|100 YEARS OF BOB CLAMPETT!|
You may have noticed that most of my Clampett posts so far have been about some rather particular traits of his films. Since I am aware that there is already a plethora of articles about Clampett's overall style available online (not in print, unfortunately), I try to focus on specific subjects that haven't been analyzed in detail yet.
|Limited color palette in THE HEP CAT.|
I used to say that Clampett didn't really know what to do with color when he was finally able to leave the black and white Porky cartoons behind. That is not true, however. More accurately, I should have said that Clampett wasn't too subtle or sophisticated in his use of color as a storytelling device.
But then, with Clampett nothing is ever subtle or sophisticated in the conventional sense of these words. Everything has to be extreme, even outrageous.
There are a few exceptions to this rule, though. His first few cartoons with Avery's color unit work within a strong and beautiful but limited color palette, very unlike the garish and muddled colors of his later masterpieces like BABY BOTTLENECK (1946). I have already mentioned the candy color scheme of HORTON HATCHES THE EGG (1942). In THE HEP CAT and TALE OF TWO KITTIES (1942) his color/background person (most likely Johnny Johnsen) made expert use of a very limited color palette.
John Kricfalusi has already attempted to write about these backgrounds here but soon digresses into other aspects of the cartoon.
Muted Background, Strong Foreground
Harsh contrasts dominate the opining of the cartoon: a black cat is strolling in front of a pale beige moon surrounded by dark blue night:
|a typical Clampett character: ambling hind and fore legs look identical.|
|A-D: background colors; E-H: character colors.|
Characters and background are not only separated by saturation but also by stronger values. As you can see in the following desaturated images, the background is in the middle range overall whereas the characters are near the extremes of black and white:
|A-D: doghouse colors; E-H: most saturated versions of red - green scheme.|
|Brown lies inbetween green and red.|
Although most of the night time backgrounds look rather earthy, there is a wealth of different colors. This variety of hues does not distract from the characters because saturation is low and the values are all very close:
|upper row: moonlit planks; lower row: planks in shadow.|
The character colors in Clampett's cartoons are often stereotyped. Cats are pitch-black and dogs and wolves are brown. It is interesting to see that when the cat turns into the proverbial wolf when aroused by the cool female the colors also change to the dog/wolf scheme.
Color Harmony and Drama
After focussing so much on contrast, one should not forget that at the same time color harmony is important to the success of any color design. In the second part of the cartoon, orange and warm yellow become more important.
|If you look closely, you can see that there are two different shades of orange.|
Now that the dog has successfully lulled the cat into believing that his hand puppet (an early reference to Cecil the sea serpent?) was a hot girl, the characters proceed into a less deserted area. While the fences have almost exclusively been illuminated by moonlight until now, artificial light sources start to turn up next to the houses.
The more saturated yellow/orange light of these windows and streetlamps increases the sense of drama.
|Beyond the wooden fence a warm light source illuminating a tower building is visible.|
|Since black goes with virtually anything, the cat fits into any color environment.|
|Left: laundry colors; right: dog colors.|
Limited Cel Colors
I believe that if we looked at actual cels of this cartoon, the two tones of orange (above left) would be identical to the two versions of orange flowers. This observation is very typical of colors in Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies. While the Disney model department used a vast variety of cel paints, the Schlesinger Studio (later Warner Bros. Cartoons) cartoons usually display a very limited range of character colors.* They also tend to favor purer colors - more saturated and closer to primaries and secondaries - than Disney or MGM.
I suspect that this is one of the reasons why so many of these characters are either completely pitch-black, grey or brown. After all, these non-colors go with almost any background. Even when there was no time to avoid black characters in front of dark backgrounds, most of these characters (except for Daffy) have white hands so that their gestures are still comprehensible without seeing most of the silhouette.
But the limitation to colors that are close to "nameable" hues like red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple and the lack of subtler shades may explain why many Warner Cartoons look a lot less impressive than their more expensive contemporaries when it comes to color. Of course, a strong artist like Maurice Noble, Phil DeGuard or Hawley Pratt could turn these limitations into assets. And whoever was responsible for the color design of this cartoon did a great job integrating the few cel colors with the infinitely available background colors.
As we will see in Clampett's next cartoon, TALE OF TWO KITTIES, a similar color scheme is structured even more clearly around two black cats in pursuit of a naked bird with a characteristic speech impediment.
* At least, due to the production process, the colors change slighty from shot to shot. Just think of how sterile these cartoons would look, if they were colored by a computer!