Living Colour

A captivating exploration of the science of colour, including a look at people and animals who experience it in fascinating ways.
Available on CBC Gem

Living Colour

Nature of Things

Is that apple really red? Is his green the same as my green? Does she see thousands more colours than I do? These are the kinds of questions you may find yourself asking after watching Living Colour, a captivating exploration of the science of colour from The Nature of Things.

Living Colour features scientists who are fascinated by how we experience colour and extraordinary people who see colour in remarkable ways. “The spark of inspiration for this film was just simply a love for colour,” says director Judith Pyke. “But I didn’t expect the science to reveal both how similar and how unique our brains are when it comes to the ways in which we experience colour.”

In the documentary, we explore how babies see colour at the Sussex Baby Lab with Anna Franklin, a professor at the University of Sussex who is investigating how colour vision develops and how infants learn to categorize colours. She’s also busting some myths along the way. For instance, newborns don’t see the world only in black and white.

We also meet Jay and Maureen Neitz, professors at the University of Washington, who are studying colour blindness. Colour imbues our world with beauty and meaning, but for the millions of people worldwide who have colour vision deficiency, daily life can be tricky. Choosing and preparing food, following traffic signals and selecting clothes can be a challenge. The Neitzs think they can cure the condition with gene therapy.

On the other end of the spectrum is Kaitlyn Hova. A musician with a background in neuroscience, she has a fascinating condition called synesthesia. Synesthesia is a cross-wiring of the senses, and in Hova’s case, colour and sound are connected.  

Living Colour gives viewers an even more in-depth understanding of how Hova experiences colour. The film’s director and visual effects team worked closely with the artist to visually portray sound as she sees it, lighting up each note as she plays.

Hova and her husband have designed a 3D-printed violin to glow with the colours she sees when she plays musical notes.

The documentary also has some fun with colour illusions as neuroscientist Beau Lotto takes science to the streets to demonstrate that colour is a construct of the brain. “Every colour you see is inside your head projected outward,” he explains. Through some fascinating demonstrations, we witness how language and memory influence colour perception.

We also learn how animals see the world in ways invisible to humans. Some snakes, for example, detect infrared light, while honeybees see ultraviolet light. Mantis shrimp have one of the most unusual vision systems in nature, and the family dog has just two colour-detecting cones in its eyes.

“Making Living Colour changed the way I look at the world,” says Pyke. “I’ve also had some incredibly interesting moments talking to people outside of the film about their colour experience. Some friends and colleagues have shared that they’re colour blind, and one even explained he’s both colour blind and has synesthesia.”

Colour, it seems, is in the eye of the beholder. As the saying goes: “We do not see things as they are, we see things as we are.” 


Stream Now on CBC Gem

Living Colour

Nature of Things