Saturday, February 14, 2009

Heightened Concepts and Expressionistic Color

In preparation of the next Dalmatians installment (Hell Hall) I’d like to post about two general subjects:
The first one came to my mind while I was watching Sleeping Beauty on BD: The Platinum Editions - however flawed they are (enough of a subject for a future post) - make it a lot easier to study color schemes. In fact, artistic concepts are easier to discern because they have obviously been emphasized by the restoration team.

Whatever one may think of the restorers tastes or their supposed lack of faithfulness regarding the “original” celluloid versions, one thing is for sure: Everybody involved put considerable amount of thought into these restorations and it seems to me that the picture gets attuned to what the researchers believe would be (and actually might have been) the underlying color concept. So the resulting saturated digital pictures look less ambiguous and the concepts become more apparent. Thus, analyzing Platinum Editions is far easier (which doesn’t imply that they are aesthetically pleasing or historically more accurate than previous video versions).

This, of course, involves the risk of going blind for anything that hasn’t been heightened by the restoration technicians. But a look at the different versions (in the case of Sleeping Beauty two completely different wide-screen restorations on DVD) prevents us from taking anything too literal. As you may know even the re-release prints throughout the 20th century haven’t all been exactly the same, thus making it almost impossible to “remember” the original colors of a certain scene without having access to the successive exposure negative.

Without such reference or the necessary historical knowledge preferences come down to personal taste. After all, nowadays there are even people who treasure their memories of blurry VHS tapes not because these were made comparatively direct from actual prints (although Technicolor never looked right on a TV screen) but because that’s the way people have grown to love these movies as children.

Expressionistic Color

One of most controversial restorations was the 2005 2-Disc Special Edition of Cinderella (1950), to my knowledge the only DVD to date of Disney’s post-war success. This brings me to the second topic of this post: the expressionistic use of color in otherwise “straight” Disney features.

When expressionism is mentioned, most people immediately think of German movies of the 1920s, film noir classic or maybe Tim Burton’s gothic fantasies. Harsh low key lighting as well as distorted sets and architecture come to mind. The most famous Disney example might be Snow White’s fleeing into the woods.

It has often been said that Disney abandoned expressionistic techniques more or less after WWII. I don’t think this is simply because the features went increasingly straight under the regime of the Nine Old Men. It can be seen throughout American film history that directors of emotionally engaging movies constantly moved away from expressionistic devices towards more unobtrusive storytelling. One explanation may well be that obvious expressionism - stagy, distorted sets and lighting - is amplifying the emotional distance because it makes us aware of the style of a certain scene. This leads to a state of aesthetical appreciation rather than one of emotional involvement.

The advent of color has been important in developing less obvious effects while still expressing the feelings of a character through their environment. Hitchcock among others used color photography to get rid of unnatural lighting which he found too distracting. Color on the other hand was and is something most people absorb unconsciously, so it remains a powerful expressionistic tool.

Although no one could actually forget that they are watching animated drawings, in Disney’s “illusion-of-life” type animation of the 50s and 60s (e.g. Cinderella, Peter Pan, Sleeping Beauty, 101 Dalmatians) color may have been the only visual effect that didn’t break the painstakingly created illusion of reality. The era of giant menacing eyes was definitely over…

The scene where the stepsisters tear Cinderella’s ball gown apart because the mice have used some of their discarded beads is one of the often mentioned examples of expressionist colors. In 13 very brief close up shots we witness the sisters’ accelerating rampage followed by 3 increasingly longer shots of the stepmother gaining control again. It’s not exactly the Psycho shower scene, but about the same idea. Like in Alice (1951) and Peter Pan (1953), characters are clearly separated from the backgrounds by strong contrast of value.

Now look at the same scene in color:

We start out with a grey background with not too many details. Apart from vertical ornaments an organically shaped shadow in the upper half is its most important trait. Starting in shot 5 the bluish grey background is gradually replaced by hues closer to red (16). The lack of detail is working because in the close up we don’t expect to see anything else than the wall and because every detail would distract from the main action that has to be exceptionally clear if the shots are only a few frames long.

From the very moment the stepmother stops the action, we’re back in reality with a grey background without details. Note also how the stepmother’s earrings and the green sister’s necklace are similar in color to the beads in question. We can clearly see them on Cinderella because they stand out from her pink gown.

What makes this scene special in my opinion is that the color effect is on for just a moment of highest tension. As soon as we are able to think again and have time to consciously look at the pictures everything is back to normal. It’s also important that the characters’ color schemes stay intact throughout the whole series of shots. The effect is striking and very obvious on the 2005 DVD.

Special Features

Sometimes I have a feeling that trailers on DVD are simply there to show the discrepancy between unrestored material and the digitally remastered main attraction. In Cinderella’s case we get the original release and five re-release trailers. It’s interesting to see what scenes made it into which year’s trailer and how voice over narration changed over the years.

In the 1980s action and excitement became more important than romance so a shortened version of the beads scene was included. Overall color is expectedly ugly with skintones pinker even than your average 1980s TV character (all the trailers emphasize the film’s basic pink/turquoise contrast). With the saturation pumped up so high all subtlety is lost. This results in the absence of the expressionistic color effect because the wall behind the characters is constantly pink-tinted. While these may be worst case examples, they show how different we experience a scene with different colors.

These are not matching frames but they are from the same shots (ghosting due to poor NTSC-PAL conversion)

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