A Fairy Triad
Unlike its stunning visual and musical presentation, the formal structure of SLEEPING BEAUTY is rather undecided about too many key elements. It is even disputable whether Aurora is the protagonist. In my opinion, the plot is about three middle-aged guardian fairies fighting a bad apple (Maleficent*) within their own ranks.
Like many protagonist trios in previous Disney films, Flora, Fauna and Merryweather are each identified by one distinct hue. Together they form a triad of orange, green and blue.
While the primary triad of red, blue and yellow dominated during the 1940s, the choice of secondaries orange and green reflects the more sombre tone of the film. Keeping the fairy costumes basically in different shades of each basic hue has two advantages:
1) we can clearly identify them even when they are mere light spots or stand very far away in vast long shots that took advantage of the 70mm format.
|The backgrounds in the throne room are often reflecting the fairies' colors quite closely: orange, green and blue.|
When the fairies decide to hide Aurora in the forest cabin they transform themselves into plain old maids with headscarves instead of pointy hats. Their colors remain the same but the accents are different: Merriweather's black corset and an emphasis on the desaturated browns of Flora's costume provide more visual variety that is possible because the earthly cabin interior is much more unobtrusive than the castle.
Olive green Fauna has not changed all that much. In fact, she was more of a follower in the first place. And now that she is in an environment where her clothes only stand out because they are more saturated, she looks even less dominant.
|Fauna seems to be especially at home in the cabin. Even the props are in analogous colors.|
Aurora or Briar Rose, as they call her, looks really at home in this simple cabin. In fact, her appearance is so devoid of color that even the dark violet cloak stands out. The strength of her beautiful outfit lies in the strong contrast of value (black, white and two distinct shades of gray) and the subtle contrast of warm blonde hair and rosy skin against a cold gray shirt. In addition, her gray dress is not related to any of the fairies' colors.
Unusual for Disney films of the period, there is even a distinctive color scheme for night scenes instead of just darker versions of the same basic hues. Here, the fairy costumes are integrated into their surroundings like in more contemporary films.
|Night time schemes in disguise (top) and as fairies (bottom).|
Given that the relatively plain fairies wear such detailed costumes, how could the clothes of the royal family look more sumptuous?
The answer is relatively simple: add gold and more contrast. Contast is created in two ways: 1) broader variety of values, adding significant areas of pure black to the kings' coats. 2) broadening the spectrum of analogous hues. A combination of distinct orange and yellow for King Stefan. About the same range from purple to blue for Queen Leah but without the black parts to make her look softer.
|Medieval illustrations often show similar colors (orange/blue, black/gold) and patterns.|
|Another inspiration for SLEEPING BEAUTY's style might have been stained glass windows from different periods.|
|Shiny gold with gloss and shade in 1935 (left) and fragmented in 1946.|
|The gold in SLEEPING BEAUTY never feels warm and glowing.|
|top row: actual colors of chalice, bottom: respective hues.|
|Real medieval gold color, again balanced by orange and blue.|
|The group of fairies next to the group of royals opposed to the powers of evil.*|
|top row: the royal costumes are all based on these colors; bottom row: corresponding hues to actual colors.|
|Left: the range that is covered by the royal group; vs right: the fairy triad.|
|Orange and blue for Hubert and his son Phillip.|
|Father and son: the spot color of one is the main color of the other.|
|Feathers in contrasting colors to balance the costume precede SLEEPING BEAUTY.|
Phillip's feather might be a hint at what was withheld so far from the film: red as a costume color is retained until we see the prince as an adult. Since red (the strongest hue to human perception) appears even more luminous when surrounded by muted green, Philipp's appearance in the gray-green forest makes quite an impact. It is also in keeping with art history and Technicolor "consciousness" to use red - considered the most precious color - very sparsely for important objects or scenes.
|Top row: actual colors, bottom row: respective hues.|
While her attention is called to Phillip's red cape through the play-acting of her monochromatic animal friends, the prince's extremely desaturated costume colors match Aurora's quite exquisitely in their first real encounter.
Meanwhile the scenes revolving around the fairies' practical and magical powers revert to two concepts that were visible in the more experimental films analyzed in chapter II. Costumes in analogous colors were often put together with gradually descending values: brightest piece of clothing near near the neck, darkest more down to earth. The costumes in SLEEPING BEAUTY are less predictable as can be seen from the different value and saturation patterns of the three fairies.
|"Values" are referring to brightness on the gray scale.|
|In Part II we have seen a tendency to arrange colors in rainbow order. Such a concept seems to be at work in this shot of Aurora's woodland friends.|
Therefore, the arrangement of hues in rainbow order (like in the images above) does feel out of place in the sophisticated medieval themed stylings of SLEEPING BEAUTY, even when it comes to the princess' obligatory woodland friends. Nevertheless, when it comes to Aurora's coming-of-age dress, the colors converge dangerously close to 1950s American tastes. Flora and Merryweather carry those fabrics that are most closely related to their own costume and in Merryweather's arms they are arranged in ascending order from violet to pink.
|orange, purple, violet, blue: rainbow order|
|Top: Pink with scattered spot colors, bottom: streamlined shades of pink.|
Judging from the monstrosity above, Flora is not the seamstress she thinks she is. So finally, the fairies break their vow and use their wands instead. When magic comes into play, the colors - not to mention the design - become more streamlined. The broader range of hues from violet to pink with spots of blue and greenish yellow is replaced by one single hue (magenta) with a similar dispersion of values as Aurora's gray country dress. Once the wands are out, however, colors are subject to change. Whether blue or pink, the values stay the same.
Both versions are closely related to Prince Phillip's red and blue as well as to Queen Leah's dress that ranges from blue to pink (soft red in itself). Intuitively, the queen looks older than Aurora because the colors of her costume look darker and less saturated. Interestingly, the pink dress looks decidedly more sugar-coated and out of place than the blue one and does not fully match the overall color styling.
|Aurora matches both her mother and Phillip because all the "group colors" are in between red and blue.|
I have always wondered whether the final vanity battle between Flora and Merryweather was reminiscent of the fact, that the traditional light blue had recently been replaced by pink (light red) as the symbolic color of innocence and girlhood. For a long time, pink (the "small" i.e. light version of strong red) had been the designated boys' color.
Looking at the long shot more closely, we can see that there are still some fabrics that are so orange that they are not too much affected by the green light source and provide enough contrast to reinforce the green tint.
|Top: original green image; bottom: I have digitally "divided" the green light emitted by the ball in order to see the colors without the tint.|
But then towards the end, expressionist contrast is achieved by keeping the fairies themselves wholly unaffected by their green "slumber light". This is strikingly obvious, when orange Flora flies by King Hubert's head and both his skin and his orange coat are green. The unexpected part here are the balancing blue parts of Hubert's costume. I would love to see how those frame enlargements looked on an original Technicolor print as opposed to the digitally enhanced versions available today.
After all, the main advantage of the clearly defined "fairy triad" of orange, blue and green is clear readability against highly detailed backgrounds and when characters are dwarfed by their surroundings. So with this, we have come full circle back to the pictures of aristocrats entering the castle that initiated this series.
Red/orange, green and blue dominate, warm yellow is absent in favour of yellowish-green. Most of the characters consist of a broader range of analogous hues than the almost unicolored fairies, giving the impression of more realistically random colors. And although the composition thwarts the danger of clutter by grouping characters based on analogous color schemes, in extreme long shots, individuals are never arranged next to each other in fake looking rainbow order.
At the risk of merely stating the obvious, in this series I have aimed at tracing a predominant Disney concept to simulate sumptuous textures despite flatly painted surfaces. Yet, Disney's three fairy tale features SNOW WHITE, CINDERELLA and SLEEPING BEAUTY, however dated their attitudes, still have a lot more in store to savor and learn from with regard to color.
* I have deliberately ignored Maleficent and many of the other villains so far because there is enough to write about them in a separate post some other day.
Note: In most cases, I am not able to tell who selected what color with what intention. In short, the thinking that went into a certain composition or color concept can never be proven. But what really matters is what we actually see in a film. Thus, my attempt is to analyze how colors impact our perception of a given composition and why this is so. The ultimate goal then is to see if overarching concepts can be extracted that broaden our understanding and use of color as a storytelling device.
Caveat: all screenshots are taken from DVD/BD releases that most certainly differ in various ways from what we used to see in Technicolor film prints.