The Soloist’s Synesthesia Sequence

Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey Jr. in The Soloist

I went to see Joe Wright’s The Soloist mainly because it was based on the book by Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez; I haven’t read the book, but I do recall reading his initial column about Nathaniel Ayers, the homeless cellist which the film is about. (Lopez’s  columns were one of the things I missed most after I left Los Angeles in late 2003.) Though I think the film suffers from a sometimes rather self-conscious technique, in the end it has more pluses than minuses; and one of the surprising and unexpected  pluses is an abstract sequence depicting  Ayers’ synesthesia when he listens (pictured above) to the opening movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3.  Here are three images from the sequence:

The Soloist: Synesthesia Sequence

The Soloist: Synesthesia Sequence

The Soloist: Synesthesia SequenceThe sequence was the work of Double Negative, the London-based special effects house which also worked on Wright’s Atonement. Although the film’s credits give Andy Hague sole credit, Double Negative’s website notes:

[Steve Wright] was inspired by the abstract films of the 1970’s, in particular the work of Stan Brakhage and Len Lye when it came to the Synesthesia sequence, where musical genius, Ayers, visualises music as colour.

Double Negative’s VFX Supervisor, John Moffatt, supported by VFX Producer, Emma Larsson and Executive Producer, Melissa Taylor, conceptualised a simple [approach] using coloured lights, crystals and glass. Elements were shot in a dark tent on a parking lot and Moffatt worked closely with VFX film editor Andy Hague, to create a sequence that seemed to be moving and changing colour with the music.

Author: Harvey Deneroff

Harvey Deneroff is a Los Angeles-based independent animation and film scholar specializing in labor history. He formerly taught at the Savannah College of Art and Design and was editor of Animation Magazine, Animation World Magazine, and Graiffit (published by ASIFA-Hollywood). He is the founder and past president of the Society for Animation Studies.

7 thoughts on “The Soloist’s Synesthesia Sequence”

  1. Fascinating. I have done a lot of work on genuine synesthesia. Some of this approximated the real thing. Some looked like Kandinsky, Synchromist painters, etc. I thought it was very well done.

  2. I edited the sequence from material shot by VFX Supervisor John Moffat. Joe pretty much gave me free reign with the piece, he encouraged me to be experimental & said ‘pretend you’re back at Art school!’. The raw footage looked so fantastic there was no need to enhance it with any Visual FX so it remained a piece of pure editing.

    There’s some more info on the sequence on my blog:


  3. I am a synesthete and I found that this sequence really jumped out at me. I usually get annoyed by other people’s synesthesia as their colours are normally totally different from mine – but shape-wise, this was extraordinary for me to watch. The shapes of this sequence were very close to the shapes of the colours I was seeing. I saw the music as more lilacy with cadmium yellow and light blues and greens interupting on the different notes.
    Thanks for the experience, it was really cool. I’ve only ever seen colour synesthesia represented in one other film which was Ratatouille, and that sucked.

  4. I was fascinated by the film when I saw it yesterday and then wow – this bit really caught me by surprise. Explaining the synesthetic experience to others is always so difficult but this was really more or less exactly how it is, at least for me, with the moving shapes and colours. The closest thing I’ve found is the beginning of Fantasia!
    What a wonderful addition to the discussion of mental states already in the film.

  5. I recently saw a real life version of this film. Not the exact same story, but it’s a very well done documentary called My Name is Alan and I Paint Pictures.

    If you liked The Soloist you would definitely like My Name is Alan. It follows a street artist in New York who has schizophrenia and has been using what he sees and translating that onto his art.

    I just found the website at

    Definitely check out this real life film.

  6. Just recently realized that what I have had for years is actually called something and others have it too – Synesthesia. Are there any forums out there for us?? would love to talk to someone else who experiences similar things when listening to music…….i try to explain to my wife but it’s impossible!!!

  7. I recall seeing the movie for the first time and was blown away work this scene.
    I had mentioned to a cpl people and they all thought I wad high or whatever. This scene made me actually cryi tell ppl wish you could see it and feel it.
    It takes over me and I’m just gone for whether amount of time….

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