Friday, December 21, 2012

Dramatic Colors in a Mickey Mouse Cartoon (1/2)

RUNAWAY BRAIN was a Mickey cartoon in the style of 30s monster films and cartoons animated in France. In terms of color this 7-minute short is noteworthy for its use of strong color casts and expressionist lighting that was to become a recognizable feature especially of the French studio's segments for Disney features like THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME or FANTASIA 2000. [UPDATE: the second part of this post is HERE]

There is a certain color sensibility to the Brizzi brothers' work that stood out to me in most of their contributions to feature films ever since I stumbled upon their names in the credits of The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996). Somehow, I have never got around to blogging about it.

But when I saw Andreas Deja's post on Runaway Brain (Chris Bailey, 1995) last week, it dawned on me that this odd little test run for the newly renamed Walt Disney Feature Animation Paris studio was in fact an ideal example to showcase the strongly expressionistic lighting style that came into fashion during Disney's renaissance in the 1990s. The most obvious example of strong monochromatic color schemes for dramatic scenes is probably Pocahontas which was released in 1995 as well.
Highly saturated blue light that affects skin tones and takes a lot of getting used to (Pocahontas, art direction Michael Giaimo).


It turns out that what I perceived as the Brizzis' color sensibility did not originate with them. In fact, Paul and Gaƫtan Brizzi were not personally involved in Runaway Brain although it was animated in their former Paris studio they had previously sold to Disney. However, their "sense for the grandiose" resulted in their assignment to highly dramatic scenes that were destined to get the "color cast treatment" as I like to call it.

Pocahontas' visual development artist Ian Gooding served as art director on Runaway Brain while Dave Bossert who is the main force behind Disney's digital restoration process was in charge of the visual effects and overall artistic coordination.

Runaway Brain is mainly inspired by 1930s mad scientist fantasies, the ape villain in Floyd Gottfredson's "Blaggard Castle" and the old body switch routine. For my taste, the pacing is still too fast. Everything reads clearly for sure, but the tempo is not supporting gags in the way of a Looney Tune, instead it just feels like a fast-forwarded conventional story.

This however allowed for a degree of exaggeration in the animation that wouldn't have been attempted in a 1940s Mickey cartoon (from which these character models are borrowed). Although nowhere near as original or specific as in a Clampett cartoon the animation is extraordinarily fluid, polished and expressive. In my opinion, it is highly reminiscent of the animation style taught at GOBELINS.

Consistent Character Colors
Although colored lighting has been in use ever since the 1930s as can be seen in this analysis of the Fleischers' Superman debut, color casts on characters (including skin tones) were relatively rare in Disney features before the 1990s because the Disney color model department apparently adhered to Technicolor guidelines for a longer time than any other studio (as can be seen in this post on character-background color relations).

Once the Mickey Mouse cartoons changed from black-and-white to full color in 1935 creepy scenes and horror spoofs like The Mad Doctor (Dave Hand, 1933) were mostly gone. In fact, the only one that comes to mind is Burt Gillett's Lonesome Ghosts (1937). Thus, I will draw on Ghosts and Brave Little Tailor (Bill Roberts, 1938) for comparison of lighting situations.

No matter whether Mickey is seen in the warm light of his office or in the darkness of a haunted house his clothes and skin tone are hardly affected. Even values are fairly consistent:
Just look how well these characters read against the dark background even though Mickey's "fur" is completely black (Lonesome Ghosts). I really like this so-called "restraint color mode" with primary color accents:

And no matter whether Mickey is relating dramatic events or feels really sad - hue and saturation remain practically identical throughout. Only values are affected by cast shadows:
The sun always shines on Mickey, no matter what happens to him (Brave Little Tailor).
The only expressionist take in these life-threatening situations are looming shadows that are wholly motivated diegetically.
Even within the giant, the hues of clothes and skin are intact. The yellow glow on white gloves is merely a symbolic touch to telegraph rather than simulate the lighting conditions.

It is safe to say that colored lighting was hardly ever used in regular Mickey Mouse cartoons of the Technicolor era. Even dramatic films of the golden age that featured human characters like Snow White (1937) limited expressionism to backgrounds and special effects with very little effect on costumes or skin tones as can be seen in the following screenshots from The Sorcerer's Apprentice (Fantasia, 1940):
The moment Mickey's magic animates the brooms, the lighting changes from cold and dark to warm and bright. The shadows are cast in the same direction, however.

Moody Color Casts

By the mid-1990s, strong color casts were quite common in live-action films. Instead of carefully designing the colors of every single object in a setting, overall lighting and color correction were adjusted to tinge whole shots in shades of one single (primary) color. As can be seen here, these color schemes - often yellow (warm, day) vs blue (cold, night) - resemble silent film toning. Red color casts were (and are) usually reserved for climactic scenes. In contrast to the lighting changes in the Fantasia images above, these color casts affected skin tones as well as anything else within the frame.
Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (Chris Columbus, 2001)
Generally speaking, these same principles can be found in the color design of Runaway Brain where red, magenta and blue color casts enhance the dramatic mood of scenes:




A closer analysis of these scenes will follow  in early January. In the meantime, I try to put up a year-end post about the films that impressed me most in 2012.

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