Saturday, April 23, 2011

Bear Fight in the Snow

If you follow Hans Bacher’s blog, you have probably seen a lot of beautiful preliminary artwork from Amblimation’s last animated feature Balto (1995). According to Bacher who worked as a production designer on the film, Steven Spielberg was afraid that the snowy Alaskan sets would prevent the audience from developing warm feelings towards the characters. So the film makers tried to get as much varying color into the snow as possible. Due to artists like Bacher and Colin Stimpson this didn’t result in gaudy all-over-the-place colors as one might expect. Instead the background paintings look rather restrained and subtle.

The Bear Sequence

Balto and his companions are looking for a team of sled dogs who have lost their way trying to deliver medication to sick children. The sequence I’m analyzing starts right after we have learned that the team led by Balto’s rival Steele is stuck in the middle of nowhere.
The sequence before: Everything looks dark and blue due to night time and weather.
1. Establishing the mood
The Bear Sequence starts with a shot of Balto so that we don't have to wonder which story strand we're following right now. The scene could have easily opened on the polar bears throwing snowballs at the goose and then cut to Balto at the front but this might have caused an undesired moment of irritation.
Then we get a god's-eye-view that sort of establishes the staging, lighting and environment. This way, we don't see the sky yet. The background is still mostly blue but with diffuse areas of light and shadow.
The goose's orange beak and feet stand out from the blue while Balto and the polar bears (unmistakably the work of character designer Nico Marlet) have slightly warmer fur colors.
For the companions it's business as usual. They don't perceive the forest as dangerous at all.

2. Creating tension by arousing suspicion
But then we get a slightly moving "spy-cam" view from the distance which implies a point-of-view (POV) shot by an unseen character. Balto notices something and we get a reverse shot from his POV.

Next follows a "spy-cam" down-shot (below left) from which we learn that the unseen menace seems to be rather large. Balto turns towards it and in the reverse POV shot we see a dark shape hiding behind a tree.

During this last shot it stopped snowing altogether. It is also the first background that has more contrast in the brighter snow areas.
This kind of tension does not come from character interaction. Instead it seems to be heightened by the fact that the other characters are oblivious to it (above). We do not get "spy-cam" shots when the narration is with them.

Now we see the sky for the first time and it looks orange*.
While the goose feels superior it is not too surprising that we have an up-shot at him. But the polar bears who might never be scared of him would certainly never have to look up to him.
The polar bears have visually grown while the background stayed the same. This gives a similar effect to having them photographed with a more wide-angle lens to show the increasing tension.

3. The bear attacks
The first time we see the bear, we see it in silhouette because that's how the goose sees it against the sky. Apart from establishing the orange* glowing sky color we also accept the bear being completely black except for some outlines.

What I find interesting about these backgrounds is the fact that the trees are getting orange as well at the top. This makes the bear and the tress look even larger since only objects that are some distance away are affected by the haze of the glowing evening sun. On the other hand we see that this clearing itself lies in the shadow. From here until the end of the scene whatever is at a certain distance is in monochrome orange.
Since we're looking against the sun, almost everything in the shadow is seen in dark blue silhouette. This is underlined by Balto's appearance. The bear itself has consistent blue and orange outlines that were established by Hans Bacher:

The bear's size is further emphasized by this goose's POV shot. Compared to the realistic handling of the bear, the goose's running movements are surprisingly cartoony. At the moment of the impact we get a whip pan (above right) and only see the result (below).
Middle: the background is the same as before but now the lighting has become warmer.
4. Balto to the rescue
 The two-color scheme is most saturated when Balto attacks the bear in these extreme wide-angle shots.

When Balto attacks again he's coming from the other side and the bear finally nails him down.

5. Surprise help
Just in time to prevent the bear from slaying Balto, Jenna who has secretly followed them arrives out of nowhere to distract the bear. As is expected she is shaken off...
6. final confrontation
...and the bear is once again confronting Balto who in turn tries to flee downhill.

Out on the frozen lake he is finally out of the shadow area which neatly defined the battle ground.
Balto's reflection tells us that the darker blue surface is ice and that he is standing on dangerous ground.
But now it looks as if the wind had changed. Balto is seen in front of the orange sky and the bear is in the blue shadow.
As soon as the bear is on the ice too and close enough to shatter the ice beneath Balto, is reversed again. But finally the bear breaks through the ice surrounded by blue. Complementary colors orange and blue not only contrast within the frame but also in time from one shot to the next.
7. Rescuing Balto
Nevertheless, Balto is still in danger. While he is drowning the ice around him is slightly greener than before with the strongest green underwater.
If this isn't careful planning, it might be brilliant intuition or a lucky coincidence: After rescuing Balto, the polar bears are against the warm and healthy colors while Balto is seen against cold snow.
8. Parting ways
After finding out that Jenna is injured they have changed positions once again and the friends are seen against blue while Balto is leaving them for the orange horizon.

The bear sequence is followed by a brief scene from the home office and then dissolves back to Balto at night. These two shots display the same temporal warm/cold contrast as seen above.

With the bear merely as a catalyst the purpose of the scene is to split the group or Balto separated. Rather than having a verbal argument it's visually more attractive (and easier to understand for the children in the audience) to have a situation that leaves not much to argue and doesn't alienate the characters from each other.

It's only coherent that the setting also changes visually:
  • The characters are seen walking through the forest, reach a clearing and end up out in the open on a frozen lake. 
  • In regard to lighting, they finally come out of the shadows. 
  • As long as the bear is invisible to the protagonists, there is no orange in the backgrounds which means that the backgrounds change from monochrome to two basic colors. If you look at all the images from afar, the green underwater shot will clearly stand out (after all, it's Balto's near-death experience).
The lighting changes during the bear sequence are less continuous than the ones we've seen in The Jungle Book or Tarzan but the effect of expressionism disguised as realism is the same. While the colors themselves are not extremely unusual or spectacular I'm always fascinated with the orange trees and treetops and how strong and natural they work within these backgrounds.

One additional thing that stands out in this action sequence is Simon Wells' highly visual directing/boarding style that is firmly grounded in live-action staging and editing.

For more information about Balto go here and here on Hans Bachers blog.

* I write "orange" because that's the way these backgrounds look like on DVD (which appears to have pretty good white values). On photographs of the original backgrounds the trees and sky look rather yellow.

1 comment:

Alex K said...

I'd just like to thank you so much for taking your time to post these super insightful entries online! Your blog is opening my eyes to the world of colour. :)