Why we can’t stop looking at Beyonce

Image from Beyonce’s Formation Video & Lemonade, which highlights an interesting use of contrasting textures (fluffy fur, braids, metal bracelet)

Beyonce may have surprised us with the flash release of her “visual album,” Lemonade, which aired on HBO last month. However, what is not surprising is how Beyonce once again mastered the imagery that made up her 60 minute music album to build a compelling portrait of the history and culture of black women.

“Bey has always been about using striking visuals, clever lyrics and high-impact narratives to express her point of view” Jenna Wortham

I agree, Beyonce’s visuals are “striking,” and as a visual scientist at Neon I was keen to uncover what makes her music videos so compelling.

Images selected by Neon that highlight the variety in visual aesthetic for different chapters of Lemonade

At Neon, our image selection algorithms are able to automatically scan through the frames from a video to select and surface the ones that are the most emotionally engaging based on models of human neuroscience. Beyonce’s videos pull together visually distinct scenes, as seen in the variety of images selected above, making this process all the more interesting.

When we processed Lemonade, our algorithms automatically scanned through the 90,000 frames in the video, which we then used to produce a heat map indexing the emotional value of each individual frame.

Left is an image of all the frames in Lemonade and right is a heat map of the emotional value assigned to each of those frames

Our image selection models rely on machine learning and artificial intelligence to not only predict which images will perform the best as a result of their raw emotional appeal, but to understand why one image resonates over another.

For example, the three images below perform so well because they all contain a brightness or glow — whether it’s the florescent light in a parking lot or an explosion in the street. The presence of brightness in an image triggers a positive emotional response, which in turn has been proven to yield a higher level of engagement with the imagery.

Images selected by Neon that highlight the visual feature “Brightness” proven to drive emotional engagement

Lemonade includes the hit music video Formation, which Beyonce released the day before her performance at Super Bowl 50. This powerful video, directed by American music video director Melina Matsoukas, has been described as a “visually striking, Black Lives Matter-era allegory” by Jon Caramanica.

Much like Lemonade, Formation uses a variety of visual styles, scenes, and aesthetics to build and sustain engagement throughout the video. Critically, despite the difference in visuals, highlighted by the storyboard below, the imagery is tightly connected through its shared significance for the Black Lives Matter movement.

A Storyboard of Beyonce’s Formation music video highlighting the visual variety across the different scenes

When we ran Formation through Neon’s algorithms, we identified faces as a key feature driving engagement. What is particularly surprising about the faces we surfaced is that they do not have to be an actual person to trigger engagement. Representations of human faces scattered throughout the scenes — rows of mannequin heads, portraits, MLK’s face in the newspaper — are all serving as subtle cues to build emotional connections throughout the video.

Examples of Neon selected face images that drive emotional engagement in Beyonce’s Formation music video

Color was also a key feature driving engagement in the video. We surfaced a number of frames that use color develop feelings of warmth.

Vibrant colors

Beyonce’s work becomes really interesting where the imagery goes beyond the basic visual features discussed above to include symbols and scenes that evoke feelings and emotions related to black history, culture, and politics.

The image of Beyonce on a partially submerged car is in itself instantly a curious image, even prior to recognizing it as a New Orleans police car. On closer examination these specific features trigger memories and emotions surrounding Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. With this scene, Beyonce does not need to explicitly evoke these losses in her lyrics — the image is simply enough.

The same is true for the scene in the convenience store, whose images generate memories of and associations with the events around Mike Brown’s death and the protests against police brutality in Ferguson, Missouri. This association developed more explicitly in Lemonade, where Mike Brown’s mother is featured.

What is particularly interesting is the low-resolution VHS-style imagery used throughout the video. When most artists are focused on super high-resolution imagery, Beyonce includes low resolution and grainy scenes, recalling the surveillance footage that has been a crucial form of evidence in discussions of police brutailty.

All images were selected exclusively for this blog post by Neon (www.neon-lab.com).