Sunday, August 3, 2008

Color in 101 Dalmatians: 2. In a different light

Although I’ve expressed my reservations about the way Disney digitally restores their masterpieces, my analysis is based exclusively on the 2008 restoration for consistency reasons (and because it positively looks superior to the previous DVD). In some cases I will consult the old edition just to remind you that the best looking version doesn’t necessarily have to be the most accurate.
Large parts of sequences 4, 5, 6 and 17 (the happy ending) take place within the kitchen and the living room (established in preceding sequences). Here, I explore the differences in lighting. As the story progresses, color schemes are not as clear-cut anymore.
So far I’ve been analyzing almost exclusively high key lighted scenes. So first I’d like to write about a few concepts involving value. Since the Dalmatians are black and white, they are predestined for studying some basic concepts that can be found in many animated films. To make it easier to focus on value I have converted all of these examples to grayscale pictures

Character values

“It’s a matter of what the mood is supposed to be. For instance, if there’s a character working in the shadows, maybe it would be good to have a darker character. You know it’s the same one because the silhouette will tell you what he is, and the colors, though subdued, will still identify the character. And then in order to make it read, of course, you have to have the background a little bit lighter behind him. In a reverse situation, where we have a light value character, it will have to work against a darker background. A character is […] either generally a silhouette or generally lighter than the background they’re working on. And it depends upon what kind of mood you want, how you paint it.”
Al Dempster, 1972 (WP5, p.277)
Except for the church scene we haven’t seen silhouettes so far, because the first three sequences were basically done in high key lighting. Even so, the Dalmatians’ values change quite a bit from shot to shot. Normally, Pongo is slightly darker than Perdita. When they appear as parents though, they are usually equally treated.
Now look at Pongo crawling under the stove: whenever we see his backside (which faces the unseen light source), the whole dog is almost white (providing the lightest value in the picture, with the head and the black ears forming the area of highest contrast). Now the reverse angle (middle picture) shows us the shadow side, therefore the whole character is darker than the pool of light behind him. But in relation to the dark area under the stove we still perceive him as a white dog. The closer Pongo gets to Perdi (completely in the shadow), the darker he gets. This is only possible because we always cut to reverse angles in between. We’ll see this throughout the picture (and to a lesser degree in all the Xerox features). As we have seen earlier, due to the high key lighting the characters don’t need cast shadows to be tied to a background. So if the larger part of a character is in the shadow, the whole character is dark. This treatment of shadows replaced the tedious process of animating and superimposing cast shadows as can be seen in earlier features like Cinderella or Alice in Wonderland. In this film, cast shadows and double exposure are only used for two or three standout occasions where they are absolutely necessary.
Although we are again in a theatrical setting (not even windows), sequence 4 basically consists of a series of shots and reaction shots, which is a purely filmic technique. While the room was supposed to be illuminated by exterior daylight in sequence 2, the curtains are closed now and the TV set seems to be the only light source (look at the pool of light between TV and Dalmatians in group reaction shots). Thus, the room is darker, the colors more subdued. For the first time, there is no hint at outside lighting. We enter and exit on a dissolve to an up close TV screen.
Apart from shadows, this is a clear example of hierarchy of values: Even in a freeze frame we can’t help looking at the TV where the contrast of value is strongest. But the dogs themselves are pretty close in value to their surroundings and thus seem to blend in. In other words: they are passive, while the TV “actors” are active. It is interesting that the two puppies who actively look to the screen (“come on, Thunderbolt”) are a little lighter than the others. This may be unintentionally caused by cel overlay, but as we’ll see throughout the film, there are always deliberately different shades of white to prevent the puppy group from becoming flat.

This sequence feels like a contemporary equivalent of the familiar “dinner table scene”, where we get to know the relationships among individual family members. This whole sequence is only possible because the humans are absent. Normally the puppies are a little lighter than their parents, because they are much smaller.

Although we get to know some of them as (one-dimensional) individuals throughout this sequence, they are generally treated as a group character. Note, how Patch – the cheeky one – is always absent in group shots where his patch would stand out if re-used. For once generic design makes sense both economically and artistically.

Excursus on restoration
I’d like to compare a few shots from the two available DVD versions in order to remind you of the fact that we have to be conscious of what we are analyzing. Keep in mind that the older inferior transfer looks like it was done from a somewhat faded re-release print and therefore everything is a little on the magenta side. In this example we see that the color of the cel overlay has been corrected, the matchlines are retained though. While I would agree that such minor cosmetics are true to the artists original intentions, it nevertheless makes it harder to look at the film from a historical perspective. But look at the following two shots near the beginning and the end of this sequence (2008 version):
The cels have obviously been painted differently, some of them have even been cleaned up differently (look at Perdi). But look at the ashtray on top of the TV. It has changed from turquoise to mauve for no apparent reason.
And to my surprise in the old version it stays turquoise throughout the sequence. Of course this may have no impact on the overall impression of the background, yet I’m curious why someone would do this on purpose.The important difference between these (virtually) identical shots is that in the second one (with the black TV) we notice Pongo and Perdi looking at each other as an anticipation of their telling the kids to go to bed. Even though we have seen the exact same animation earlier, we didn’t pay attention because the TV was much more attractive. Therefore, it makes sense, that the puppies aren’t brighter than their parents. I’m not sure, if the lighting difference was supposed to be as strong as in the old DVD version. Compared to sequence 2, the living room looks less tidy. We can see that this is the puppies’ playground (slippers, ball, paper on the floor). Like in Roger’s music room, all the objects are painted in their respective color even in the dark area around the TV as if to contrast the bright black and white serial on the screen.

In the establishing shot for Sequence 5 the human characters are only seen in dark silhouette while the white dogs stand out a bit more. We then dissolve to a medium shot with the focus still on the dogs. But the dark clothed (in very subdued complementary colors) humans aren’t silhouettes anymore (they are not in the shadow). They then pass a grey car with silhouetted figures behind large newspapers. Again we dissolve to a closer shot of the same scene (as if our focus shifted) where the hands are “normally” skin colored. As the papers are lowered we discover two crooked figures watching Roger and Anita closely. Their overall brown appearance contrasts with the cold gray background.
This introductory scene shows the Baduns in their most normal color. Even despite their darkness they are highlighted against the background. As they approach the house, they are silhouetted again, because we have to recognize the now highlighted window (and mustn’t pay attention to the rotoscoped dummies inside the van). Like in previous sequences, window colors are used to connect parts of a façade to interior rooms. Surprisingly this time, the living room window seems to be connected directly to the kitchen.

Swapping colors

The layout tells us we are in the kitchen (actually we see the wall next to the where Cruella came in), but the room looks neither blue nor cold. Even though we have seen it at night in sequence 3, the supposedly artificial light is now rather ochre than white. This affects the tile floor and the brick walls alike, but not the characters. To prevent them from falling out of the picture, the backgrounds are balanced by desaturated areas of pine green. This provides the warmest environment for the puppies just before they are taken out into the cold. Again we see logical value changes from shot to shot. The most dramatic lighting (and framing) occurs in the middle picture when Nanny sees the puppies for the last time.

When Nanny discovers that the puppies have been stolen, the kitchen looks just a little less vivid. We also learn from the calendar behind her head, that Christmas is near and it’s going to be even colder outside. Here we have more “odd geography” that works perfectly from a filmic point of view: When the Baduns ring the bell, Nanny goes off to the right and enters the hallway from the left which looks totally natural (of course the orange window was on the left of the door, but inside it should be laterally reversed), yet when she discovers the theft, she leaves the kitchen again to the right and enters the living room from the left (like it was established in sequence 2). But both work perfectly because the hallway and the living room are held in the same color.
In sequence 5, the living room is also inverted. All the lights are off, because there is no one there (of course the characters could switch one of the numerous lights on, but they don’t want to spoil the mood). All the large shapes are rendered in tones of the same bluish gray hue. The arbitrary, faint pool of light that makes the silhouetted Jasper visible could be interpreted as coming from the window. Again, the details are in the line work but not painted distinctly, as it is harder to distinguish details in the dark. Although the almost neutrally brown floor prevents the BGs from becoming monochrome, there is absolutely no warmth left in the living room or Roger’s music room. Now all the parts of the house except the kitchen are unified by the absence of light.
We unexpectedly see the connecting corridor between living and music room as well as the window (the one that was always hinted at by the hanging binoculars) we know from the outside. Note how even the Baduns’ ghoulish skin color reads as brown against the bluish gray of the background. Nanny’s shadow side is considerably bluer than her neutral appearance.
Here again, it pays off to have the two rooms in such different lighting/color conditions. We don’t even have to recognize the door or see the movement in Horace’s bag to know where he’s coming from. While it might not be the most common thing to have a swinging door in your apartment, it certainly helps here. Whatever side a character comes from, he never has to break the dynamics of a run in order to pull the door open.
Outside vs Inside
Since all the lights are off, the hallway now is even darker than the foggy dusk outside. So inside, Jasper is blending in better. This makes sense as he is a burglar whose goal is not to be seen in the dark. According to this, Nanny’s skin color is much paler when affected by bleak exterior light.

As we have seen in sequence 3, if a character looking/coming through a door/window is the important part of a shot, we hardly ever get to see, what’s behind it. A uni-colored area without visually distracting details serves the purpose much better. We see right away that: it’s dark inside (left), it’s foggy blue outside (middle), she’s coming out of the kitchen (right).Of course, it’s hardly possible to have just a pale blue, flat area behind Jasper, when there’s nothing else around him. So the foggy feeling is created by values that are close to each other. This looks downright dull (which makes sense, because it shouldn’t catch our eye) compared to what Nanny sees when she’s looking out of Roger’s window: By the time the Baduns’ getaway car drives off, it looks as if the streets were wet. If you look closely, there is nothing in the layout that suggests anything different from what’s seen before. While some live-action cinematographers (e.g. Janusz Kaminski) go to great lengths to water the pavement because this looks considerably more dramatic, Walt Peregoy’s background painters “simply” filled the backgrounds with vertical shapes in different blues and greens to suggest reflections of the buildings, while also serving as a pool of light for the dark van. First the saturated head and tail lights stand out, then we notice faint yellow streetlamps that haven’t been there before.
If you compare the first and last shot of sequence 5, you’ll notice that we practically see the same content, yet the final setup looks much more dramatic with the camera still head-on. While the establishing shot (left) is almost completely symmetrical and shows the streets in central perspective as we have learn to expect it, in the end (right), not only has the sky darkened, but the story has taken a new direction, so to speak. The dark houses are now almost overpowering the silhouetted Nanny, while yellow is provided more by the streetlamps than the windows. Note how the two framing trees are on different planes now. While up to now everything was flat and close to each other, this last shot already foreshadows the depth of the darkness to come. Nothing is safe anymore.

it's a dreary world
However, before the dogs finally leave their home, sequence 6 shows the human way of outside communication: through media and over the phone. First we see a black and white press photo of Nanny in the empty kitchen. At the end of the sequence we then discover that indeed all color (and therefore all life) has vanished from the kitchen. While normal colored humans would have stuck out inside the gray kitchen, the press photos maintain the dreary mood.
Hard white light illuminates the empty basket like a white hole. The overall grey background is achieved by colder and warmer tones according to importance and material. The dogs are almost black, yet we instantly recognize them as Dalmatians rather than Labradors, because of their darkened eye and collar colors. I’m deliberately leaving out Cruella’s and the Badun’s whereabouts, because at the moment I’m mainly interested in Roger and Anita’s home. While we have seen that almost all color is drained from the kitchen, the living room on this gray and rainy day is also less colourful. Again the lighting is influenced by the weather outside the window, again everything is lighted unobtrusively. We accept it as neutral, because the characters retain normal skin tones. Interestingly, blue is mainly absent. So it doesn’t come as a surprise that the (formerly blue) kitchen is gray now.
Although the orange and green pillows are as saturated as in sequence 2, the spread newspaper – it must be the same that Cruella and the Baduns are holding – gives the shot a more neutral overall color. While it fits that Roger and Anita both wear grey shirts at first, it comes as a surprise that Anita suddenly looks green. In the old DVD version, she doesn’t change that much, but the skin color is so off in this sequence that this can hardly pass for reference (you see the difference below. While the predominantly western rule of screen direction (left to right = forward, right to left = backwards) is maintained throughout the film, I think it’s safe to say: While the humans (especially Roger) have turned away from hope, Pongo is still going forward to see if the twilight bark works where Scotland Yard has failed.

The warmth returns
Sequence 17 starts with a radio playing a popular rendition of Roger’s “Cruella DeVil” and ends with Roger actively playing the piano. Even if Anita hadn’t said that Roger’s first hit had made them quite rich, we would have immediately found out from the backgrounds alone. Not only does the fireplace look much more golden, but the whole rendering of the now neat place looks richer. Compared to sequence 2, some of the backgrounds are painted following the layout lines far more precisely. Also there are less arbitrary shapes, so it comes closer to a conventional Disney setting. Although the puppies haven’t returned yet, the living room looks warmer than before, because the orange curtain and furniture are stronger. On top of that, it’s Christmas eve. Yet the characters are still sad. While Roger’s lethargy hasn’t changed, Nanny is still emotional (serving tea like in sequence 2) and Anita again seems to be most down to earth. For her, everyday life has taken over, she even decorates the Christmas tree. Anita’s blue clothes make her stand out color wise like in the beginning.
Nanny still is the most “canine” – as Pongo puts it – as she is always black and white (with a red collar button). No wonder she’s the first to hear the dogs bark.

Sequence 4, 5 and 6 all ended on variations of their respective first shots. These final pictures add noticeable visual depth to initially flat stagings (4: TV characters vs Dalmatians in front of TV screen; 5: flat terrace vs. into the distance; 6: press photo vs. real situation).
Throughout, relatively flat high key lighting without visible light sources makes cast shadows obsolete. Even in the dark, the light is relatively diffuse. The large painted shapes are representational enough to separate shadow from light. In combination with rapid cutting, character’s values can be easily adjusted without changing them within a scene.

Sequence 17 is the only sequence where the living room seems to be lighted by artificial light, since there’s no light coming through the window. Note that the light never comes from one of the many lamps as strong light sources would draw attention to the inexistent cast shadows. Although light bulbs are somewhat warmer in tone than sunlight, this effect is achieved rather by accentuating the warmer colored furniture than by tinting the whole setup with yellow tones, like it is done so often nowadays. There are still balancing turquoise elements and neutral colors. It is only consequential that in full light even smallest details are di
The pure opposite happens, when the Baduns steal the puppies and the living room is totally devoid of light. Therefore we can only identify large shapes. The almost desaturated background color is nevertheless perceived as blue because of the strong ochre tones of the kitchen. In sequence 4 the living room lit by the TV is completely unobtrusive although there are many details visible. It’s always clear that the black and white dogs are part of a varicolored world which is much darker than the TV screen. That leaves us with the telephone scene, where according to the dreary weather neutral and green are emphasized over the warmer aspects of the setting. This of course is subtle. Watching the movie, we constantly accept it as the same living room.
This is a little different with the kitchen: Even though it looked totally blue at night before, it is inverted in sequence 5 to balance the dark blue living room. Later, even all the color is drained from it, to match the bleak emptines
s. The overall grey still consists of warm and cold neutral tones. Interestingly, I used to remember the kitchen as three different rooms because we also get to see it from a different angle every time.

Whatever inside lighting we perceive, it never affects characters skin tones. Of course it gets lighter or darker according to the concepts above, but the hue itself is hardly affected (the Baduns are a special case). This constant lets us perceive the background colors as completely natural even though they are not realistically painted. Speaking of neutral tones: black and white objects (Dalmatians, TV, papers) are always more or less painted in values of gray scale, only slightly affected by ambient hues.

An established color scheme is always consistent during a whole sequence, so it doesn’t attract our attention. It also has to fit all the mood changes within a sequence. The dramatic sequence 5 has a very strong but narrow color scheme (just dark blue and bright ochre). It disorientingly disrupts all the previously established color relations while plot-wise the puppies are stolen. It is framed by quiet sequences with large black and white parts and otherwise subdued normal colors. Obviously, color schemes were planned along the lines of narrative sequences.
Color reference (not scientifically checked):
All screenshots are from Platinum Edition DVD, RC: 2, 2008 unless otherwise stated. All the pictures are the property of Disney, used here for educational purposes.
Sequences labelled according to the final draft (posted by Hans Perk) and Mark Mayerson’s mosaics.


Steve Downer said...


Looking back, I never perceived the color shift in the kitchen- it was always balanced well enough with the living room and music room that the change from scene to scene didn't register. I actually didn't realize until now how smart the color development in 101 Dalmatians is. Thanks, Oswald!

Jazzy said...

THANK YOU!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Damasceno said...

Thanks...thanks..thanks. and thanks again. and congratulations for the amazing job. It's just great studying material. we're working on a short film ( and I'm responsible for the color schemes, concept designs and character concepts (it's a very small crew), it's just my second time doing it and by reading your post i've learned a lot. Thank you very much.

idle. said...

Thanks much, Oswald. I really enjoyed reading this and the previous two posts. I think I have seen the film only once but your analysis makes me want to watch it again. ^_^ Very insightful and I've learned a lot.

mirella said...

I really like the last thing you said in your entry "the color schemes were planned along the lines of narrative sequences" I couldn't agree more. Its very cool to step back and analyze the progression of the color scheme in comparison to the story. Thank you again for posting this, it was well written and I learned from it!

Zumbi said...

Gosh that's brilliant!
Everything is so clear and yet complicated.
I work as a comic colourist, and the narrative principles you point at are incredibly valuable also for works like mine.

i thank you from the bottom of my heart!

Roland MacDonald said...

Another invaluable post. Very interesting to see how important colour is to the story. I had never though of it as being this powerful and subtle. Love this blog