With the current Mickey Mouse shorts revival on the horizon and the lighting orgy that is MONSTERS UNIVERSITY in theaters, this seems to be the right time to look at the colors of Mickey's last theatrical comeback in RUNAWAY BRAIN (1995). Unlike the most recent Mickey shorts, this was a production that showcased all the richness of full animation dressed up in lavish colors. Like in A TALE OF TWO KITTIES (Clampett, 1942) the lighting and mood of exterior scenes is heavily determined by changes of weather and time of day.
Personally, I am not very fond of this short but it does showcase the extreme changes in color tastes between Disney's Golden Age and the late Renaissance period in the 1990s. Saturation seems to be much higher with character colors much more integrated into the overall image by what I call the "color cast treatment". Of course, this again only adapts live-action mainstream conventions of its time. Strong colors are not emphasized by earthly browns and greys so much as by less saturated versions of their own hue.
Instead of composing this post thematically, for once I will follow the storyline chronologically, merely providing captions to a sequence of very colorful screenshots.
Personality Change: Establishing the Theme
|This is just a quick Photoshop estimation of white balance. Its high saturation is by no means accurate.|
|A-D: Minnie in shadow; E-H: Minnie in light.|
We are used to shadows that look colder because they contain less warm light (normally reflections of blue sky or absence of direct sunlight). In this setup, Minnie in backlight is correctly depicted as warmer than when she is facing the cold blue light source. It is hard to believe that although both images look completely right, Minnie's red dress is actually slightly lighter in the shadow (D) than in the light (H). Light is just simulated by higher contrast within the character while the red is toned down because it is hardly reflecting the blue light.
It is painted in a restraint triad that consists of less saturated versions of the characters dark yellow and red and is balanced by a turquoise-blue carpet. Skin tones are creamy and still slightly different
In the Monkey's Den
Then Dr. Frankenollie turns on his machine and the room seems to get hotter until everything is dangerously red.
Again the scary creature is illuminated from below like in a horror film. The bad Mickey has yellow eyes usually associated with cartoon predators.
|Such cartoony deformations (right) would have been out of place in a Mickey cartoon of the Golden Age.|
The colors surrounding him are highly saturated. He just catches sight of Minnie entering a surfer's shop that is bathed in the last warm rays of a setting sun. Against the dominant yellow/beige and red, neon green objects stand out strongly. All the other beige bikinis disappear within their surroundings. Only the neon green really shines. To heighten the contrast Minnie even holds it in front of her dark red skirt.
Pure Expressionist Colors
Now everything is hot, even Mickey's outlines are not black but affected by the fierce red light. These next few shots showcase a variety of color schemes based on the characters' excitement and hot or desperate atmosphere:
Learning From History
While most films draw upon the contrast of warm (yellow) and cold (blue) colors, not many films dare to use red so excessively as a pure expressionist device. It is interesting that the level of expressionism does not extend beyond colors, there are no distorted shapes, not even real expressionist lighting with oversized, distorted shadows.
With its garish purples and saturated reds and blues it is closer to POCAHONTAS (released that very same year) than to Mickey cartoons of around 1940 from which it borrows the protagonists' designs.
I may well have grown accustomed to such saturated color excesses, but I still do not feel comfortable with them any more than in 1995. But in hindsight this kind of experimenting within mainstream animation has probably only enabled artists to develop such masterpieces of illumination like TOY STORY 3 or MONSTERS UNIVERSITY (unfortunately not a masterpiece of storytelling or originality).
And last but not least, it is easier to understand underlying principles in extreme examples of color design. Whatever one takes away from studying these films should by no means prevent them from incorporating these ideas into more subtle color schemes.