)
The shuttlebay as shown here has one obvious fatal flaw, which are these inexplicable diagonal beams that provide an obstacle for any ship trying to fly in or out. The only reason to put those beams in there is the modern need to add “stuff” for the sake of stuff and giving the illusion of being high-budget.
Another facepalm visible here is the way the doors are opening. They are lifting up at the bottom like theater curtains. Anyone who has watched any Star Trek would know that the doors merely rotate. The bottom is never supposed to lift up, nor does it add anything to do this other than to make the mechanism more complicated. This reflects the more-is-more mentality of today’s digital era where restraint is a four-letter-word.
When the refit Enterprise was made for Star Trek: The Motion Picture, much of the criticism of the film focused on how the modelwork and FX seemed to be put forward as more important than the characters or the story. While that’s a valid criticism, you can at least appreciate the level of thought and care that DID go into these details.
While the refit enterprise was chock full of details, most of those greeblies were designed to have a specific engineering function, whether they were mentioned in-script or not. This was also true of the sets, as the buttons and switches on the bridge were actually functional, meaning if you pushed a button it would change some other aspect of the display in a logical way. There was even a manual built to describe what all the fictional buttons were supposed to do in-universe. The end result is a production design that feels real, although you can’t quite put your finger on why. The production design of the new Trek films feels as though it was designed by young show-offy artists who have no interest in verisimilitude.
The reason the new Trek films look the way they do is because current fashion trends tend overall are favoring a sort of senseless mish-mash lines, colors, and patterns. Here’s an example of a sneaker.
This style seems to have no coherent purpose to it. You could probably get this effect through the output of a random computer algorithm. The nonsensical aspect may be a deliberate idea, and yet the only words it evokes in me are: sloppy, tasteless, amateurish, and ugly.
Contrast that to the classic Onitsuka Tiger sneaker popularized originally by Bruce Lee in Game of Death and brought back to prominence through Kill Bill.
It is a lesson in elegant restraint.
The fact remains that people who like today’s styles, the young “prime demographic” don’t really think through why they like a particular style or not. They just lock into the fashion trends of the era. This is true of both consumers AND producers.
Beyond Trek, what you tend to see most often in film and TV are these techniques:
- Heavy, sometimes constant use of handheld (shaky) camera. Tripods are an endangered species, thanks to light digital film cameras.
- Gratuitous lens-flare, much of it faked in post-production.
- Heavy digital color grading, typically removing contrast, a trend started with Lord of the Rings.
- The use of ultra-closeups during fight-scenes, rendering action hard to follow.
- Overuse of digital faux helicopter style shots that pull impossible moves (again, started with Lord of the Rings)
- The use of faux shaky-cam and rack-zoom effects in CGI sequences, giving things an evening news video-camera quality which calls attention to the camera as spectator.
You can see most of these sins on display in the trailer for the failed Ben-Hur remake.
Compare this to the original which features a painterly effect of static or gently panning camera angles rather than the video-gamey look of a constantly shifting perspective, fast-cutting, and over-the-top yelling/screaming/fighting.
Note how the original trailer proclaims “See it with your whole family!” whereas the new Ben-Hur seems to have been marketed as a testosterone-laden and blood-laced Fast and the Furious in sandals. Oh, how times have changed.
Perhaps the single most dramatic example of how much sensibilities have changed is the ending of Star Trek: Into Darkness. In classic Trek, Spock losing his cool was reserved for truly exceptional moments. In the Kelvin timeline, emotional Spock is the norm rather than the exception, and we are treated to him yelling “Khaaaan!” and proceeding on an absurd TJ Hooker police chase culminating in a fight worthy of a professional wrestling match, complete with all of the visual stylistic sins I listed earlier.
To a younger generation brought up with an ethos of more-is-more, who seem to be on the sensory stimulation treadmill imposed by videogames and action/FX laden movies, this approach is welcomed as “not your father’s Star Trek”. But to an old fogie like me, this is setting style over substance: action set-pieces over consistent characterization. Dynamic range is lost. Pacing is lost. Everything is cranked to 11. Lens flare, camera movement, characters yelling, screaming, flailing around, tribal war drums pumping and explosions at 120dB. All sound and fury signifying…nothing. *
- This is what Nick Meyer has to say about the new Star Trek. He’s now working on its return to TV in Star Trek Discovery. We’ll see how many sins of modern style that show winds up committing.