Sunday, August 30, 2009

character - background color relation

I apologize for the lack of substantial posts lately. Currently I’m revisiting some subjects I have already started writing about during the last few months but never managed to finish.

I’ve been analyzing films with regard to character relationships and narration, so there will probably follow some posts about this, especially on Pinocchio and Dumbo. But first I’d like to tackle a subject that’s been on my mind for a very long time:

colored lighting in animation

Basically this concerns the character – background color relation and what degree of realism the art direction of a certain film tried to achieve.

I don’t believe in film history as a record of masterpieces because a film doesn’t have to be a masterpiece (or even a decent film, for that matter) to be of historical value. A film can be typical or even influential and still fail as both art and entertainment. If I had to show a typical Italian Western of the late 60s I probably wouldn’t pick any of Sergio Leone’s masterpieces but some cheap B-movie that exhibits all the traits of that particular genre and time. So what I’m trying to say is that most of the films I discuss in this post are not necessarily great ones, I don’t even like some of them, but they represent steps in an evolution of style.

I didn’t really know how to start on that subject until I watched Don Bluth’s Banjo (1979) DVD set half a year ago (Jerry Beck reviews it here, it also sparked a Bluth-re-evaluation debate spread over several blogs).

About eight and a half minutes into the film, the kitten Banjo is looking for shelter on a rainy night. On the commentary track one of the directors states that he thinks the scene should have been darker and they should have painted Banjo bluer because of the blue light everywhere. They then go on about how they achieved a great effect with a relatively simple reflection in the puddle and so on.

What’s interesting here is that the commentator is clearly talking from today’s point of view. First of all, Banjo was a TV special which meant you couldn’t go too dark and more important: it wasn’t really common to have characters strongly affected by ambient light in mainstream animation unless it was inevitable (disco lights for example). It sure is a way to help root drawn characters in a painted environment, but it doesn’t necessarily make for an interesting picture.

The character certainly reads more clearly this way. Unlike standard Disney practice in the 60s and 70s, not even Banjo’s color value changes, whether he is inside or in front of the can. Of course, it would have been more expensive to have so many color models but usually during that era character colors were just changing value, not hue. As is common, the night time blue has some effect on Banjo’s fur compared to the following set of screen shots where he is seen under “normal” lighting circumstances:

Note that Banjo is the one cat in the family with the strongest contrast between light and dark fur and he’s also the got the most saturated orange fur. Even his eyes are bluer than those of the other cats.

It has often been said that Bluth’s rise ultimately led to Disney’s recovery during the Katzenberg-Eisner era, so I think it’s interesting to have a look at how Bluth’s striving for rich-looking color effects affected character – background color relations during those years. Of course, what is accepted as visual realism in live-action Hollywood films has also changed a lot over this period and has certainly influenced animated features.

The evolution of style I present here is sketched only in broad strokes and by no means exhausting or without exceptions.

Let’s have a look at a few frames from Disney’s The Rescuers (1977) on which Bluth worked as a directing animator:

Bianca is always the whitest mouse around so she’s easy to spot. Like in most classic Hollywood films the male hero is considerably darker complexion than the heroine (think of Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint in North by Northwest, for example). Bernard’s gray body tends to blend in with the surroundings while Bianca is literally brighter.

This is how they look in their rain outfit inside the orphanage.

And this is how they look outside in the rain at night (some sort of leftovers from an earlier incarnation of the story involving zoo animals). A tad bluer, but not even much darker than inside (it is different during the climax with Penny in the cave however). This is by no means a lavish or sophisticated production but the visuals work. We don’t feel that the characters don’t belong into their surroundings any less than in other lighting situations.

Now Don Bluth was trying to restore the glorious days of Pinocchio and Bambi with his first feature The Secret of Nimh (1982). He obviously paid a lot of attention to colors and special effects to make them look as good as it gets. In fact, to me this became a real problem in Bluth’s later films because his love for effects seemed to overwhelm his initial good intentions.

These are stills from the same scene in which almost all the shots seem to have their own color scheme. Note also how much more dramatic the lighting is here with a clear pool of light.

The characters were actually colored in different hues and not just adjusted in later color grading as is clearly visible from the Mrs Brisby’s red/magenta cape.

In 1988 Disney still used the same inexpensive coloring style on Oliver & Company. In some of the backgrounds there is a very superficial Bakshi influence visible, by the way. Remember that this was after Bluth and Spielberg had a hit with An American Tail (1986).

Oliver stands out by his more saturated fur and only gets darker in rainy night scenes.

Only one year later, The little Mermaid demonstrates a crucial leap in relative lavishness.

The “normal” character color schemes apply to standard lighting above and below sea level. Since Ariel is at home under the sea it would have been strange had the colors been altered to simulate underwater photography. The characters read especially well in front of the dark underwater backgrounds. The lighting is like in classic cartoons without cast shadows and consideration for light sources.

This continues in darker scenes under water, but changes during the more important “Part of Your World” musical sequence:

Suddenly there are expensive shadows and the whole background is kept in shades of blue. Ariel, Flounder and Sebastian are immediately affected by the top lighting. Of course this is expressionist lighting during a song that expresses Ariel’s deepest yearnings. But it is seamlessly incorporated into the rest of the film.

In the immediately following shots after the song, the blue background and the darker character values stay, but the hues are more “normal” again. There are no cast shadows anymore. This switching from expensive to standard occurs quite a bit in respect to the relative importance of the visuals. It always reminds me of Brad Bird’s commandment: “not all shots are created equal”.

In contrast to earlier Disney features, skin tones change quite a bit as can be seen looking at Eric and the sailors under different weather conditions.

It is characteristic that the first time Ariel sees Eric, he is seen in “normal” lighting, although the scenes play at night on the ship.
Eric’s blue eyes stay blue no matter what.

During the rescue sequence the lighting changes gradually and the character hues change accordingly. Again we have hard lighting and therefore visible cast shadows.

The “Kiss the Girl” love scene is worth noting for several characteristics: The characters’ colors are very close to the surrounding blue and turquoise. Compared to The Banjo or Rescuers night scene they don’t read to well by contrast of hue. It’s even more surprising that in many shot Eric and Ariel are not clearly lighter or darker than the backgrounds value-wise. Again this is an important scene, so the color scheme is more expressive, but there is no dramatic or artificial lighting, just diffuse dusk.

And now - you might want to cover your eyes – let’s have a look at the picture I’ve always considered the swan song of Disney’s Katzenberg era: Pocahontas (1995). Maybe it is telling that this film features 27 story credits (true, Katzenberg left 1994, but this was already in production).

Right from the beginning there is a strong sense of stylized and oversaturated color. However John Smith’s skin tones contrast very well with all the gray and blue around him.

The storm sequence features some brilliant special effects but even more than a similar scene in The Little Mermaid, it tries to imitate live-action film making. While the contrasting skin tones of Smith and Thomas are great for readability in those short action shots, the crew is depicted in more “realistic” fashion with skin tones that almost blend in with the surroundings.

But in the most emotional part of the scene when Smith grabs young Thomas their faces too become gray blue as if they were already presumed dead. The characters are more difficult to distinguish, though. It’s only afterwards on the ship that skin tones are re-established. Michael Giaimo’s art direction plays the whole bandwith between these two extremes.

Although Pocahontas strains the concept of backgrounds limited to one or two hues or at least neighboring colors, the characters sometimes are seen under “normal” lighting conditions with skin tones in the new world always on the pink side.

During the “Colors of the Wind” song sequence the already highly stylized setting is even more exaggerated. The generally disturbing lack of neutral earth tones in the backgrounds is taken ad nauseam in these scenes. More than in Ariel’s cave the expressionist lighting affects the character colors very strongly. To be fair, Pocahontas is by no means an historically or geographically accurate retelling but an increasingly stagey reworking of a legend.
The one-hue scheme is taken even further shortly before war breaks out. Even the wise old tree is no blue in front of blue. Basically we have come full circle to early silent films with blue toning. The third picture in that blue row is from inside the tent where Smith is waiting to be executed. At the moment of maximum tension there is a minimum of color contrast and a maximum of skin tone distortion.

In the war preparing scenes the settlers are red and the native Americans blue (maybe they are supposed to hurt our eyes as some kind of subtext that war is cruel).

The climax gets more and more stylized to the point where the whole setup resembles a stage musical. In that sense the strong colored lighting is only coherent and accounts for the lack of earthly grays and browns. Regardless of taste or such matters, there hasn’t been a Disney movie that pushed the character – background color coherence so far. And here it is clearly not for the effect of following live-action realism tastes but as an obtrusive means of expression.

In general, most Hollywood movies follow contemporary tastes in lighting, consciously or not. So to break the mould and have something fresh looking, sometimes it is just enough to do what was once fashionable (see Lilo and Stitch’s watercolor backgrounds that were largely inspired by Elmer Elephant (1935) and Dumbo (1940)). Of course it’s always desirable that color schemes were inspired by imagination rather than degrees of realism and mainstream tastes, but then one shouldn’t probably look for it in mainstream movies.

After seeing trailers and short clips from Disney's upcoming Princess and the Frog I'm very curious and a little uneasy about how much it seems to be influenced by Don Bluth style, not only color-wise that is...