Colour in Cinema: Ad Astra – The Most Colourful Movie You Never Saw

Tips & Techniques

Have you seen Ad Astra? Do you remember it being one of the most colourful movies you’ve ever seen? No? Why not?

Many modern space films have been guilty of looking a little drab and desaturated, but can we blame them? Space, as far as many of us see it, is pretty colourless. It’s just a vast black void punctuated only by blindingly bright light. We don’t immediately associate that limitless void with bold, striking colours that exist between those two extremes. So how does a film about space inject colour into its scenes whilst still remaining somewhat realistic?

Below are a couple of examples of other modern space movies and their more conservative colour palettes – click to enlarge them

I just did a quick Google image search for a couple of relatively recent space movies that sprang to mind above. It should be pretty clear to see that many movies set in space are often fairly monochrome and often stick to a fairly muted and small palette throughout.

Note: Remember I’m looking at present-day space movies here, not the kids movies that include space in them from Marvel, nor the broader and more futuristic sci-fi movies like Bladerunner.

Now let’s image search Ad Astra…

In contrast to that, now look at some stills from Ad Astra. Immediately we can see above that Ad Astra is trying to cover a far broader spectrum of colours in their movie, but do they get away with this non-traditional vision of space? And how?

Ad Astra the Movie

First off, if you’ve not seen the movie, you should probably watch it first. I wont really be spoiling a huge amount that isn’t already discussed in the movie trailer though. I will be referencing the fact that our main character Brad Pit goes to visit his dad Tommy Lee Jones, but again, T.L.J. is shown in the trailer. Of course, if you’d rather not risk seeing anything prior to watching the film, then stop now. I will also add that this movie does not have any crazy plot twists, so there’s not really anything to ruin. Either way, definitely watch it as soon as you can, because although it’s not a groundbreaking story or anything, it’s certainly beautiful to look at and below we’ll discuss how they slide that beauty right under our noses the whole time.

Also, this is also not a movie review. I will be talking about colour and ideas surrounding the film whilst assuming you’ve seen the movie. I wont be discussing scenes in detail and explaining the plot, but the ideas on colour I’m discussing don’t require you to have seen the film either.

What does it look like?

Here are a few screens from the movie so that you get the gist of what it looks like first.

Pretty colourful, right?

If you’re not familiar with the plot or need a quick recap, essentially our boy Brad Pitt has gotta leave Earth on a very long journey to Neptune to see his old man about some lightning. It’s a very long trip, so the first stop is the moon (which we can now grab a domestic flight too in this timeline). We get attacked by pirates as we drive across the surface of the moon to the rocket which is our ticket to our next stop (and nope, the pirates attacking makes little sense in the movie too – it was blatantly just an excuse to shoot a cool sequence and showcase some gorgeous colours).

We then hitch a ride on a rocket to Mars. Try to call dad from there, he’s screening his calls so we gotta go see him in person. The plot thickens as our boss isn’t too keen on us going, but we stowaway on another ship anyway and settle down for the long journey to see the old man.

Granted, I’m simplifying the movie here…. but not by much. To further cement that simplification, let’s now break those plot beats down into scenes and more importantly colours.

  • Earth
  • Moon base
  • Journey across Moon
  • Moon Rocket Base
  • Journey to Mars
  • Pitstop at another ship
  • Mars
  • Leaving Mars
  • Arriving on ship to Neptune
  • Trip to Neptune
  • Neptune
  • Prior to meeting dad
  • Dad
  • Father / Son

Below I will show you a series of images from each of these scenes and discuss the colouring within them briefly.

If you’re after a masterclass in modern visual storytelling with colour, then you could do worse than use Ad Astra as a template.

Earth: Greens / Browns / Yellows

It goes without saying that Earth and its characters are all seen in more ‘natural’ colours. Nearly all of the scenes on Earth are seen in these very clear greens, yellows and browns. In isolation, some of the scenes from our main characters personal life are very heavily coloured and orchestrated in that earthy brown colour. Like I say, it looks odd in isolation (see bottom left image above), but in the film when surrounded by other earthy scenes, it makes perfect sense.

Moon Base: Blue / Yellow

As with many scenes in Ad Astra, the moon base here is broken down into two colours and this one is a very distinct blue and yellow theme.

Moon Surface: White / Gold

This is actually one of the most striking scenes in the entire film and although it makes little sense, I love that it’s included as the golds and whites against that jet-black sky look incredible.

Moon Rocket Base: Teal / Grey

There are several scenes prior to this base where these two characters interact. Prior to this though, those scenes were very grey. Now as we are about to transition out of this chapter, we see grey being used in conjunction with teal.

Trip to Mars: Grey

There are a few scenes in Ad Astra that are predominantly grey. Sure, these are quieter times for reflection, but I also see them as a visual verse. A lull in the colour to allow us to appreciate the colourful chorus to come.

Pitstop at another ship: Beige / White

Again, I personally see this scene as a pacing device over having any real importance towards the arch of the film. That aside, I once again love the colours they are able to work with here and they yet again manage to make another floating corridor appear very different from the last.

Mars: Reds

I’m sure it comes as no surprise to anyone that the ‘red planet’ is depicted in this way, and although we spend a decent chunk of the movie here, the key vibe of the place is always depicted in these very rich, warm colours when we are showcasing mood and plot over individual character. I’ll discuss other Mars scenes that splice our time here at the end of this section, but for now, red and orange is our palette.

Leaving Mars: Yellows

As we prepare to leave Mars, we physically walk away from the darker oranges and transition into these yellows and golds. I find these scenes to be among some of the most abstract in the film. Yellow is often used for hope, warmth and new things. And although we emerge from the blackness into this warmth in the film, there is a heavy underlying tension that feels at odds with colours being portrayed to us. If you recall the movie then you’ll know what I’m referring too and our character quite literally emerges into this yellow lighting. Again, this is Ad Astra very boldly relying on a monochrome palette that is actually far harder to make look good than they’re making us believe.

New/Old Ship: Cyan / Violet

We are now back aboard the ship we arrived on. But now we never see that drab grey palette from earlier ever again. Far from it in fact as this colour palette of cyan and violet is among my favourite from the entire film. Sadly, we don’t actually see a huge amount of these colours because this combo is on the very edge of being a believable colour scheme. Spend too long here and we end up in the bizarre colour-scapes of other sci-fi genres that are rooted in less believable ideas.

Trip to Neptune: Yellow / Blue

In terms of visual colour progression that happens in films, this one is pretty on-the-nose. We’ve just left the yellow scenes and now we are about to reach the blue scenes. This journey between the two surprises nobody by showcasing both of them at the same time. Seems blatant I know, but in reality this is a very powerful tool in leading the viewer visual from one scene to another and if done badly, can look horrendous.

Neptune: Blue

It’s actually rarer than you might think, but very few films will show extremely heavy monochromatic scenes like this. Ad Astra does this several times throughout its runtime, but when we arrive at Neptune, the heavy single colour use is very prevalent. It’s made even more apparent by the extremely dark nature of this single colour blue. Again this is something that is rarely done due to how hard it is to showcase not only actual detail, but hold a viewers attention without them being distracted by the slightest thing outside of this complete colour wash.

Preparing to Meet Dad: Blue / Yellow

This is not actually a long scene, but I wanted to include it as there is a lead up to and the joining of these colours. Here we see Brad in his yellow scene, entering into the dads scene which is now a completely different colour. This will make more sense later as we actually reverse this colour journey later on.

Dad: Green-ish

Here we see the transition into the dad scene and we can still see the failing yellow colours as we are now overtaken by this deep, heavy green colour. This is a longer heartfelt scene, but this very natural-looking colour somehow doesn’t feel out of place when surrounded by very bold blues and yellows that bookend it. I say ‘natural-looking’ as this is a scene where we discuss family, home and of course Earth. It’s no surprise that the prevailing colours should of course reflect what we’ve already established as Earth coloured earlier in the film.

On a personal note, I found this scene somehow extremely visually pleasing. The earthy tones used on Tommy Lee Jones including his jumper, the lighting and the surrounding area is gorgeous. Those mossy or older green colours punctuated by a few warm brown accents of skin and surroundings are gorgeous and draw us in. Remember, its been over an hour since we’ve seen earthy, natural tones and we are longing for them at this point.

Father& Son: Blue / Yellow

So as I mentioned earlier, we are now backtracking that colour progression and now we meld the deep blue of Neptune with Brad’s yellow. When viewing this scene in isolation, it looks ridiculously out of place. Such a stark and bold contrast between these two colours seems bizarre in isolation, but we’ve been colour-trained up until this point so that it makes perfect sense.

Additional Visual Vignettes

I have clearly broken the film down into some fairly broad colour strokes above, but there are a few notable outliers that still use striking colour outside of these key scenes.

Projections

The most notable is when we’re on Mars and Brad is going through a somewhat confusing time. His character, who although ordinarily very calm, has become very confused, frustrated and conflicted. As a result of this emotional outburst, he his sent to what I recall is called an emotions room. Essentially this room is wall to wall projected images. Apparently, surrounding the occupant in a womblike enclosure and bombarding them in bold, bright and dominating colours is supposed to calm them?!

As bizarre as this scene seems, I personally enjoyed it as a visual storytelling prop. This scene is all the more bizarre as it’s quite possibly the only scene in the entire film that has multiple colours throughout it. Again, I think these colours stand out and perhaps feels so alien and awkward for the character compared to how harmonic the rest of the films colours are. Like it or not, I personally think it works and I loved what they did with it here.

Conclusions

Films as a whole tend to have a fairly tight colour palette. By that I mean they rely on a single dominating colour that speaks to that film. Look at films like the Matrix green, Fury Road and its golden yellow or the 2001 Space Odyssey red.

This is actually very common and most films will do this although usually to a lesser degree. This is what colour toning is after all, it’s only more noticeable to those films that choose to colour tone before they shoot it and they do that with colours in the location, props, styling etc.

As we approach more futuristic sci-fi films, this uniform colour becomes a little tricky to maintain. Many sci-fi films love to portray the future in bizarre dystopian Tokyo vibe and as a result an extremely eclectic colour palette emerges that is very chaotic and visually busy.

And of course, like I mentioned at the start, modern space films keep things very clean and simple with relatively monochromic palettes like we saw in The Martian with its orange colours and Interstellar’s steely blues.

Ad Astra breaks this mould by actually producing a surprisingly colourful film. Just look at the stills I’ve shown you above, there’s no arguing it’s a very colourful movie. Yet ask anyone who’s seen it and they never mention the colours. I asked several people and none of them remarked or even remembered the use of colours.

The colours not being remembered is not actually a bad thing though, in fact this is just more power to the people that made Ad Astra. This is not some self-indulgent Neon Demon film that nobody remembers a damn thing about….apart from the colour. Ad Astra is a serious and very slow movie, you’d think you’d remember the colour, but you don’t due to how well it’s used. Each scene has its own life and character and it all fits together perfectly so that the colour does exactly what it is supposed to do, tell a story. Moreover, this is further compounded by clever transitions between colours. There are scenes between scenes that include the two bookended colours. As a result, this further eases us through colour without violently snapping from one bold colour to another.

The colour is not the character here and many modern films can forget this.

Look at the images above and tell me that’s not one of the most colourful movies you’ve ever seen. Yet, ask anybody who’s seen Ad Astra and they wont remember seeing any prominent colours at all.

I’m a photographer, not a film student Jake!

As much of my audience is photographers, I appreciate it if you’ve gotten down this far, but how does any of this relate to you? I think Ad Astra is an example of a film that utilises colour in a very striking, powerful and yet subtle way due to how it’s used. Look at the detail within the colours, look at the tonality in those colours, its all there. All too often films will blow out colour when it simply isn’t needed. I think one reason we are affected by the colour in Ad Astra but don’t remember it is due to this fact. The colour in this film simply seems more organic, more real and I believe it’s due to how detailed the colour is.

Ad Astra is actually shot on film, and no I’m not gonna start a whole film is better than digital debate…… but, I will say that colour and skin tones are still shot on film by the best filmmakers in the world for a reason. One reason for this (and those of you who’ve shot on film will attest to this) is that film holds its highlights and shadows far more cleanly than digital does. You never get pure white and pure black on film and the same applies in the real world. Artists never use pure white and pure black on their canvas because those colours don’t truly exist and the same is happening in this film. When you see even the brightest scenes or the richest colours, you’re still held in a believable world due to how you’re viewing it.

This is probably one of the most contrasty scenes in the film. Look at both the brightest highlights and the darkest shadows still contain colour on film.

Arguably we’ll never know what this film would have looked like had it been shot in digital, but I think the colours would have looked less realistic and probably more memorable for the wrong reasons.

I mentioned this film also boldly showcases a lot of monochrome scenes. Scenes where there is just one single colour. Again, this looks incredible due to how it was shot and the film stock that’s retaining those tones. There is a reason you rarely see monochrome scenes in films, but Ad Astra doesn’t shy away from them.

I hope, and I believe we will see more of these films where colour is used so well, that we don’t even notice it. I appreciate that may sound odd, but watch Ad Astra for yourself (or watch it again) and see how colour can be used in such a striking, yet subtle way to tell a story and simply dominate it.

If you’ve seen Ad Astra, let me know what you think of the film and its colouring in the comments below. I’d be interested to hear others thoughts and if you remember the film being this colourful when you first saw it.

About the Author

Jake Hicks is an editorial and fashion photographer who specializes in keeping the skill in the camera, not just on the screen. Jake currently has a workshop available on colour and exposure. For more of his work and tutorials, check out his website. Don’t forget to like his Facebook page and follow him on Instagram, too.

You can also sign up to the Jake Hicks Photography newsletter to receive Jake’s free Top Ten Studio Lighting Tips and Techniques PDF and be sure to download his brand new, free 50-page studio lighting book. This article was also published here and shared with permission.

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