Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Bob Clampett: Black Cats in Technicolor (2/3)


Only available with "Blue Ribbon" reissue title cards

In 1942 right after THE HEP CAT, Clampett released another color cartoon with black cat protagonists: the Abbott and Costello parody A TALE OF TWO KITTIES. According to Milt Gray, Clampett claimed to have drawn all the layouts for this cartoon himself because he was temporarily without a layout artist. Be that as it may, he certainly had a strong background painter. While there are many connections to the previous cartoon, the colors in A TALE OF TWO KITTIES mainly serve to structure the cartoon.

Adaptable Character Colors
Babbitt (voice: Tedd Pierce) and Catstello (Mel Blanc).
As we have seen in previous installments of this series, many Warner Bros. characters have pitch black bodies and look more like cartoon humans stuck in an animal suit than caricatures of real animals. Here the two black cats are modeled after comedians Bud Abbott (Babbitt) and Lou Costello (Catstello)*. However, I would like to focus solely on the colors and not on the character design or animation (which deserved a closer look, too).

Babbitt looks like the standard black (C) cartoon character of the early 30s with white gloves. However, those are his real hands. This is further emphasized later in the story when he wears yellow garden gloves.

Catstello on the other hand has a white belly (B) and black hands and feet (D). Everything about his body seems to contrast Babbitt's.

Their heads, however, are painted the same way: skin colored faces (A), dark red mouth (H) and tongue (G).

left: THE HEP CAT, right: A TALE OF TWO KITTIES.
One detail has always stood out to me, though: the red ears that are even more saturated than the tongue. This way the red spots of color on black and white characters are even stronger than with the "hep cat". Keep this in mind when we look at the excessive use of red in this cartoon further below.

Also look at Catstello's lilac eyelids (F): even though they look rather feminine, it is not uncommon for a male Clampett character to have violet/lilac eyelids as you can see in the screenshots on the right.

With this cartoon, Clampett also introduced the prototype for long-lasting cartoon character Tweetie along the way. Here, the malicious baby bird is still naked and lives in the wilderness. Therefore, his whole body is painted in the WB cel color for skin tones whereas his beak and claws are yellow (best described as goldenrod).

Colors to Structure the Day
The two cats' attempts to catch the boid take place over the course of one day and are broken into four segments. These four segments are visually distinguished by four very distinct sky colors:

1. In the morning/dawn, the sky is pastel green with lilac-grey clouds.

2. At noon, the sky is azure (blue) with white clouds.

3. In the evening, the salmon/purple sky looks just like after sunset.

4. The night sky is about the same dark blue as in THE HEP CAT.

While the sky colors are relatively obvious, the distinctions do not stop there. Each of these segments displays a different color scheme favoring different prop colors and lighting conditions.

However, character colors never change according to these conditions. In my opinion, this is due to two concepts. The obvious economic one: keeping colors consistent is cheaper. This is a Schlesinger cartoon, after all. But in order to get away with this, you need character colors that go with almost anything in the background. Black and white do in fact harmonize with anything because they are basically just values. Spots of red also happen to be unproblematic.
from THE RIVER (Renoir, 1951)

That leaves the skin tone which brings me to the other concept: Technicolor realism. At the time, Technicolor consultants made sure that in live-action movies skin tones kept persistent regardless of extreme lighting conditions. So everyone was used to evenly lit faces even in night time shots when this cartoon came out.

Although the sky changes quite a bit, the ground reflects these changes but is generally stable. Overall, it is the most unobtrusive element of the cartoon. There's hardly any detail and apart from the "Victory garden" in segment 3, it just provides a plain for the characters to stand on.
Daylight influences the earthly brown only slightly, except at night when the change is obvious.
I now will look at the four color schemes separately:

1. Morning: Red and Green

In the beginning, it looks like A TALE OF TWO KITTIES was taking place in the same environment as THE HEP CAT, only during the day. The camera starts panning along a muted grey wooden fence with a lot of trash in the foreground.
Click on the image to see the characters on the right.
But unlike most of Clampett's introductory pan backgrounds, this one is not saving any time or money since its boards are fully animated. Behind it we here two Abbott and Costello impersonators so that we are intrigued what they look like when they finally appear at the end of the fence.
In keeping with the dump foreground we see cans and old boots kicked around behind the fence. As in most WB or MGM TOM & JERRY cartoons, these props are either brown or in primary colors.

Harmonizing pastel sky and cloud colors
At dawn, the background colors look very muted overall. The main contrast is with the black and white cats and the saturated spots of red (ears, mouth). After the expository dialogue, however, the main prop color of this segment enters in the form of intensely saturated red farm house.

This is obviously a glitch: no other background of segment 1 features a blue/white (segment 2) sky.
Basically this is a red/green complementary color scheme that favors red by toning contrasts of saturation. Or one could say that this is red against muted earthly colors that lean towards the green/turquoise in order to heighten the contrast.
Also note how often forced perspective is emphasized in this segment.

Forced perspective: height and vertical action are emphasized...
...and milked for gags.
Tree colors are "realistically" brown and green like a child would paint them. The only important prop that is not red in this segment is Tweetie's straw colored nest that is very close in color to the harmonious colors of Tweetie's naked body and feet.
Tweetie's nest in Segment 1 (left) and 2 (right).
2. Noon (Plain Day): Blue and Yellow
After showing off the comic potential of Catstello's "height-o-phobia" in the exposition, the second segment focuses on Tweetie's reactions to the cats' attacks.

With the focus on Tweetie's nest, goldenrod yellow becomes important and replaces red as prop color. Overall, red and green are superseded by blue and yellow as quasi complementary colors that structure the images. Now the sky, however, is equally saturated as the props. Therefore, we feel that this segment takes place in plain sunlight that brings out all the "real" object colors.
Springs, box and nest are all yellow against a blue sky with white clouds.
The props are either muted (grey, brown) or yellow with small red objects.
3. At Dusk: A Purple Glow
After two schemes that were based on colors as far away from each other on the color wheel as possible, the fading sunlight now yields a color concept that favors neighboring colors for both backgrounds and props:
A-D: Background colors, E: apple, F: house, G: anvil, H: wire.
Basically, all these colors are shades of red and/or blue. The salmon sky opens the spectrum to skin tones and Tweetie's feet which again works in accordance with the neighboring color concept.

Although the reddish glow does not affect any of the character or prop colors, the painter achieves the same effect by mainly using red and blue props with spots of yellow.

Harmonious props: red apple, red and muted blue exploding device.

While there is hardly any contrast between the red apple and the purple sky, the worm which is very slight and only visible for a few frames stands out because of its alien green color.

Even the Scandinavian style red house fits in very well (we did not see it in segment 2).


Both the power line and the anvil contain enough blue to contrast against the roof and sky.

And when in the end the whole area gets sucked into the ground by the force of the falling anvil (now more grey than blue), in contrast to Catstello the background trees and rocks are clearly affected by the dusk light.

The animators did not pay much attention to the background layouts: Babbitt's feet look misplaced on the Victory Garden. But in this shot we see that white is his natural hand color as he wears yellow gloves.
4. Night: Total Blackout
Many of Clampett's cartoons of the early 1940s ended on a wartime/propaganda gag. In this one however, the flying and air raid allusions seem more in keeping with the rest of the story. Up to now, the film makers have gone to considerable lengths to emphasize the distance between Tweetie's nest and the ground. Babbitt has forced Catstello into unsuccessfully climbing, bouncing and blowing himself up resulting in ever more extreme falls and impacts. Therefore, it is only logical to try flying.

In the last segment, the predominant color is dark blue. In the first shot we see the transition from dusk to night with purple vanishing on the horizon. In the next shot it is completely dark. The red rubber band stands out against the blue sky pretty clearly.
The remaining props are either brown or...

...desaturated (grey).
While the background is affected by the darkness the characters are not.

Whereas segments 1 and 3 were based on the predominance of red, segments 2 and 4 are based on two-tone schemes of blue and yellow with the blue sky dominating yellow props.

yellow bullets light up the blue sky.
And suddenly in the final closeup, the cats' eyes are yellow. Since there is so much "white" (actually grey) in the picture, the yellow serves to set the eyes apart from the less important hands and helmet. Besides, they are representing lit windows and therefore have to share the color of all the light sources that are blacked out in the final gag.
Here we are very close to the color scheme of THE HEP CAT again.

The cartoon ends with the now famous "all lights out" blackout gag. That's all Folks!


* I will focus on the Abbott and Costello aspect in my introduction of the cartoon in the Filmpodium Z├╝rich, May 30, 2013, 6:15 pm.

4 comments:

Natalie Belton said...

I will always remember this quote from A Tale of Two Kitties:

Babbit- "Give me the bird!"

Catstello- "I'd like to, but the Hayes Box Office Code won't let me."

Tomcat said...

Great in depth analysis. I've never noticed that they go through an entire day over the course of this cartoon.
One thing though, you got the names reversed of the cats' inspirations. It's Bud Abbott and Lou Costello.

Oswald Iten said...

oh, thanks! Just corrected it.

Delfos said...

Hey Oscar, just passing by to tell you that your blog is great, I love reading it and trying to learn the most I can from it.

Thanks!