Friday, December 7, 2012

Laputa - Castle in the Sky: Strange Reflections

Studying an obvious color scheme in great detail can be very rewarding because it raises one's awareness of how the details influence our perception. It is always important to bear in mind that film unfolds over time. So changes from shot to shot can bring out information that cannot be inferred from seeing only one of the shots.

After having looked at how costumes and skin colors change according to the time of day and from interior to exterior night scenes let us go into detail analyzing a scene that takes place entirely in the dark underground but during the day.

The color reference: these are the characters' colors in natural light before (left) and after (right) the scene in the cave (screenshots further below).
If you skim through the following screenshots, two impressions prevail: warm vs. cold colors and natural vs. supernatural light sources.

Color Sketches as reproduced in the "Art of Laputa" book. Unfortunately I cannot tell you whose color work we are looking at since I can only decipher the two Japanese characters for the word "Miyazaki". If someone reads Japanese, please tell me in the comments what these captions say!
I will now chronologically analyze the effect of these visible light sources on character and background colors and what extra information we might derive from these reflections.

Pazu and Sheeta have just landed in a cave. Thanks to Sheeta's powerful aquamarine crystal they have been slowly floating down instead of falling to their death. As Pazu has learned upon meeting Sheeta, the crystal is turning itself off slowly after its services are no longer needed. So in order not to be lost in the complete darkness he is preparing his lantern and is able to light it just as the crystal stops radiating.

There is a noticeable shift in the children's clothes here (image 3) compared to daylight conditions (image 1): The aquamarine (blue-green) light is obviously very strong. This is also indicated by the harshly differing values in the light and shadow areas.

The interesting thing is the relatively small degree of change in the characters' skin colors. In reality a light that changes brown to turquois would also change skin color to something like aquamarine. Skin color usually serves as a reference against which we judge surrounding colors. Since it is the one thing that stays relatively steady here, the blue-green clothes are more noticeable because our brain does not color correct the image automatically.

The background is monochromatically dark blue and therefore does not distract our attention from the characters yet adds to the overall feeling of a cold dark cave (in reality, a dark cave would hardly look blue).

But then the only light source is the small lantern which emits a warm orange light. As a result, the rocks around them and actually the whole monochrome background now look brown and considerably warmer. Costume colors are closer to their normal hues because, after all, sunlight is much closer in hue to a fire than to the crystal's radiation. Skin tones are also slightly warmer and more natural again:
Pazu's clothes (A,B,D) and skin tone (C) in image 3 vs. Pazu's clothes (E,F,H) and skin tone (G) in image 4.
If we compare Sheeta's coat in image 3 and image 4, we notice that the light part was much brighter in image 3 (Pazu's quasi-white shirt is not a good indicator). From this we feel that the lantern is a much weaker light source than the crystal.

Then they enter a wooden mine shaft. In comparison to the rocks the wood seems warmer also in shadow areas. The stronger reflections imply narrower walls.

Then they arrive in a larger hollow again. Its vastness is indicated by the fact that the lantern isn't strong enough to light the walls or river.Although still dark and basically blue-gray, there is now some valuable information in the background highlighted by a slight difference in hue between rocks and river.

The light of the lantern is still warmly reflected on the characters eating their fried eggs, but not on anything else:
Visually, the characters are quite isolated from the cold surroundings. In several longshots their loneliness is emphasized. The addition of cast shadows on the walls emphasizes both size relations and the creepy mood - just before someone appears in the dark.

I have omitted the part where they meet uncle Pom and just cut right to his explanations about the stones around them:
With the old man's lamp as the only light source, we have the same setup as before with the tent and the rocks in dark blue. It looks like the obvious choice that the old man wandering around the mine wears clothes in different shades of brown. But within the context of this scene it not only fits into the cold vs. warm contrast of characters against background but also underlines the lighting change that is about to happen.

When the old man blows the flame out we have relative darkness:
Uncle Pom's clothes and skin in the light (A-D) and in the darkness (E-H).

All character colors including skin tone are darkened and desaturated but not much changed in hue. It is crucial that we still recognize those clothes as basically brown.
Then the stones around them begin to glow in the same aquamarine light as Sheeta's necklace crystal. Of course, the lighting affects all clothes again and hardly changes the skin tones:
Just look at the moody underlighting in these images that reminds us that the light is coming from the floor, before we see that the walls are also glowing:
Additionally, the dark turquois of the tent is coming in handy.

The hard lighting during this scene is very carefully planned as can be seen from the shadowlines on the hand in these two images.

Finally, Sheeta is bringing her own glowing crystal out and the lighting changes again:
These color swatches represent those parts that are in light: the crystal not only increases saturation and brightness of the clothes (A>E, B>F) but also affects Sheeta's skin and hair (C>G, D>H).

Now the saturation is increased even in the shadow parts and the contrast of the light and shadow parts becomes stronger. Now the light is so powerful that even the skin tones become greenish.
16: In the close-up we even have three layers of light and shadow.
This visual climax is visually accenting the narrative climax of the scene: There is no doubt that the light is too strong even for uncle Tom who can only scarcely resist touching the crystal.

He finally bows down in pain and upon hiding the crystal, the lighting changes back to glowing stones first (18, on the right) and then finally to "normal" (19, on the right):
While the costume colors change according to what we expect, the background (rocks and tent) are now also seen in "natural" light for the first time, as either the lamp seems to be closer to them or emitting a stronger light than before. Visually, the background is bright enough to bring to change the character-background relationship from light on dark to almost dark on light with the characters in silhouette (we are facing their shady side).

Then in the reverse shots the background behind the characters is dark again and their costumes and skin are seen in "normal" light again with the "plain daylight" colors. In other words: the whole séance is over and the old man exhausted.

One might feel that I have overstretched it by now. But what I personally gain from analyzing such masterful color work (or any great scenes that stick in my mind) is a keen eye for the details that make visual storytelling work. Because ultimately, no matter whether someone applied them consciously or unconsciously, I'm more interested in finding the underlying concepts that transport information through color than simply attempting to copy what has already been done successfully. Especially in animation where everything has to be communicated to numerous collaborators, it is good to know in advance how to achieve a desired effect.

All screenshots have been taken from this gorgeous Studio Ghibli Bluray Collection by "universum film". It seems to me that this is the way to see the film unless you have access to a 35mm print.

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