Monday, October 19, 2009

character - background relation: monochrome color schemes

Many contemporary live-action films work within fairly limited color palettes. Often, whole shots are tinted in a particular hue or display very muted palettes. They help to convey a certain mood in broad strokes. In the context of The Princess and the Frog (Musker/Clements, 2009) which I'll discuss later, let's have a look at an easy way of evoking warmth and nostalgia.

Good color schemes are always limited to a few carefully chosen dominating hues, many times two or three, sometimes only one. If you try to photograph a real environment, there are most certainly too many hues in the picture to fit a predetermined color scheme. In painting, one way of relating all the colors of a palette to each other is mixing one color into all the others, so only one hue will appear pure and all the others are less brilliant but brought into closer harmony.

Rembrandt van Rijn (selfportrait, 1660)

Pablo Picasso (selfportrait, 1901)

So in live-action films, unless you choose to incorporate only local colors that are consistent with a narrow color scheme, this same effect is usually achieved by colored lights, filters or color timing. Such schemes that are strongly dominated by one single hue mostly depend on the contrast of value. I’ll call them “monochrome” which is not technically accurate but serves the purpose here.

Monochrome schemes have been carefully avoided in mainstream color cinema until the French Nouvelle Vague of the early 60s, but are quite common nowadays in live-action films because accurate skin tones aren't the benchmark any more.

Sometimes contrast on a larger scale is evoked by placing differently tinted monochrome shots next to each other. This was standard practice in the silent era where night scenes were usually toned or tinted (depending on the dying process) blue and daylight was a warm yellow. 

This scene from Chris Columbus’ first Harry Potter (2001) movie uses approximately the same very limited palettes (they are almost exactly complimentary, if you invert the picture in photoshop) but rather for mood than to indicate daytime.

Let’s focus on the yellow scheme: the sepia tone is usually associated with vintage photographs and has been overused for flashbacks and memories. It instantly evokes nostalgia and warmth. In fact, Columbus uses it to make us forget that this movie takes place in our very own time, so the prep uniforms don’t seem too conservative. And besides we’re supposed to believe that this castle is lit by candles and ancient magic.

Slightly awkward...

These screenshots from the French cult classic Delicatessen (Jeunet/Caro, 1991) show yellow as a very different color: Almost everybody looks sick. After all, the story deals with cannibalism. Sometimes the yellow tends to dingy brown, sometimes to olive, but the whole film is deeply drenched in sickly yellow.
(this palette corresponds to the right image above)

Here we have two images from an early scene of Les Triplettes de Belleville (Chomet, 2003), a movie that is heavily influenced by French graphic novels (especially the background style of Nicolas de Crécy).

(corresponds to the left image above)

Here the yellow is not only indicating autumn, very different from, say, in Hitchcock's The Trouble with Harry (1955), but it also strongly unifies complimentary colors red (the bike) and green (the sweater). Such palettes have been derogatorily called “pee and poo colors” because the colors aren't balanced by natural grays and white.

...but also warm and golden
More typical is the use of “golden” light for romantic scenes. It instantly reminds the viewer of early morning as well as magic hour daylight which makes everything look warm and glowing. 

This scene from The English Patient (Minghella, 1996) is not only an early morning love scene but also a flashback. In the context of the movie both lovers are connected to desert sand which displays the same range of colors.

This monochrome color palette of the image on the right shows the slight differences between background and characters (left half vs right half). The characters look definitely warmer. Yellow/orange palettes have the advantage that skin tones aren't too far from reality (compared to blue or green).

This resulting saturation of all the warm colors in the picture appeals to most people and therefore is heavily used in advertising photography. There is a certain gravitas, a sense of lavishness to it. It’s no coincidence that an orange glow is often associated with magic and gold as in “golden hour” or “magic hour”.

Note: PAL/Secam and NTSC have different color profiles, yet both look considerably warmer than the standard RGB that .JPG uses. Especially yellow may look closer to orange on a TV screen than in these screengrabs.

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