Pi: Using the Medium of Film to Externalize a Concept

Examining thematic elements exposed through the physical medium of Darren Aronofsky's "Pi"

Marshall McLuhan’s The Medium is the Massage famously posited that the way something is presented to us is as important if not more important than the information itself. Darren Aronofsky’s first feature film, Pi, offers an excellent example of an auteur using the physical medium of film to help tell a story, rather than be hindered by it.

When I was a little kid, my mother told me not to stare into the sun, so when I was six I did…

Generally when the “medium of film” is discussed in an academic context, it refers to the artistic content presented as part of the rapidly-moving celluloid (and more recently, digital) images presented to a viewer. I’d like to take a look at a far more basic aspect of film: the physical film medium.

How We Perceive Film

There are a number of factors in the physical representation of film which we associate with representing film.

  • Frame Rate: The specific feel of certain amounts of motion blur endemic to the 24p (23.976 frames per second) frame rate means that film shot at differing frame rates generally tends to feel less like a geniune film. For example, The Hobbit was offered at 48p – twice the normal framerate – and many patrons complained about the sets and effects looking cheap.
  • Aspect Ratio: Different aspect ratios have been used over the years, but each one carries a certain amount of mental baggage, as a single film does not exist in a vacuum, but is instead colored by the experiences of the films we have seen before it.
  • Film Grain: A picture which is “too clean” will not feel like actual film to us. This is most likely due to familiarity with the medium.
  • Color: Whether actual color or a black and white representation, the coloring characteristics of film play a great part in how we interpret the film. The entire field of “colorgrading” is devoted to manipulating this.

Tampering with any of these aspects has a drastic – if not immediately perceptible – effect on the way a film is consumed.

Intentional vs Practical Medium Choice

For at least the few decades, black and white film stock has been historically less expensive than color film. This begs the question of whether the choice to film Pi on black and white film was artistic intent or a financial decision for the sake of Aronofsky’s backers.

This article is predicated on the assumption that the choice was artistic, rather than financial, and there are two basic reasons why I believe this to be the case:

  1. The stark contrast in the film. Normal black and white film is generally exposed to give the same basic dynamic range as its color counterpart. Aronofsky uses mostly the extremes to tell his story – and this seems to require a certain amount of artistic forethought to execute properly.

  2. Comparison to other low-budget films. Primer, arguably one of the most infamous “low budget” films shot on actual film stock, was shot on color stock – even with a total budget of only $7k, dwarfed by Pi’s $60k. Kevin Smith’s seminal slacker classic Clerks was shot for a similarly small amount of money, but chose to trade off color for black and white film stock in order to secure expensive music licensing rights. Reservoir Dogs was also originally filmed in black and white until Harvey Keitel became an angel investor in the film – but its filming also functioned in a far less obviously guerilla way than Pi.

It’s safe to say that Pi’s use of stark-contrast black and white film stock was an intentional artistic decision.

External Story Mirrors Internal Story

Look at the outside …


… versus the inside:


The basic gamut is much the same. Additionally, Max Cohen always comes across as trapped and confined, even when he is in a wide-open space, like sitting on a park bench.

More importantly, everything is black and white. There are few, if any midtones present. I believe that this mirrors the outer story of man vs god/sun/enlightenment/understanding by giving us only two elements: light and dark. The Go game shows also shows us a stark visual representation of two polar opposites, engaged in quiet battle, through its black and white game pieces.


Underlying Thematic Elements and The Story of Icarus

The black/white theme plays out as a series of opposing forces and visual opposites. For example, look at the way that Max Cohen is portrayed when he is arguing with the Hasids:


He has shaved his head, ostensibly as part of his journey toward understanding the source of his omnipresent migraine headaches. His visage dominates the frame, portraying the claustrophobia of being completely surrounded by opponents with dubious motives. The reverse shot is of the Hasids, towering over him:


Even though he is the center of the proceedings, Max is not the center of attention in the reverse shot; all eyes are on the head rabbi. He takes up much less of the frame, and his beard takes up almost the same amount of screen space as Max’s entire head. Hasids believe that a flowing beard is the bridge between theory and practice, and between heart and mind, so it makes sense that Max, who is far removed from their system of thinking – despite his Jewish upbringing – would be shown across from them with no hair on his head (with the exception of his eyebrows, of course).

The story of Icarus, also referenced in Danny Boyle’s sci-fi epic Sunshine, is reflected throughout the film, and Sol even recites the story to Max during their Go game. It is indicative of the larger thematic story of man attempting to understand the divine. Another similar story in the canonical bible (rather than Greek mythology) is of the Tower of Babel, where man attempts to climb to the heights of their god so that they can understand him, but are thwarted by the introduction of many languages.

The Go game also represents both the monochromatic opposing forces at play, but also ends up reinforcing the notion of the mathematical spiral being such an intrinsic concept in everything, as Sol leaves it as a final message to his greatest pupil:


Supporting Thematic Evidence: Nomenclature in Pi

Even the names of the characters in Pi reflect the theme. “Maximillian Cohen”, our protagonist, means “The Greatest Priest” (or some variation thereof), and can also refer to a great saint and martyr. Max is searching for a 216 digit number (which is 6 x 6 x 6, referring to “666” a Christian biblical reference); this number is implied to be something very bad, which a number of characters want to use for a range of purposes.


The opposing force is Sol, the brilliant mathemetician who gave up looking for patterns in Pi. When I first watched Pi, I assumed that his named was spelled “Saul”, meaning “asked for/prayed for” – but it is instead the homophone “Sol”, which means “sun”:


(He is pictured next to his fish, Archimedes.)

If you remember the oft-repeated voiceover:

When I was a little kid, my mother told me not to stare into the sun, so when I was six I did…

Sol plays the white pieces, Max plays the black pieces. As Sol points out, an infinite number of moves are possible, but as the game progresses, fewer and fewer outcomes remain, until there is only a single outcome.

(All images are presented under fair use guidelines – all frame grabs are property of Harvest Filmworks, Truth and Soul Pictures, Plantain Films, or any other entities who hold copyright on this film. They are presented for exclusively educational purposes.)