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.|
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.
|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.|
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.
|Now we see the sky for the first time and it looks orange*.|
3. The bear attacks
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.
|Middle: the background is the same as before but now the lighting has become warmer.|
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...
...and the bear is once again confronting Balto who in turn tries to flee downhill.
Nevertheless, Balto is still in danger. While he is drowning the ice around him is slightly greener than before with the strongest green underwater.
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).
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.