“Suddenly you realize that you’re questioning how you see the world.”

Under Judith Pyke’s gaze, a simple piece of fruit can be a real mind trip. “You can start with something as simple as a red apple and go through the different stages of how you perceive that apple as red,” says the Vancouver-based filmmaker, “and suddenly you realize that you’re questioning how you see the world.”

On one fall afternoon a couple of years ago—inspired by the golds, greens and reds that surrounded her—Pyke decided to dive into colour for her next CBC documentary. “I just have this innate interest in colour and light, and then when I started looking at some of the science I thought there were some really fascinating things to be learned about colour and how we perceive it,” says Pyke. “Colour is beautiful and complex—we have a range of experiences when it comes to colour. It’s a way to have fun conversations on how we experience the world and it also makes us think about how other people experience the world differently than we do.”

In Living Colour—appearing on the Nature of Things this Friday, October 11 at 9 p.m.— the multi-award-winning filmmaker explores subjects that range from how babies perceive colour, extreme cases of colour blindness, to how memories and words affect how we see colour. Living Colour features interviews with scientists who have conducted colour research as well as artists with hyper-sensitive or little to no colour perception, like musician Kaitlyn Hova, who only sees colour through sound. Renowned science broadcaster and environmental activist David Suzuki narrates the film.

Pyke is an accomplished filmmaker whose projects have aired on the CBC, History Television, CTVglobemedia, Bravo and Discovery, and she most recently executive-produced, directed and wrote: Inseparable: Ten Years Joined at the Head, which won the 2018 Platinum Remi Award and two bronze medals at the 2019 New York Festivals.

We spoke with Pyke to inquire more about her fascinations with colours and the questions and themes that this documentary explores.

When did you first come up with the idea behind this documentary?

Well it’s funny because now I realize that I came up with the idea in the fall, which is not surprising because of all the beautiful fall colours that are around this time of year. I was probably inspired in part by nature and the beauty of what we see around us when the fall colours come in.

I love colour personally and I always pay attention to light as a filmmaker. I loved thinking about how colours look on film and how light plays a part on how a film turns out. I just have this innate interest in colour and light, and then when I started looking at some of the science I thought there were some really fascinating things to be learned about colour and how we perceive it.

I was really surprised by how colour can make you think about how we see and experience the world around us and how that can be different from person to person. 

What are some of the questions that you explore?

The documentary explores how we perceive colour and how that can be different from person to person. For instance, we have someone who sees colour when she hears sound. She’s an amazing musician, her name is Kaitlyn Hova, and she has a condition called synesthesia. One of the ways this condition manifests is when Kaitlyn plays a musical note she sees a colour. As a viewer, people can get a sense of what her colour experience is like because she worked with us quite closely to portray her experience.

We also talked to someone named Meghan Sims, who is an artist based in Kitchener, Ontario. She’s really interesting because she has a condition called Achromatopsia, which causes her to not see colour at all. Meghan sees the world completely in black and white and shades of grey because the colour detecting cones in her eyes don’t work. [Despite this], Meghan had found some remarkable ways to use colours in her work.

Who else will we see in the film?

We also did some filming with Jay Neitz, who is one of the top colour blindness scientists in the world. He is actually working on a cure for colour blindness. Jay said something about colour that I thought that you’d find interesting. He believes that our response to certain colours may go way back in our evolutionary history. Some of the first organisms ever on earth were these little archaebacteria, and they have a molecule that absorbs light and is similar to a molecule that we still have in our eyes today.

Were there any surprise discoveries?

This wasn’t entirely news, but I haven’t had it hammered home in the same way—it was how individual our colour experiences can be and how unique and varied it is. You walk around and you think that everyone is seeing the same world as you are, then you do a doc on colour and you realize that isn’t the case. A lot of us probably do share very similar colour experiences, but we also have vastly different colour experiences—it’s just a reminder on how similar and different we are.

I was also very interested in the baby labs. We visited baby labs and looked at how babies perceived colours. A lot of people think that babies are born seeing black and white, but babies do have some colour perception—it’s not super well developed when they are new born babies, but they can see a big blob of red for instance. Anna Franklin, who is one of the top experts in baby colour vision, told us when kids are little they tend to look at certain colours longer, those colours are red, blue and purple. She said that it actually maps quite well onto the colours that adults also prefer.

After conducting all this research, can you say that the moods that certain colours elicit vary individually or between genetic groups?

That’s a really good question that’s hard to answer. It’s still the very early days of some of the colour science. We looked a little bit on the impact that some colours have on one’s psychology. We found a lot of contradictory research and we didn’t dive into it too much in the doc for that reason.

One of the things that was obvious from doing this doc was that people love to talk and argue about colour. For instance, some researchers claim that green inspires creativity but other insists that it’s blue. Sometimes people will say that research shows that blue makes you very relaxed, or it can make you cold—we found research that shows that if you wear blue you can win a judo match but if you want to win a boxing match you should wear red. There’s all this different stuff out there and I feel like the science still hasn’t nailed down with certainty the full range of impacts that colour has had on our lives, but there’s interesting science being done around it.

What was the greatest challenge in making this documentary?

One of the things that we grappled creatively with was portraying the world of someone who has different colour experiences that you do because ultimately you cannot get fully inside their head and know exactly what it looks like.

Doing one doc on colour made me realize just how much more there is to explore in regards to colour. I feel like I can do three more docs on colour!