PJ Onori’s blog

An over-analytical analysis of style

Style is consistent constraint. I’ve never heard a more concise and accurate description. This is a topic near and dear to my heart given I’ve worked to develop a style in design and photography.

You can find stimulation in strange places. I watched The Batman with comic-book-movie expectations and little anticipation. Then I watched it again. And again. Numerous times. Its style grabbed me. Then I watched the Nolan-era Batman movies to see if it caused the same reaction. Nope. It seemed worthwhile to dig into why.

I dissected the elements of The Batman compared to Nolan’s The Dark Knight to examine each style. With any luck, I’d glean some nugget of insight.

Silence says something

The Batman’s dialog is sparse. Conversations are spread out. Lines can often be one or two words. A lot is said without saying anything. The brevity alone developed a mood. The Dark Knight in comparison felt heavier in dialog. It wasn’t bad, but noticeably more of it.

I parsed the subtitles and visualized all lines of dialog in each movie to better understand their differences. The Dark Knight is visualized on the left and The Batman on the right. The diameter of each visualization reflects duration given The Batman is considerably longer (165 minutes versus 138 minutes). Each line in the visualization represents a line of dialog. Its length reflects the line’s number of words.

The subtitles of The Dark Knight and The Batman compared. The subtitles of The Dark Knight (left) and The Batman (right) compared.

The Dark Knight is much more dense in dialog with far fewer breaks. In contrast, The Batman’s dialog is more spread out with more instances of shorter dialog.

According to this analysis, The Batman is considerably lower than the median number of spoken words by any genre listed in that article.

Genre Words per minute
Comedy 98
The Dark Knight 95
Crime 84
Drama 83
Biography 79
Animation 77
Adventure 76
Action 71
The Batman 65
Horror 63

The examination confirmed the initial observation—nearly a third less dialog per minute. The Batman’s skews towards a noir crime thriller which only accentuates its contrast to The Dark Knight. Less talking gave other elements prominence. The atmosphere played a larger role. I understood how succinct language impacts user interfaces, but this further reinforced the power of brevity.

A persistent aesthetic

The look of The Batman has been discussed ad nauseam. Of note is the narrow use of color used throughout The Batman. It’s dark, it’s desaturated save for the occasional bloom of red or orange. The Dark Knight in contrast had a wider spectrum of hues, saturations and brightnesses. Scenes’ color grading varied realistic and stylistic. The colors of The Dark Knight never felt discordant, but more varied.

Below are frames from similar scenes in each movie. First being The Dark Knight, the second The Batman. I observed less color continuity in The Dark Knight compared to The Batman.

Foo Scenes from The Dark Knight ©Warner Bros.

Foo Scenes from The Batman ©Warner Bros.

I attempted to get confirmation by extracting dominant colors of every second from both movies. Each vertical line represents each second’s frame.

The Dark Knight has a diverse spread of hues, saturations and brightness.

A timeline of The Dark Knight’s dominant color palette, broken down by second. A timeline of The Dark Knight’s dominant color palette, broken down by second.

Whereas the Batman is far more suppressed—especially in situation and brightness.

A timeline of The Batman’s dominant color palette, broken down by second. A timeline of The Batman’s dominant color palette, broken down by second.

Using the dataset of unique colors taken from a frame every second, I correlated the following color palette ordered by frequency:

The most prominent colors from The Dark Knight and The Batman, ordered by frequency. The most prominent colors from The Dark Knight (left) and The Batman (right), ordered by frequency.

The Dark Knight The Batman
Unique colors 6059 2884
P10 lightness 5.1% 4.7%
Median lightness 10.8% 6.9%
P90 lightness 40.2% 12.0%
P10 saturation 4.3% 3.7%
Median saturation 14.9% 10.3%
P90 saturation 41.2% 26.7%

There’s a dramatic difference in range of lightness and saturation between the two films which leads to less variance in overall palette. The Batman is dark. For some, too dark. But that stylistic constraint helped create a cohesive visual style.

The wider range of colors in The Dark Knight aren’t distracting, but they didn’t reinforce the atmosphere. Shots of Gotham’s skyline in The Dark Knight could have been a skyline from any city. The constant darkness of The Batman gave its environment a personality of its own. Gotham never broke character.

It’s tempting to inject color in the design of experiences, but this movie is a lesson in the value of less. It’s surprising just how little is needed.

Subtraction by addition

The Batman is known for its use of vintage and intentionally-detuned lenses. Those lenses introduced corner distortion and sharpness falloff which limited the frame’s “workable” area to its center. The film also went through the process of transferring digitally-recorded footage to film to introduce grain and overall softness. There’s a clear difference in acuity, which made The Batman more visually pleasing to me.

The Dark Knight in comparison appears technically flawless. Scenes are sharp with no distortion or aberration. I would have assumed a “cleaner” frame would be less distracting, but I had the opposite response.

Take this scene from The Dark Knight. The frame is technically clean and sharp. Which brings attention to the antennas, building details and Chase sign in the lower-left corner of the frame. Those details don’t add value.

Foo Scene from The Dark Knight ©Warner Bros.

In comparison, almost everything in the frame below is out of focus. Its corners are heavily distorted. Paradoxically, The Batman reads cleaner in composition because of its lack of detail.

Foo Scene from The Batman ©Warner Bros.

In addition to suppressed focus, The Batman frequently shot in rain. The random streaks of rain created visual interference further softened background detail, which gave the main subject more prominence.

Foo Scene from The Batman ©Warner Bros.

The results from a sharpness detection script confirmed just how much softer The Batman was compared to the The Dark Knight. Each column represents a minute in the film with each dot being a second’s frame sharpness. The sharper the dot, the sharper the overall frame. The Dark Knight shows a strong variation between frame sharpness.

A second-by-second analysis of frame sharpness in The Dark Knight. A second-by-second analysis of frame sharpness in The Dark Knight.

The Batman is significantly softer both in magnitude and consistency from frame to frame.

A second-by-second analysis of frame sharpness in The Batman. A second-by-second analysis of frame sharpness in The Batman.

The Dark Knight The Batman
P10 sharpness value 1.06 0.34
Median sharpness value 2.49 0.84
P90 sharpness value 5.05 2.08

As an interesting comparison, below are the sharpest frames detected from each movie. The Dark Knight has a large depth of field with seemingly everything in focus.

Foo Scene from The Dark Knight ©Warner Bros.

Whereas even the sharpest frame in The Batman is considerably softer in comparison. That lack of detail ends up saying more.

Foo Scene from The Batman ©Warner Bros.

I am dogmatically reductive which made this result fascinating. I believed that simplicity relied on removal. I still believe that—but sometimes the best way to remove is to add. The Batman’s additive process of lens distortion/falloff, film grain and background visual noise removed more significant detail. I’m unsure how I will employ this in my work, but I’m eager to try.

Less moving, moving parts

The Batman stood out with how simple the cinematography was. There were less cuts, less camera movement. The viewer was given an unchanging scene to simply take in. It was vindicating to find this quote:

We had such great sets. We had such great actors. It’s such a great script. I would ask the question, why do you have to move the camera for no reason? If you’re moving the camera for no good reason, I will like you’re doing all of your parts a disservice.

Greig Fraser

After watching The Batman, it felt like The Dark Knight was in constant movement. More cuts, pans, zooms and shake. It was constant stimulus.

I wanted to see just how different the style was. I ran a visual diff from a frames a second apart. I expected a difference, but the magnitude was surprising.

First is the second-to-second frame difference for The Dark Knight. Each column represents one minute of film. Dark purple represents small change, where bright yellow represents high change. The Dark Knight has significant deltas.

Foo Visual diff by second in The Dark Knight.

The Batman is substantially muted in comparison, with only a single 3 to 4 minute stretch having the similar levels of change.

Foo Visual diff by second in The Batman.

The Dark Knight The Batman
Mean % of pixels changing per second 65.1% 34.9%
Median % of pixels changing per second 69.4% 28.9%
P10 29.3% 7.4%
P90 93.8% 73.6%

My hypothesis is that the lack of change in The Batman is accentuated by its dark color palette and suppression of detail. All of these elements converge to create a gestalt stillness. I think this stillness gave room for the viewer to more effectively take in its atmosphere and style.

Much confirmed, but also some surprise

Running these two movies through its paces clarified why I enjoyed The Batman’s style so much. The movie was long, but it employed constraint and consistency that amplified its style into something I considered noteworthy. The movie clearly had a vision that was followed from start to end. This isn’t a judgment on the worth of either movie, but I do find The Batman to be better cinematically executed based on consistent constraint.

This exercise wasn’t just a reinforcement of previously held beliefs. The Batman’s use of additives to simplify has weakened some strongly held beliefs—especially in regards to my photographic work. To be honest, I wish I would have come to this conclusion roughly nine years ago, but it’s better than never.

Epilogue

Designers are addicted to inspiration—which isn’t a problem if it’s the first step in a larger process. Inspiration alone lacks understanding behind the reaction. Inspiration requires examination.

Developing a point of view on design is essential to fostering one’s own style. The things that inspire you should be broken into a million pieces to see what makes it tick. That lack of understanding keeps you at the mercy of basic mimicry.

This post attempts to provide an example of examination. Both for myself and others. I give designers two main suggestions to help their growth: 1) Dissect others’ work that resonates with you so you can take its elements to make something of your own. 2) Write about your thoughts to fortify your thinking and communication.

Do I think every designer should go through this length with design that catches their eye? Absolutely not. But I do think following an abbreviated process of observation, examination, validation is invaluable for growth.

It would have been easy to say, “The Batman has less dialog and feels simpler.” But, did it actually have less dialog? If so, by how much? It was important to understand if my observations were accurate. How would it help if my point of view was shaped on false pretenses?

I do not think everything can or should be quantified, but I do think it should be examined. While I’ve spent considerable effort quantifying these two films, this analysis remains an interpretation. And through this interpretation, I have just that much better of an idea of what I consider to be good design. I encourage you to do the same.