What Does A Western Really Look Like?

I watched 50 westerns and compressed them into single frames of form and light.

Not too long ago, I watched 50 westerns. The montage above represents 16 of them. The massive montage a few paragraphs down shows the rest.

Each image within the montage is a sum image of every 10th second of each film — that is, one frame from every 10 seconds of a western was extracted and summed with the others to create a real image (math, basically).

Only occasionally might one make out actual features of films when they are viewed this way — perhaps end-titles or credits or changes in aspect ratio, but certainly not characters, objects, or sets. Rather, these summed images show us patterns and colors: blobby shapes occupying the center frame, a shadowy vignette ringing the corners, and mottled concentrations of saturation bleeding into one another.

These shapes and colors are evocative in a way that tea leaves and tarot are: they don’t actually tell you much about what you’re looking at, but they allow you an emotional response confirmed or denied once you come to discover what the image “really” is. Consider these three:

Actually, I tricked you. These aren’t westerns, but sum images respectively of The Matrix (1999), The Godfather (1972), and The Wizard of Oz (1939). In hindsight, The Matrix’s green-code color palette and fixed-width font scroll are recognizable. But The Godfather isn’t nearly as dark as we might expect and The Wizard of Oz not as bright.

So, alone, these summed images can only tell us much. But what if we compare a large group of them? Do westerns “sum” more or less the same? Is there a constitutive color palette? Is there a noticeable shift in their “average look” over time?

48 of the 50 westerns I watched and “summed.”

The Western, Saturated

To begin a comparative analysis of the set of filmic, washed-out color fields I had generated, I used the program ImageJ (about which I’ve written before) and a plugin that helps visualize the relationship between the summed images by plotting thumbnails of those images along two axes. I also used ImageJ to generate the summed film frames, using the Z-Projection feature.

I worked with simple interrelated features of images that are easily calculated (math again!) by computer: brightness, hue, and saturation although the last two are not as useful for black-and-white films.

Here is what it looks like to plot median hue by median saturation. In other words, from left to right the hue changes, where up to down we move from less saturated to more saturated.

In the bottom left, eleven of the black-and-white films are stacked on top of each other, occupying one space as, again, there’s not a whole lot of hue or saturation in black and white. Then, above them we see a vertical line of films with similar hues but varying saturations. We can easily see that by this measure Seven Men from Now (Budd Boetticher, 1956), which occupies the top spot, is the most saturated film I watched.

Outside of that tall left-most column, there are a few lower-saturation blue-hued films that stand out at the bottom middle. Decision at Sundown (Budd Boetticher, 1957) is the one from that group furthest to the right, just above and to the right of Johnny Guitar (Nicholas Ray, 1954). Before you look for yourself, yes, the two Boetticher films had different cinematographers.

Then, most obvious, is that horizontal line of four films in the middle. Here are those four up close, from left to right:

The Naked Spur (Anthony Mann, 1953)
Once Upon a Time in the West (Sergio Leone, 1968)
The Missouri Breaks (Arthur Penn, 1976)
Ride the High Country (Sam Peckinpah, 1962)

Of these four, The Naked Spur (Anthony Mann, 1953) is the most interesting to me. First, it doesn’t show nearly the same amount of lighter blue sky that the others do. Second, it clearly shows the film’s pattern of framing large red-hued shapes in the center with blue on the right and blue-green on the left.

The Naked Spur was filmed in Technicolor. It’s not the only western I watched in that process, but it’s the one whose summed frame most obviously shows off the deep saturation that Technicolor is known for. Another consideration is that The Naked Spur was one of the few I watched in the Academy ratio, so we might expect the film’s “average look” to be concentrated in one central place.

Ride the High Country (Sam Peckinpah, 1962) has the most unique hue of the group, somewhere in the magenta (300°) range. Magenta! This is surprising to me, as the film doesn’t seem particularly garish, and has a number of nighttime camp scenes — although perhaps those campfires are showing up as magenta-hued?

Ride the High Country was filmed in Metrocolor. Here are the frames I used to generate the summed image:

What’s visible in Ride the High Country that’s even more visible in The Missouri Breaks (Arthur Penn, 1976) is the obvious blue sky at top of the frame. It’s clear a number of scenes were filmed outdoors, with a horizontal or up-looking camera framing some part of the sky.

The Missouri Breaks also demonstrates another feature visible in a number of these films: a darker magenta-hued shape center frame, with a yellow-red-hued falloff to the right and left. While it’s difficult to make out characteristics, this shape is a result of the film’s repeated use of shots that only show one character.

Whether closeups or medium shots, we’re more often looking at one person than a group. The Missouri Breaks is about a gang of thieves, but its strength comes from its emphasis on a battle of individual wills: Jack Nicholson’s rustler, Marlon Brando’s regulator, John McLiam’s land baron, and his love-interest daughter Kathleen Lloyd.

With that idea in mind, look again at the widescreen (2.35:1) frame of Once Upon a Time in the West (Sergio Leone, 1968). Rather than one darker shape in the center, it instead has a few dark shapes: one darker bluish, one taking up the left third of the frame, then two smaller ovals on the right half. One explanation could be the director’s preference framing closeups on the left, mixed with repeated long shots of evenly spaced groups of characters across the frame — such as these two shots, from the opening scene:

The Western, Brightness

Another pattern shows up when we plot median hue vs. median brightness. From left to right the hue changes as it did in the first plot, where up to down we move from darker to brighter.

Looking at this visualization, a few films stand out. First, I can see the majority of the westerns I saw are concentrated around one particular median hue value on the left, while this grouping of films is still differentiated by brightness and saturation. I would wager that a sampling of most color films of any genre would result in a similar spread: the soft, warm hue seems to me to be the color of light, mostly reflected off of human skin.

What is interesting, though, are the outliers: far on the top right is the magenta Ride the High Country, which we’ve already seen is unique in its hue. In the middle on the right is The Missouri Breaks. The brightest film is Johnny Guitar, in the center top, only a touch higher on the y-axis than Two Rode Together (John Ford, 1961). Locked solidly in the bottom left corner is The Gunfighter (Henry King, 1950). Here are those last two up close:

Johnny Guitar (Nicholas Ray, 1954)
The Gunfighter (Henry King, 1950)

In The Gunfighter, Gregory Peck’s character spends much of the film somberly waiting in a saloon for a chance to leave town, and the dark tone and vignetted corners reflect the oppressive interior locations.

Johnny Guitar, bright and evenly lit.

Conversely, Johnny Guitar is bright and evenly lit, particularly in its interiors. Here’s a typical shot. While we can see some occasional dark areas, a glance at the actors’ shadows on the floor shows us the numerous light sources on set.

Another interesting pattern from the above visualization is the cluster of films that occupies the upper left corner. They include Two Rode Together, Comanche Station (Budd Boetticher, 1960), Unforgiven (Clint Eastwood, 1992), Young Guns (Christopher Cain, 1988), High Plains Drifter (Clint Eastwood, 1973), and The Quick and the Dead (Sam Raimi, 1995) among others. These seem to be the most “western” in look, and out of all 50, one from this group — The Searchers (John Ford, 1956) — most clearly demonstrates to me the genre’s basic look: a wide desert and a quarter of blue sky.

The Searchers (John Ford, 1956)

The sharp contrast between the two colors, limned by the faintest jagged suggestion of mountains, is compelling. Below are the sampled frames used to generate this image. We can see that even in the nighttime scenes there are either warm, fire-lit tones in the bottom two-thirds or blue silhouetting skies in the upper third.

Another mode of looking at The Searchers further demonstrates how and where this foreground-sky demarcation works.

Here are a few “barcode” views of the film. In each case, a number of frames are extracted from the film, and then compressed horizontally and presented left to right. Here is a sample of 1200 frames (at 24 frames per second, The Searchers works out to about 171,000 frames).

And here (respectively) are 400, 200, 100, 50, 25, and 10 frames (so you can see how this works):

The Western, My Expectations Met

Last, I want to consider Heaven’s Gate (Michael Cimino, 1980). Gauzy, misty, soft, indistinct: it was the film that made me first want to explore this technique for trying to capture a film’s overall “look.” And, I expected it to look exactly as it does.

Heaven’s Gate (Michael Cimino, 1980)

This image perfectly matches my visual conception of the film — almost as if a scrim just like this image had been laid over the lens during filming.

If I were dreaming the film, this is what it would look like to me. If I were making a photo app, this would be a set of readymade photo filters. If I were a fan, this would be a nice poster or computer wallpaper.

As a scholar, though, what use are these average looks — which strip out virtually all narrative, characterization, plot, sound, dialogue, and action? I don’t yet have a cogent answer to that question, but I do have a strong suspicion that film studies will benefit from new modes of visualization such as this one, which represent film texts from an otherwise impossible perspective — in this case, along the z-axis that compresses the film’s time into a single frame of form and light.

To see all the summed images from the Westerns I watched, visit my new film visualization tumblr, filmvis.tumblr.com.
For more on my use of ImageJ to visualize cinema, please see my video essay
“Volumetric Cinema.”
For prints, see

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