Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Colors of Sleepy Hollow (Part II/II): Dramatic Lighting

Note: Hans Perk has just completed posting the drafts for this segment (Prod. No. 2062) und Sanek has already started doing the mosaics.

A lot of the first half of the Ichabod segment was based on the color relations of pink/magenta and green/turquoise. Since this was the comedy half, the lighting was secondary and we were looking mostly at object colors with only occasionally a shadow to indicate special lighting (dawn or candle light).

However, as the story progresses towards Halloween and night time, it becomes more dramatic and colored lighting is emphasized.

Dark and gloomy sets are nothing new or extraordinary for Halloween scenes. So it’s more the subtle (and not-so-subtle) use of (painted) colored light that is interesting here.
In the very beginning, we entered the village through the cemetery which is not only dark but enhanced by a blue shimmer from the left. Nothing in the story suggests that this is a night-time image yet for pure atmosphere this shot is accepted within the sequence of pan shots that establish the environment. It simply foreshadows the creepy second half of the segment.
Then later on, while Ichabod and Katrina have been dancing, a storm has come to the night sky.
As if influenced by the outside lighting, the atmosphere inside the barn changes from diffuse high key (without cast shadows) to harsher low key lighting as Brom performs his Halloween stories.

The final change in lighting takes place when the wind blows out the candles near the window. Now, the fireplace seems to be the only source of light and the scared townspeople cast strong shadows on the wall. Brom and the props he uses are carefully enhanced by a yellow/orange glow. Of course, these expensive special effects are very economically used; just enough to make us feel the mood and only in a few shots. The background looks generally darker and more brownish red than before. Black shadows are added only when needed for dramatic effect.

When at the climax of Brom’s scare tactics Ichabod (who is so scared of the prospects of riding through the “hollow” that he isn’t aware of his peppering the egg) spits fire the scene fades to black and we see him on his way back to the village.
If ever there was a dark and gloomy way home, it led through that dark forest. A kind of establishing shot shortly before the new sequence starts.
Stage lighting
So far all the colored light originated from within the barn (candles, fireplace, spitting fire). The forest on the other hand is lit much more expressionistic and mainly based on blue and green which is fairly common for night-time depictions of forests.

What I like about these backgrounds is how blue and green light is used to illuminate tree trunks to add a layer of contrast that couldn’t be achieved by staying within the values of blue alone. One could argue that the blue light is caused by the moon but the inclusion of it in the early graveyard shot does not support this notion. And besides, where does the green light come from then? The leafs flying by are dark brown, so they subtly stand out in front of the trees even if they are not very different in value.
The visual illusion reminiscent of Snow White is unmasked by a slight change of moonlight.

In more atmospheric moments (above) the pictures are composed around value contrasts with more subtle shades of blue next to each other. Moments of tension (below) on the other hand are emphasized by clearer contrasts of hues.
 When Ichabod is most scared an additional hue shows up: purple/magenta.
At first this is only for a very brief moment in time, shortly before Ichabod reaches the cemetery.
right: what a great pose!
After a tension releasing comical interlude around fake scares and a stubborn steed, both Ichabod and his horse are scared by something they see offscreen. Their “take” is enhanced by getting green in the face bottom-up. This is by no means an original effect, but it is rather well executed contrasting the color in the subsequent reverse shot of the menace.
Like in so many Disney films, magenta/purple is added to give a setup a more outlandish appeal. As usual the villain is wearing a purple cape. In addition to that the expressionist use of changing a background’s color onscreen from “normal” to red/purple is used to emphasize the menace.
Note how the front headstones don’t change color in order to make the purple of the background stronger by contrast.
green lit characters against a purple background turning up later in the villain song of The Princess and the Frog.
Now the lighting is purely espressionistic only reflecting the dramatic tension. Seen out of context, it looks like someone is turning on and dimming colored stage lamps within an artificial forest. Again this reflected live-action films of the day much more than we might be aware of today, since most of the lavish Technicolor extravaganzas were shot on soundstages in elaborately constructed sets. Night time scenes in particular.

The effect of double exposing backgrounds in different colors is only used very economically. Wherever it was possible, the same effect is achieved by single backgrounds that are not seen in their entirety under the camera.

Here (below) for example, the purple part is emphasized as the camera moves away from the image coinciding with the character blocking out the blue part of the background. In motion it looks as if the lighting turns to purple while the horseman is approaching.
The very long pan below (actually a series of pans) looks realistic with the exception of the exact spot where the horseman catches up with Ichabod and tries to behead him. Since we are panning so fast, it looks as if the color changed for that moment and is back to blue and grey right afterwards when Ichabod is saved by tumbling downhill.
Then as Ichabod is finally reaching the forest's end and is closer to the bridge, the purple light is almost gone from the scene.
Below are two different examples of getting the silhouettes across clearly in fast moving scenes. While the horseman cannot be shown lighter than the background without losing the pitch black that is an integral part of the menace, a stark magenta glow illuminates just enough of the silhouette to be convincing and dramatic. Ichabod on the other hand is light against the dark forest and dark against the backlight of the night sky.
the green doesn't turn red in this final clash which is more comical than dramatic.
The fiery light emitted by the orange pumpkin is not only suggesting the horseman might be Brom but also brackets the Halloween part visually.

In the end we’re back with the more tender pastel versions of violet and turquoise. Even the orange pumpkin that stood between Ichabod and Katrina und is connected to Brom looks softer in the morning light.

Note how different this romantic depiction of the bridge is from the village we have seen in the beginning of the segment. So while the backgrounds of the comedy half of the picture were much more stylized, the scary second part relies on the common romantic 19th century illustration style associated with gothic horror stories.
For once the bad guy (looking like a blueprint for Gaston from Beauty and the Beast) gets the sassy girl and the good guy a large widow with several kids strangely resembling him. Both women are clad in chaste blue, by the way. Also the color palettes of the church window and the one of Ichabod’s room are very similar. Ichabod’s face is in the light, though, while Brom’s is backlit. Colorwise we're finally back again in the idyllic town of the beginning, the autumn colors have vanished however and the overall tone has changed from warm to cool and soft.

There are a few color keys and inspirational sketches by Mary Blair and her collaborators online. It's interesting that they hardly reflect the production color palettes. But since I don't know anything about the film's production process I just paste them here for you to look at.


Darya said...

Wow! I love how detailed and informative your blog post is! You really take the cartoon apart, in the best way possible of ocourse!


Andreia Silva said...

Hi, I've been reading your blog the past few months... And I must say: I really appreciate your comments about color and staging studies at cinema.
I'm currently studying arts at Brazil, but i'm trying to make an immersive self-taught course at animation.
Would you reccomend me any title of book from where I can start a study of light/color/composition?

Oswald Iten said...

Hi Andreia, you might want to look at "Color and Light" by James Gurney or Bruce Block's "The Visual Story". I'd also recommend looking at books about cinematography and art direction. There's always the "Famous Artists Course" series (available as PDFs all over the internet) when it comes to the nuts and bolts of illustration.

Andreia Silva said...


Thank you very much! I'm already searching for them!

And, again: Thank you for those posts at the blog. They are really good