Western Roundup

In September, I watched 50 Westerns. Here’s one of them:

The Outlaw Josey Wales, summed frames

I’ve been trying to keep my viewing habits more focused this year, picking a director or an actress to watch for a month. No problem with someone like Andy Sidaris (a dozen films) or Alex Cox (thirteen), but I really stepped into it with “Western Month.” In truth I had just wanted to rewatch Once Upon a Time in the West (Sergio Leone, 1968), but I found myself adding and adding to the list until, well, I watched more than I had intended to but not enough to satisfy me.

I was already on to October (gialli!) when @wormatwork asked me if I was going to do a  “roundup.” And so this is what I did:

ImageJ=1.48d<br /><br /><br /><br /> unit=pixels

This is a montage representing 48 of the westerns I watched (click for a larger view). Each image in the montage is a sum image of every 10th second of each film (that is, one frame from every 10 seconds was extracted and summed with the others to create a real image; math, basically). At the top of this post is one of those summed images, showing one way of seeing the overall “look” of The Outlaw Josey Wales (Clint Eastwood, 1976).

Only occasionally might one make out actual features of these films–perhaps endtitles or credits or changes in aspect ratio, but certainly not characters or objects or much in the way of sets. Rather, these summed images show us patterns and colors: blobby shapes occupying center frame, a shadowy vignette ringing the corners, or 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 all that much about what you’re looking at, but instead allow you an emotional response confirmed or denied once you come to discover what the image “really” is. Consider these three:

The Godfather, Part I, summed frames

The Matrix, The Matrix

The Wizard of Oz, summed frames

Actually, I tricked you there–those aren’t Westerns, but are sum images respectively of The Godfather, The Matrix, and The Wizard of Oz. In hindsight, The Matrix’s green code color palette and fixed-width font scroll is 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?¹

To begin a comparative analysis of the set of filmic, washed-out color fields I had generated, I used the program ImageJ,² which I’ve written about before, and in particular a plugin that helps visualize the relationship between the summed images by plotting thumbnails of those images along two axes. I worked with some simple interrelated features of images that are easily calculated (math again!) by computer: brightness, hue, and saturation (the last two 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). Click for a closer look:

Westerns hue_median vs saturation_median

In the bottom left, eleven of the black-and-white films are stacked on top of each other, occupying one space (not a whole lot of hue or saturation in black and white), and then above them we see a vertical line of films with similar hues but varying saturations. Thus we can easily see that by this measure Seven Men from Now (Budd Boetticher, 1956) 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
The Naked Spur
, Anthony Mann, 1953

Once Upon a Time in the West
Once Upon a Time in the West
, Sergio Leone, 1968

The Missouri Breaks, summed frames
The Missouri Breaks, Arthur Penn, 1976

Ride the High Country
Ride the High Country, Sam Peckinpah, 1962

Of these four, The Naked Spur is the most interesting to me; first, it doesn’t show nearly the same amount of lighter blue sky that the others do, and second, it very 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 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. (Off the top of my head, others I saw in Technicolor: The Wild Bunch [Sam Peckinpah, 1969], The Professionals [Richard Brooks, 1966], and Silver Lode [Allan Dwan, 1954]. A future research project for me is to use IMDb’s API to quickly sort for details like color process.) Another consideration is that The Naked Spur was one of the few I watched in the Academy ratio, and so we might expect the film’s “average look” to be concentrated in one central place.

Ride the High Country has the most unique hue of the group, somewhere in the magenta (300°) range. 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 (MGM’s trade name; in reality, Kodak Eastmancolor). Here are the frames from Ride the High Country used to generate the summed image:

Montage Ride the High Country

What is visible in Ride the High Country that is even more visible in The Missouri Breaks is the obvious blue sky at top of the frame. I’ll note the best example of this below, but in these two films it is clear that a number of scenes were filmed outdoors, with a horizontal or up-looking camera framing some part of the sky (invariably with some gorgeous cloud patterns in the distance). 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, it is apparent that 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. (For comparison, look again at the image of The Godfather above and see if you can’t make out that film’s preferred two-shot.)

With that idea in mind, look again at Once Upon a Time in the West‘s widescreen (2.35:1) frame, which rather than show one darker shape in the center 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 a preference for 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:

xOnce.Upon.a.Time.in.the.West 031

xOnce.Upon.a.Time.in.the.West 073

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

Westerns - median hue vs median brightness

Looking at this visualization, a few different films stand out. First, I can see (as with the first plot) that the majority of the films 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), and locked solidly in the bottom left corner is The Gunfighter. Here are those last two up close:

Johnny Guitar, summed frames
Johnny Guitar, Nicholas Ray, 1954

The Gunfighter, summed framesThe 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. On the other hand, 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:

xJohnny.Guitar.1954.BluRay.720p 097

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, Unforgiven, Young Guns, High Plains Drifter, and The Quick and the Dead among others. These seem to be the most “Western” in look, and out of all 50, one from this group–The Searchers–most clearly demonstrates to me the genre’s basic look: a wide desert and a quarter of blue sky.

The Searchers, summed frames
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.

Montage of The Searchers

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):

Searchers barcode 1200

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

Searchers barcode 200

Searchers barcode 100

Searchers barcode 50

Searchers barcode 25

Searchers barcode 10

Last, I want to touch on 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 like exactly like it does.

Heavens Gate, summed frames
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, here is what it would look like to me. If I were making a photography app, here would be a set of readymade photo filters. If I were a fan, here would be a nice poster or computer wallpaper. As a scholar, though, what use are these average looks, which strip out all (or almost all) narrative, characterization, plot, sound, dialogue, 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.


tl;dr: watch more Budd Boetticher.


caveat I don’t know where else to put: I did not attempt to correct for discrepancies in the quality of my digital source material, which will have an unavoidable affect on comparisons between the films.


To see all the summed images from the Westerns I watched, visit my new film visualization tumblr: filmvis.tumblr.com. I’ll be posting new Westerns over the next month (and probably gialli after that, among other things).


¹ (nope, no, and not really, as it turns out)

² I also used ImageJ to generate the summed film frames, using the Z-Projection feature.

About Kevin L. Ferguson

Associate Professor of English and Director of Writing at Queens
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