Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Color in 101 Dalmatians: 1. Home Sweet Home

This post is primarily about color temperature as displayed in the interior locales of the first three sequences. I’ll suggest you look at Mark Mayerson’s mosaics for reference as I’ll be jumping around a bit.

When looking at these pictures keep in mind what Vincent LoBrutto advises students of live-action production design:

"Colors should be used to visually transcribe the layers of feeling and meaning that are in the script. […] An effective color design operates on a subconscious level and allows the colors to impart ideas and feelings separate from the conscious story and physical setting."

A bachelor's world
In sequence 001 we enter Rogers apartment through the window. In contrast to all the unicolored windows in this shot the one in the center is not only larger but also more detailed with olive green blinds and sandy brown curtains. Pongo and Roger are framed by the same window, so it must be pretty small flat. The dominant green inside is balanced by warm (sandy or brown) and cold (turquoise, jade towards blue) colors. The cushions are most saturated probably because they are the most important pieces of furniture for Pongo. Note that almost all the props’ colors are different from their respective background, so that we notice how cram-full the room is. Yet it never looks gaudy. You can see from the stuff that’s lying around that Roger indeed “is married to his work” as Pongo states it. Like in all great visual storytelling the surroundings tell us more about a character’s habits than words could. Roger’s clothes follow the same basic scheme: olive green trousers, beige shirt, brown waistcoat. He stands out from the props not only because he’s moving but also because his skin and shirt provide the strongest contrast. Call me picky, but I’d say his legs are not important here, so it makes sense that they blend in with the background (only colorwise). Overall these colors give us the feeling of not much going on. Everthing looks basically neutral, no strong emotions. Of course, the apartment could have been neutrally grey, but as we’ll later see, painting it green makes sense (not only to unify it with the rest of the sequence in the park). It looks like Roger is living in his own world without much outside influence. He certainly has no sense of time although he’s got a watch, a clock, a radio and a metronome. He’s the one dragged along through almost all the movie. Even without Pongo’s narration we can tell who’s in charge of deciding when it’s time to go outside (both literally and figuratively).

By the way, even here you can see the potential of black and white characters in a colourful world: regardless of the surroundings they would always read perfectly (there is one exception I’ll write about in another post). In Pongo’s case the slender red collar (complementary to green) makes him stand out even more from an apartment he wants to leave for good.

The living room: warm haven of married life
The next indoor locale is Roger and Anita’s terraced house. Again the camera tracks in on the house in the center. This time two windows are different from the blue ones. So we immediately know that this is at least a two-storey apartment clearly separated by heavy lines. We track in on the Dalmatians framed by orange curtains.

There is a transition to warm colors that starts in the church (we’re in the 50s, so they have to get married first to enjoy home sweet home).

Back to the terraced house, the living room in particular: As before, orange cushions and curtains (and to some extent the floor) are most saturated and structure the room according to the dogs’ habits. The living room is primarily sandy colored which gives a feeling of coziness within fairly neutral tones. Most of the props are just variations of the main wall color or blend in completely with their surroundings. So the room looks quite tidy but not too clean. There are some blue and green props to prevent the backgrounds from becoming monochrome.
Of all the manmade objects, doors and windows are most important to these sets inasmuch as they serve as framing devices and passages into unknown territories. The living room is clearly established as the center of the protagonists’ world. While warm colors tend to come forward, it is only natural that what lies outside of the boundaries of the living room is kept in receding, cooler colors. Moreover, this makes orientation much easier.

Nanny is introduced bringing tea and sweets. So the blue room she’s coming out of must obviously be the kitchen. The black and white of her cloth and apron connect her visually to the Dalmatians (she even has a red button on her collar).

Since she is the center of interest in this shot, there’s much more contrast in her appearance than Anita’s. While Anita is sitting outside the main pool of light, the sandy colors around her are subdued. You may have noticed that even characters’ skin colors change from shot to shot to keep the respective compositions balanced. Like in classic live-action cinema, lighting is constantly readjusted to strongly support the story point each individual shot is conveying. Especially in a hand-drawn film, nothing would be gained by simulating “realistic” light sources. What feels right dramatically, is almost always working.

Anita’s cool blue clothes go well with the subdued, sandy backgrounds. Seeing her writing (with glasses on) shows her as a prudential, slightly reserved modern woman. This time she’s the one reminding Roger of time. In this house, teacups seem to be present whenever time is mentioned, by the way.

Since Roger is in his own (rather claustrophobic) world when he’s composing, it is not surprising that his attic room is a combination of brown and green. He himself is wearing green and yellow, blending in with his surroundings if not for contrast of value. Again all the props (from his earlier apartment) are painted in distinct colors. This is a marvellous example of drawing a cluttered room.

Later we learn that there are some stairs between the door in the living room and Roger’s “hideout”. But for now the brick wall serves as a connecting element. Again these bricks are painted in a cool shade of grey because this area is outside of the warm living room. We can see many lamps yet not one of them seems to be an actual light source for the scene. Unobtrusively natural light is supposed to come from the window.

Anita’s blue and Roger’s green go together well providing balancing hues to the warm setting. They are in a way lighter, purer versions of the prevalent prop colors. If Roger’s color ties him to his music room, Anita seems to be connected to the kitchen although we never see her doing a housewife’s job. Within these backgrounds she looks more colorful and decided than she is story wise.

The TV next to the window is prominently shown to be part of the living room, even though we don’t pay attention to it until later. The central window overshadows it. As soon as Cruella is mentioned, Perdi leaves the living room for the kitchen. Although it is on the right now, we recognize the room by its blue brick wall and the tile floor. The poker and the green stool show us that we’re seeing the same door Nanny came out of.

After Cruella has left, Pongo is trying to reassure Perdi that his “pet” Roger will protect them from Cruella. The feeling of safety that was enhanced by the warmth of the living room has gone now and the sequence ends with the characters crouched under the dark stove. The transition to cold colors does not feel contrived, because the kitchen has been established as being blue all along. Moreover those cool colors organically stem from materials like tiles, bricks and iron.

The kitchen: a theatrical stage setting
Sequence 003 begins “on a wild and stormy night in October”. Again the camera tracks in on the terrace in central perspective. Note that the lightning flash points towards where we should look. This time the whole scenery is dark blue, with the protagonists’ house the darkest. Yet the living room window is discernibly lighter blue. But our eye is drawn towards the entrance door where the only light seems to shine.
The fading to a turquoise clock (not affected by the pool of light) in front of a blue brick wall immediately tells us we are in the same kitchen again. So the entrance door is linked to the kitchen by a dissolve. Of course the door Cruella comes in is totally different from this one as we will see later. But again the connection of a door to the kitchen has been carefully planted (you don’t have to look far for a kettle and teacups).

Some of the props (especially the ones painted on cels) are considerably changing hues throughout the scene. There may be good reasons for doing this, yet I doubt these are anything else than goofs. At least they are barely noticed as the changing colors stay within the established color scheme of muted blues and greens with the occasional neutral tone for balance. The tiled floor is now even more neutral than in sequence 002. Again everything seems to be illuminated by normal white light. The strongly angular pool of light affects only values, not hues. During the whole scene our interest is directed towards the invisible behind the door on the left. The door is blue on the outside, green on the inside.

Although Walt Peregoy might not have intended any such thing, his color keys have been compared to theatrical stage designs. Of all the actual backgrounds, this certainly has been translated to the kitchen setting. All of the action is staged for us to see from a theatre audience’s point of view. Everything is head-on, we never get to see the fourth wall. Besides, there seems to be nothing behind the windows and doors but dark backstage room. Most notably, there is no visible connection to the warm living room. There is little depth and the staging is merely flat.
In the living room at least the camera could look in almost any direction. Here now the camera never really leaves its place. Of course it focuses and zooms in on various spots but we never get to see anything that wasn’t in the establishing shot. We can only imagine what happens offstage to the left.

The supposedly dead puppy wrapped up in a cloth adds a new sensation to the established color scheme. When Nanny brings it in, the door is completely open eliminating almost all green from the shot thus making the yellow stick out more. Technically the cloth may be the same value as Roger’s hands, but the difference in hue and saturation sets it apart from them. Were the movie in black and white, Pongo’s appearance would attract more attention. But still Pongo and Roger immediately turn their eyes towards the bundle, hence we can’t help but do the same.

At the same time, there is a slight overall change in saturation. Note how the brick wall is now almost grey. It looks to me as if this was achieved through color timing because we can see that the last two pictures use the same background. Whenever color is drained, this automatically gives a picture a more desolate feeling. I know this is just subtle and may not be wholly intentional, but it totally makes sense.

Anita makes an unexpectedly strong impression entering from the left, due to the fact that she is wearing a peach colored blouse (again the door is blocking out the green for better contrast). In an inverted version of herself in the first sequence, she now brings warmth to a cold setting. It almost seems to me, the art direction tried to make Anita a stronger character by making her dull entrance somewhat more attractive visually. By the time of the ensemble shot, Perdi is still missing, so from all the entrances and exits on the left we expect her to join from the left. But instead, Cruella’s visit from the right comes even more as a surprise. As we’ll see she’s not coming through the main entrance door that has been established at the beginning of the sequence (Mark Mayerson rightfully calls it “odd geography” – this, at the time, was standard practise even in live-action thrillers).

Only after Roger has told Cruella off, is it finally safe for Pongo (and the audience) to go through the door on the left to Perdi’s hiding place. This hideout – like Roger’s attic – seems to be out of reach for Cruella as long as Roger and Anita are there to protect it. It is basically considered to be part of the kitchen and therefore there are tiles and bricks. But inside the lair green prevails over blue. Again this sequence ends with the Dalmatians lying together in a dark hideout (note the flashlight). But it is considerably friendlier than the hiding place under the stove.

By the way, compare Roger’s shirt hanging on the railing to a similar situation in the first column of pictures in this post and you’ll see that Roger’s habits haven’t changed a bit.

I picked these interior scenes first, because here the overall impression is derived from furniture, wall paper and painted doors – things we accept in almost any color. Keep in mind that this is the age of Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life (at least visually, Anita could have easily been a Sirkian heroine) and that people were used to colorful rooms in the 50s. Everything else is painted in superficially “normal” hues (golden trumpet, brown floor boards, grey teacups), so the predominance of some colors does not undercut the dramatic impact of the scenes.


As we have seen so far, there is a warm sequence (basically neutral brown leaning towards ochre) next to a cool sequence (basically neutral grey leaning towards blue). If you compare the two sequences, you'll notice that green pillows and chairs serve as a unifying element. These three color schemes are pretty distinctive without feeling forced because all of them are based on the same group of colors. Only the emphasis is shifted to a different hue in each respective sequence. So they all are part of the overall "home" color scheme consisting of ochre, grey-blue and green.

Red is consistently kept to a minimum (Pongo’s leash and color, Nanny’s button), as it is generally believed to be the strongest hue available and therefore must not be wasted. To make sure its effect remains powerful, pure red has to be employed very carefully. We tend to forget that this used to be a powerful tool in classic cinema (before our senses have been numbed by excessive use in films like Aladdin or Dick Tracy).

In case you wondered why I left out all of Cruella’s appear ances, I was primarily interested in the relationship of characters to their homes. I’ll be dealing with outside intruders later. I also hope, that I can post larger pictures next time. This whole formatting stuff is killing me.

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.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Color in 101 Dalmatians: an introduction

In writing about color I’m conscious about the risk of stating the obvious. But sometimes we tend to overlook the most obvious elements of a picture because we take them for granted. Over the past few weeks I’ve been analyzing 101 Dalmatians shot by shot. Of course, most of what I’ll comment on could be found in any good film or painting. But I’m mainly interested in how the subtext of this specific story is told through color. In addition to that, there is so much to learn about film making from this movie. It also shows how budgetary restrictions can lead to artistically innovative achievements.
Much has been written about how Walt Disney hated the look of 101 Dalmatians – his first contemporary feature – particularly because of the heavy Xeroxed pencil lines. While production designer Ken Anderson is always praised for his fresh approach, some of the older books don’t even mention Walt Peregoy’s influential color styling. From all the features he worked on, Dalmatians was the one where his strong personal painting style was translated best into actual backgrounds. Since it was decided that the painted BGs would have Xeroxed line work overlaid, Peregoy was able to work in flat color areas without having to render details. This made for a “perfect wedding of characters and background” (Thomas/Johnston in Illusion of Life) Although his strong personal style shows up on the screen (something Mary Blair could only have dreamed of), Dalmatians “is a graphic collaboration between numerous artists […] who yearned to break from the Disney mold […].” (Amid Amidi, Cartoon Modern, p.162; Find some of the color keys in the companion blog to this wonderful book.)

Walt Peregoy on his approach (excerpts from an unpublished interview by Julie Svendsen; with Didier Ghez generous permission):

“Now, all the artists at Disney in key positions suffered the same thing – they knew all rocks had to be round and all trees had to look like trees and the sky had to have fluffy clouds and they’re all done with airbrush. Right from the beginning. And I always asked myself, how come their idea of realism is completely contradictory to a duck or a mouse or a baboon talking? That’s not realism. It’s satire. It’s freedom. These animals say things that people don’t want to say and they’re put into situations – so, why the hell does a flower have to be put next to an airbrushed rock? I could never understand this. 101 Dalmatians was not a fairy tale and all of the artists realized now here’s a chance to do what we want to do. Some in subtle ways and others absolutely divergent from a Disney look.”
On actually working on the film with his fellow background painters:

“I never had to say, ‘now, what you ought to do…’ They’d look at my keys and they’d do a good job of following my keys. […] From the gal walking down the sidewalk with this dog, the whole thing is the way I saw it. […] In all the films where I’ve been the key to do the pre-production artwork, the people working on the film have those keys and I leave it up to their discretion and professional artists do a helluva job. On 101 Dalmatians, Ralph Hulett was a typical Disney background artist. He did the scene with the Baduns, when they go back and get in their truck. And he did the street scene of that truck. It was foggy and it was great. I respect an artist’s integrity.”
Although my analysis is mainly focused on color as a storytelling device, it is important to take layout and overall art direction into account as well.

What was hailed (by Andreas Deja) as “Picasso coming to Disney”, is strongly rooted in traditional draftsmanship. Architectural layout, for example, is far more realistic than in previous features (although there are stylized flat pans like the wall in the prologue) with perspective and dimensionality maintained throughout. This makes the completely three dimensional characters (apart from flat color there is no graphic element to them) blend in more harmoniously than in some 50s shorts. The colors themselves may be stylized and flat but mostly representing the real world with slightly expressionistic overtones. Especially earthly browns and greys are used to much more effect than in more recent animated features.

I’d even say that some of Disney’s specific staging techniques are working better in this style because they don’t draw attention to the artificiality of lighting in an otherwise realistically rendered environment. In Disney’s traditional background paintings it has always been necessary to leave plain areas of little or no detail where the characters were supposed to be overlaid later so they didn’t conflict with the softer painting of their surroundings. Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston call the area where characters move around in a setting the “path of action”. “Another way to keep the character completely clear at all times is to hold down all the elements in the background so that they frame the actor as if he were spotlighted, or working in a ‘pool of light.’” (Illusion of Life, p. 248).

Colors are defined by value (lightness), hue (blue, red, green etc.) and saturation (intensity/chroma or purity). Now keeping all this in mind let’s look at the following screenshots from Dalmatians in black and white to focus on value:

Here the whole painting concept is based on plain areas with varying amount of detail drawn in pencil (head of layout: Ernie Nordli). There may not be any “mushy airbrushing” as Peregoy calls it, but both path of action and pool of light are expertly devised on the color layer.
As expected in a film about white dogs, Pongo stands out in picture 1 and 3. We will later see the reason why it makes perfect sense that he is similar in value to the surroundings in 2. In 4 Roger and the trombone are clearly most important. Note also how the living room is in lower contrast than the dancing couple. Jasper in 1 is almost silhouetted as he is most of the movie, representing the shady side of society although he seems to stand in the spotlight. While it is unimportant to see the feet in 2 and 4, both 1 and 3 highlight the ground where the dark shoes stand on. In 1 Pongo’s attack will lead to Jasper losing balance, in 3 the feet are important to the attitude: Roger firmly standing, Anita at his mercy.

1, 4: the characters perform in a pool of light defined by harsh diagonals, more value contrast in 1, more subtle in 4. Picture 3 has them perform in the spotlight on the ground with no details whatsoever. I really like this composition: strong lines-of-action (yellow) show the characters’ attitudes and relationships and contrast with the geometrical shapes in the background.
2: Pongo’s path of action is shown in blue, it is the brightest part of the BG, there is some other light from the right but it is clear which path he will follow.

The hues define distinct locales. 1: everything is based on shades of red. It feels really hot. Through the hole we see the stark contrast to the outside blue. 2: even the trees are bluish grey. The path of action is much less saturated than the surrounding snow. 3: here the pool of light is most saturated with the pair’s clothes being more saturated than the background even though all of these hues are present in the low contrast background. The ochre curtain serves as an additional framing device of the dancers. Hue contrast is enhanced by a greenish grey shadow. 4: the trombone stands out by saturation as it is the center of interest. 1 and 2 show extreme emotions (hot and angry vs. cold and blue). 3 and 4 are conveying a sense of natural indoor lighting (cozy living room vs. dimly lit attic), here all the details are rendered in their respective hue.
Note that the colors do not affect Pongo’s fur or collar at all. Layout-wise there are many props that tell us who lives in these rooms. Particularly clocks, framed photos, lamps and tea cups give us a sense of time and place, whereas in picture 2, the collar is the only contemporary element.

In future posts I’d like to elaborate on:
  • Out in the cold: color temperature and spatial relation
  • Theatrical design
  • Detail: long shot vs. close up
  • Shadows and color constancy
  • Cruella DeVil: flamboyantly standing out
  • Framing devices: holes, doors and hiding places
  • Flowers are yellow, grass is green
  • Neutral tones and silhouettes

Hopefully, there will be more pictures, less text…

Color reference (not scientifically checked):
All screenshots are from Platinum Edition DVD, RC: 2, 2008 unless otherwise stated.
Sequences and shots labelled according to the final draft (posted by Hans Perk) and Mark Mayerson’s mosaics.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Talking Heads

Recently I've been doing some research on 101 Dalmatians. As a by-product, I attempted to caricature some of the people who are interviewed in the "making of"-featurette with mixed results:
Pete Docter

Andreas Deja

Mel Leven (Songwriter on 101 Dalmatians)

Whenever I attempt to draw caricatures, I end up toning everything down. As soon as I exaggerate or simplify certain features or shapes the drawings lose their appeal. So I always stick to the blander ones.