Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Color in 101 Dalmatians: 1. Home Sweet Home

This post is primarily about color temperature as displayed in the interior locales of the first three sequences. I’ll suggest you look at Mark Mayerson’s mosaics for reference as I’ll be jumping around a bit.

When looking at these pictures keep in mind what Vincent LoBrutto advises students of live-action production design:

"Colors should be used to visually transcribe the layers of feeling and meaning that are in the script. […] An effective color design operates on a subconscious level and allows the colors to impart ideas and feelings separate from the conscious story and physical setting."

A bachelor's world
In sequence 001 we enter Rogers apartment through the window. In contrast to all the unicolored windows in this shot the one in the center is not only larger but also more detailed with olive green blinds and sandy brown curtains. Pongo and Roger are framed by the same window, so it must be pretty small flat. The dominant green inside is balanced by warm (sandy or brown) and cold (turquoise, jade towards blue) colors. The cushions are most saturated probably because they are the most important pieces of furniture for Pongo. Note that almost all the props’ colors are different from their respective background, so that we notice how cram-full the room is. Yet it never looks gaudy. You can see from the stuff that’s lying around that Roger indeed “is married to his work” as Pongo states it. Like in all great visual storytelling the surroundings tell us more about a character’s habits than words could. Roger’s clothes follow the same basic scheme: olive green trousers, beige shirt, brown waistcoat. He stands out from the props not only because he’s moving but also because his skin and shirt provide the strongest contrast. Call me picky, but I’d say his legs are not important here, so it makes sense that they blend in with the background (only colorwise). Overall these colors give us the feeling of not much going on. Everthing looks basically neutral, no strong emotions. Of course, the apartment could have been neutrally grey, but as we’ll later see, painting it green makes sense (not only to unify it with the rest of the sequence in the park). It looks like Roger is living in his own world without much outside influence. He certainly has no sense of time although he’s got a watch, a clock, a radio and a metronome. He’s the one dragged along through almost all the movie. Even without Pongo’s narration we can tell who’s in charge of deciding when it’s time to go outside (both literally and figuratively).

By the way, even here you can see the potential of black and white characters in a colourful world: regardless of the surroundings they would always read perfectly (there is one exception I’ll write about in another post). In Pongo’s case the slender red collar (complementary to green) makes him stand out even more from an apartment he wants to leave for good.

The living room: warm haven of married life
The next indoor locale is Roger and Anita’s terraced house. Again the camera tracks in on the house in the center. This time two windows are different from the blue ones. So we immediately know that this is at least a two-storey apartment clearly separated by heavy lines. We track in on the Dalmatians framed by orange curtains.

There is a transition to warm colors that starts in the church (we’re in the 50s, so they have to get married first to enjoy home sweet home).

Back to the terraced house, the living room in particular: As before, orange cushions and curtains (and to some extent the floor) are most saturated and structure the room according to the dogs’ habits. The living room is primarily sandy colored which gives a feeling of coziness within fairly neutral tones. Most of the props are just variations of the main wall color or blend in completely with their surroundings. So the room looks quite tidy but not too clean. There are some blue and green props to prevent the backgrounds from becoming monochrome.
Of all the manmade objects, doors and windows are most important to these sets inasmuch as they serve as framing devices and passages into unknown territories. The living room is clearly established as the center of the protagonists’ world. While warm colors tend to come forward, it is only natural that what lies outside of the boundaries of the living room is kept in receding, cooler colors. Moreover, this makes orientation much easier.

Nanny is introduced bringing tea and sweets. So the blue room she’s coming out of must obviously be the kitchen. The black and white of her cloth and apron connect her visually to the Dalmatians (she even has a red button on her collar).

Since she is the center of interest in this shot, there’s much more contrast in her appearance than Anita’s. While Anita is sitting outside the main pool of light, the sandy colors around her are subdued. You may have noticed that even characters’ skin colors change from shot to shot to keep the respective compositions balanced. Like in classic live-action cinema, lighting is constantly readjusted to strongly support the story point each individual shot is conveying. Especially in a hand-drawn film, nothing would be gained by simulating “realistic” light sources. What feels right dramatically, is almost always working.

Anita’s cool blue clothes go well with the subdued, sandy backgrounds. Seeing her writing (with glasses on) shows her as a prudential, slightly reserved modern woman. This time she’s the one reminding Roger of time. In this house, teacups seem to be present whenever time is mentioned, by the way.

Since Roger is in his own (rather claustrophobic) world when he’s composing, it is not surprising that his attic room is a combination of brown and green. He himself is wearing green and yellow, blending in with his surroundings if not for contrast of value. Again all the props (from his earlier apartment) are painted in distinct colors. This is a marvellous example of drawing a cluttered room.

Later we learn that there are some stairs between the door in the living room and Roger’s “hideout”. But for now the brick wall serves as a connecting element. Again these bricks are painted in a cool shade of grey because this area is outside of the warm living room. We can see many lamps yet not one of them seems to be an actual light source for the scene. Unobtrusively natural light is supposed to come from the window.

Anita’s blue and Roger’s green go together well providing balancing hues to the warm setting. They are in a way lighter, purer versions of the prevalent prop colors. If Roger’s color ties him to his music room, Anita seems to be connected to the kitchen although we never see her doing a housewife’s job. Within these backgrounds she looks more colorful and decided than she is story wise.

The TV next to the window is prominently shown to be part of the living room, even though we don’t pay attention to it until later. The central window overshadows it. As soon as Cruella is mentioned, Perdi leaves the living room for the kitchen. Although it is on the right now, we recognize the room by its blue brick wall and the tile floor. The poker and the green stool show us that we’re seeing the same door Nanny came out of.

After Cruella has left, Pongo is trying to reassure Perdi that his “pet” Roger will protect them from Cruella. The feeling of safety that was enhanced by the warmth of the living room has gone now and the sequence ends with the characters crouched under the dark stove. The transition to cold colors does not feel contrived, because the kitchen has been established as being blue all along. Moreover those cool colors organically stem from materials like tiles, bricks and iron.

The kitchen: a theatrical stage setting
Sequence 003 begins “on a wild and stormy night in October”. Again the camera tracks in on the terrace in central perspective. Note that the lightning flash points towards where we should look. This time the whole scenery is dark blue, with the protagonists’ house the darkest. Yet the living room window is discernibly lighter blue. But our eye is drawn towards the entrance door where the only light seems to shine.
The fading to a turquoise clock (not affected by the pool of light) in front of a blue brick wall immediately tells us we are in the same kitchen again. So the entrance door is linked to the kitchen by a dissolve. Of course the door Cruella comes in is totally different from this one as we will see later. But again the connection of a door to the kitchen has been carefully planted (you don’t have to look far for a kettle and teacups).

Some of the props (especially the ones painted on cels) are considerably changing hues throughout the scene. There may be good reasons for doing this, yet I doubt these are anything else than goofs. At least they are barely noticed as the changing colors stay within the established color scheme of muted blues and greens with the occasional neutral tone for balance. The tiled floor is now even more neutral than in sequence 002. Again everything seems to be illuminated by normal white light. The strongly angular pool of light affects only values, not hues. During the whole scene our interest is directed towards the invisible behind the door on the left. The door is blue on the outside, green on the inside.

Although Walt Peregoy might not have intended any such thing, his color keys have been compared to theatrical stage designs. Of all the actual backgrounds, this certainly has been translated to the kitchen setting. All of the action is staged for us to see from a theatre audience’s point of view. Everything is head-on, we never get to see the fourth wall. Besides, there seems to be nothing behind the windows and doors but dark backstage room. Most notably, there is no visible connection to the warm living room. There is little depth and the staging is merely flat.
In the living room at least the camera could look in almost any direction. Here now the camera never really leaves its place. Of course it focuses and zooms in on various spots but we never get to see anything that wasn’t in the establishing shot. We can only imagine what happens offstage to the left.

The supposedly dead puppy wrapped up in a cloth adds a new sensation to the established color scheme. When Nanny brings it in, the door is completely open eliminating almost all green from the shot thus making the yellow stick out more. Technically the cloth may be the same value as Roger’s hands, but the difference in hue and saturation sets it apart from them. Were the movie in black and white, Pongo’s appearance would attract more attention. But still Pongo and Roger immediately turn their eyes towards the bundle, hence we can’t help but do the same.

At the same time, there is a slight overall change in saturation. Note how the brick wall is now almost grey. It looks to me as if this was achieved through color timing because we can see that the last two pictures use the same background. Whenever color is drained, this automatically gives a picture a more desolate feeling. I know this is just subtle and may not be wholly intentional, but it totally makes sense.

Anita makes an unexpectedly strong impression entering from the left, due to the fact that she is wearing a peach colored blouse (again the door is blocking out the green for better contrast). In an inverted version of herself in the first sequence, she now brings warmth to a cold setting. It almost seems to me, the art direction tried to make Anita a stronger character by making her dull entrance somewhat more attractive visually. By the time of the ensemble shot, Perdi is still missing, so from all the entrances and exits on the left we expect her to join from the left. But instead, Cruella’s visit from the right comes even more as a surprise. As we’ll see she’s not coming through the main entrance door that has been established at the beginning of the sequence (Mark Mayerson rightfully calls it “odd geography” – this, at the time, was standard practise even in live-action thrillers).

Only after Roger has told Cruella off, is it finally safe for Pongo (and the audience) to go through the door on the left to Perdi’s hiding place. This hideout – like Roger’s attic – seems to be out of reach for Cruella as long as Roger and Anita are there to protect it. It is basically considered to be part of the kitchen and therefore there are tiles and bricks. But inside the lair green prevails over blue. Again this sequence ends with the Dalmatians lying together in a dark hideout (note the flashlight). But it is considerably friendlier than the hiding place under the stove.

By the way, compare Roger’s shirt hanging on the railing to a similar situation in the first column of pictures in this post and you’ll see that Roger’s habits haven’t changed a bit.

I picked these interior scenes first, because here the overall impression is derived from furniture, wall paper and painted doors – things we accept in almost any color. Keep in mind that this is the age of Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life (at least visually, Anita could have easily been a Sirkian heroine) and that people were used to colorful rooms in the 50s. Everything else is painted in superficially “normal” hues (golden trumpet, brown floor boards, grey teacups), so the predominance of some colors does not undercut the dramatic impact of the scenes.


As we have seen so far, there is a warm sequence (basically neutral brown leaning towards ochre) next to a cool sequence (basically neutral grey leaning towards blue). If you compare the two sequences, you'll notice that green pillows and chairs serve as a unifying element. These three color schemes are pretty distinctive without feeling forced because all of them are based on the same group of colors. Only the emphasis is shifted to a different hue in each respective sequence. So they all are part of the overall "home" color scheme consisting of ochre, grey-blue and green.

Red is consistently kept to a minimum (Pongo’s leash and color, Nanny’s button), as it is generally believed to be the strongest hue available and therefore must not be wasted. To make sure its effect remains powerful, pure red has to be employed very carefully. We tend to forget that this used to be a powerful tool in classic cinema (before our senses have been numbed by excessive use in films like Aladdin or Dick Tracy).

In case you wondered why I left out all of Cruella’s appear ances, I was primarily interested in the relationship of characters to their homes. I’ll be dealing with outside intruders later. I also hope, that I can post larger pictures next time. This whole formatting stuff is killing me.

Color reference (not scientifically checked):
All screenshots are from Platinum Edition DVD, RC: 2, 2008 unless otherwise stated. All the pictures are the property of Disney, used here for educational purposes.
Sequences labelled according to the final draft (posted by Hans Perk) and Mark Mayerson’s mosaics.


Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for writing these posts, I really hope you continue in this series -- because I'm learning a lot.

Oswald Iten said...

Justin - I will. It takes a little time to put them together so I'm happy to hear that you appreciate them.

KibBen said...

I agree with Justin. Thanks so much for writing these. They're fascinating, and I'm not even someone that knows much about colour. So if Justin's learning a lot, I'm probably learning even more. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

This is a really awesome analysis!! Thank you for taking the time and trouble to put these together. I really enjoy your presentation which makes it easy to see exactly what you are saying. I never realized the arbitrary lighting schemes that seem so natural despite being rather odd/solid geometric shapes. I can't wait to read your next ones!

David Benton said...

I just wanted to add my appreciation for this series. Thanks for your hard work. Found you via Drawn!

linus! said...

Yeah, i'm just joining in on the praisings. Thanks alot, this is awesome!

mirella said...

Thank you so much for posting this; I've always been interested in the way color design affects the mood of a scene and its nice to hear/read Professor's and other people's analysis on this. You pointed out many things that I took for granted when I first saw the movie, and your entry makes me want to watch it all over again and follow along with your explanations. I hope you do more of these because I will surely be following along. :)

Steve Downer said...

This is shaping up to be an invaluable series.
As a professional colorist, articles like these are an excellent resource for practical knowledge- making an entertaining read extremely useful, too.
Thanks again, and keep it up!

Joanie said...

This is awesome! Thanks for posting this and keep em' coming

Susanna said...

I'm just joining the chorus here, but I really have to Thank you for writing this series of articles, awesome stuff, so much to learn.
Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Luxury Apartments Lady said...

This is so interesting, I guess in this modern age of blu ray it's more difficult to appreciate muted colours, but I think they look so beautiful in this film!