Friday, December 10, 2010

Tarzan - Using dusk for dramatic lighting (2/4)

After an introduction to the basic color scheme of Tarzan (1999) in part 1, here the focus lies on an early scene that demonstrates the mastery with which the film makers handle subtle mood changes using “natural” lighting. This post also serves as a companion piece to one about a similar scene in The Jungle Book (1967).

Kerchak’s arrival after Kala has adopted the baby
As long as daylight is breaking through the tree tops, the compositions are balanced by contrast of warm and cold colors based on the fact that green looks warm when containing more yellow and cold if on the bluer side.

Naturally, on the coast there is more direct sunlight, so the right side has more yellow in the green. It’s also interesting how almost the whole forest is painted as one green organism without too much wood visible. While the amount of detail is extraordinary, the stylization happens in the coloring: myriads of details are united in large overall shapes of brown (rocks), blue (sea) and green (forest) areas.

As we enter the forest more deeply (from right to left) there is more and more blue in the shadowy green. Within the green itself, depth layers are separated by misty haze. This is a standard technique of separating layers in black and white photography.

This effect is visible in any monochromous representation because it only affects the values. The other structuring element though, the warm vs. cold, isn’t visible in the desaturated image below.
Right: I’ve highlighted all the areas of warm green where light that is breaking through tree tops is evoked.
Generally blue is perceived not only as cold but also as soothing and receding. So I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Kerchak is surrounded by more yellow and thus warmer colors than Kala. If we look just at the balance, there are more warm areas around Kerchak than around her. Of course, Kerchak himself is rather dark and thus the background has to be lighter for us to see him. Kala’s brown is not only lighter but also shows enough contrast of hue.

It gets darker on the horizon, twilight begins. The last warm sunrays are almost horizontally falling on the vegetation.

Warm green is dominant around the loving foster mother.

When Kerckak arrives the yellow light gets redder, like it usually is perceived right around sunset. You can see the change best in the palm leaves behind Kala. The mood is getting slightly more tense. Kerchak even has yellow/reddish brown eyes.

He is not accepting Tarzan as his son. The light in that moment gets even fainter but also more golden/red. In the background we have a strong contrast of misty blue against which the golden light feels even more fiery.

After reaching the emotional climax, Kerchak is getting calmer while the sun has finally set and the last intense golden rays of light are slowly fading.

The palm leaves behind Kala are only olive, not golden any more, there’s a lot more cold green.

Night has still not fallen completely, there are still warm areas, but the ratio of warm vs cold areas is different and the overall picture has become darker. The character colors, however, are still more or less intact.

After everybody has gone to sleep, it’s really night and Kala takes Tarzan to her home that resembles his parents’ tree house off the coast.

Now that everything is dark blue, the character colors are affected by the absence of sunlight as well. What I especially like about this blue scene is the notion that it doesn't transport coldness and sadness but has a soothing and mysterious effect. Just look how close these production frames match the color key (found in the DVD bonus section).

In contrast to the Jungle Book scene where the breaking dawn is mainly used as an approaching deadline to emphasize the length of and Baloo’s immersion into the conversation, here the lighting strongly supports the first impression we get of Kerchak as a dominating and potentially dangerous character. It also visually underlines the emerging and decreasing dramatic tension – the dramatic arc – of the whole scene while leading organically to the following night time song number.

There are stronger instances of expressionist lighting based on actual lighting changes in Tarzan, but this is very early and influences the introduction of a new character.

Of course, it’s easier to achieve such subtle lighting changes if you have the budget and the crew to meticulously paint new backgrounds for almost every shot, even in a shot – reverse-shot scene. But as a concept, such effects can be applied in much simpler ways (changing color plates as simple BGs) or achieved by adjusting the BG colors successively with digital color correction equipment.


Steven Hartley said...

The animation and story in the film certainly has charm and great character animation - although I always thought the songs by Phil Collins were the highlight ;)

Oswald Iten said...

Funny that you mention those... I was gonna ignore the whole Phil Collins thing. It gave me a head-ache when I saw the film the first time and I still couldn't bear most of the songs when I watched it the other day.
There's no use arguing about taste in music :)