Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Color in 101 Dalmatians: an introduction

In writing about color I’m conscious about the risk of stating the obvious. But sometimes we tend to overlook the most obvious elements of a picture because we take them for granted. Over the past few weeks I’ve been analyzing 101 Dalmatians shot by shot. Of course, most of what I’ll comment on could be found in any good film or painting. But I’m mainly interested in how the subtext of this specific story is told through color. In addition to that, there is so much to learn about film making from this movie. It also shows how budgetary restrictions can lead to artistically innovative achievements.
Much has been written about how Walt Disney hated the look of 101 Dalmatians – his first contemporary feature – particularly because of the heavy Xeroxed pencil lines. While production designer Ken Anderson is always praised for his fresh approach, some of the older books don’t even mention Walt Peregoy’s influential color styling. From all the features he worked on, Dalmatians was the one where his strong personal painting style was translated best into actual backgrounds. Since it was decided that the painted BGs would have Xeroxed line work overlaid, Peregoy was able to work in flat color areas without having to render details. This made for a “perfect wedding of characters and background” (Thomas/Johnston in Illusion of Life) Although his strong personal style shows up on the screen (something Mary Blair could only have dreamed of), Dalmatians “is a graphic collaboration between numerous artists […] who yearned to break from the Disney mold […].” (Amid Amidi, Cartoon Modern, p.162; Find some of the color keys in the companion blog to this wonderful book.)

Walt Peregoy on his approach (excerpts from an unpublished interview by Julie Svendsen; with Didier Ghez generous permission):

“Now, all the artists at Disney in key positions suffered the same thing – they knew all rocks had to be round and all trees had to look like trees and the sky had to have fluffy clouds and they’re all done with airbrush. Right from the beginning. And I always asked myself, how come their idea of realism is completely contradictory to a duck or a mouse or a baboon talking? That’s not realism. It’s satire. It’s freedom. These animals say things that people don’t want to say and they’re put into situations – so, why the hell does a flower have to be put next to an airbrushed rock? I could never understand this. 101 Dalmatians was not a fairy tale and all of the artists realized now here’s a chance to do what we want to do. Some in subtle ways and others absolutely divergent from a Disney look.”
On actually working on the film with his fellow background painters:

“I never had to say, ‘now, what you ought to do…’ They’d look at my keys and they’d do a good job of following my keys. […] From the gal walking down the sidewalk with this dog, the whole thing is the way I saw it. […] In all the films where I’ve been the key to do the pre-production artwork, the people working on the film have those keys and I leave it up to their discretion and professional artists do a helluva job. On 101 Dalmatians, Ralph Hulett was a typical Disney background artist. He did the scene with the Baduns, when they go back and get in their truck. And he did the street scene of that truck. It was foggy and it was great. I respect an artist’s integrity.”
Although my analysis is mainly focused on color as a storytelling device, it is important to take layout and overall art direction into account as well.

What was hailed (by Andreas Deja) as “Picasso coming to Disney”, is strongly rooted in traditional draftsmanship. Architectural layout, for example, is far more realistic than in previous features (although there are stylized flat pans like the wall in the prologue) with perspective and dimensionality maintained throughout. This makes the completely three dimensional characters (apart from flat color there is no graphic element to them) blend in more harmoniously than in some 50s shorts. The colors themselves may be stylized and flat but mostly representing the real world with slightly expressionistic overtones. Especially earthly browns and greys are used to much more effect than in more recent animated features.

I’d even say that some of Disney’s specific staging techniques are working better in this style because they don’t draw attention to the artificiality of lighting in an otherwise realistically rendered environment. In Disney’s traditional background paintings it has always been necessary to leave plain areas of little or no detail where the characters were supposed to be overlaid later so they didn’t conflict with the softer painting of their surroundings. Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston call the area where characters move around in a setting the “path of action”. “Another way to keep the character completely clear at all times is to hold down all the elements in the background so that they frame the actor as if he were spotlighted, or working in a ‘pool of light.’” (Illusion of Life, p. 248).

Colors are defined by value (lightness), hue (blue, red, green etc.) and saturation (intensity/chroma or purity). Now keeping all this in mind let’s look at the following screenshots from Dalmatians in black and white to focus on value:

Here the whole painting concept is based on plain areas with varying amount of detail drawn in pencil (head of layout: Ernie Nordli). There may not be any “mushy airbrushing” as Peregoy calls it, but both path of action and pool of light are expertly devised on the color layer.
As expected in a film about white dogs, Pongo stands out in picture 1 and 3. We will later see the reason why it makes perfect sense that he is similar in value to the surroundings in 2. In 4 Roger and the trombone are clearly most important. Note also how the living room is in lower contrast than the dancing couple. Jasper in 1 is almost silhouetted as he is most of the movie, representing the shady side of society although he seems to stand in the spotlight. While it is unimportant to see the feet in 2 and 4, both 1 and 3 highlight the ground where the dark shoes stand on. In 1 Pongo’s attack will lead to Jasper losing balance, in 3 the feet are important to the attitude: Roger firmly standing, Anita at his mercy.

1, 4: the characters perform in a pool of light defined by harsh diagonals, more value contrast in 1, more subtle in 4. Picture 3 has them perform in the spotlight on the ground with no details whatsoever. I really like this composition: strong lines-of-action (yellow) show the characters’ attitudes and relationships and contrast with the geometrical shapes in the background.
2: Pongo’s path of action is shown in blue, it is the brightest part of the BG, there is some other light from the right but it is clear which path he will follow.

The hues define distinct locales. 1: everything is based on shades of red. It feels really hot. Through the hole we see the stark contrast to the outside blue. 2: even the trees are bluish grey. The path of action is much less saturated than the surrounding snow. 3: here the pool of light is most saturated with the pair’s clothes being more saturated than the background even though all of these hues are present in the low contrast background. The ochre curtain serves as an additional framing device of the dancers. Hue contrast is enhanced by a greenish grey shadow. 4: the trombone stands out by saturation as it is the center of interest. 1 and 2 show extreme emotions (hot and angry vs. cold and blue). 3 and 4 are conveying a sense of natural indoor lighting (cozy living room vs. dimly lit attic), here all the details are rendered in their respective hue.
Note that the colors do not affect Pongo’s fur or collar at all. Layout-wise there are many props that tell us who lives in these rooms. Particularly clocks, framed photos, lamps and tea cups give us a sense of time and place, whereas in picture 2, the collar is the only contemporary element.

In future posts I’d like to elaborate on:
  • Out in the cold: color temperature and spatial relation
  • Theatrical design
  • Detail: long shot vs. close up
  • Shadows and color constancy
  • Cruella DeVil: flamboyantly standing out
  • Framing devices: holes, doors and hiding places
  • Flowers are yellow, grass is green
  • Neutral tones and silhouettes

Hopefully, there will be more pictures, less text…

Color reference (not scientifically checked): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_colors
All screenshots are from Platinum Edition DVD, RC: 2, 2008 unless otherwise stated.
Sequences and shots labelled according to the final draft (posted by Hans Perk) and Mark Mayerson’s mosaics.


Michael Sporn said...

You couldn't have chosen a better film to analyze for color. it really is a masterpiece. Much like Dumbo, it is craftsmen working at the top of their game and not trying to show off.

Oswald Iten said...

That's what I also think! It always seems so peculiar to me that the two features Walt was most absent from (while still alive), stand among the studio's strongest.
One can only imagine what films could have been made after 1966 if the nine old men hadn't been trying to show off as well as playing it safe at the same time...

Thad said...

You couldn't have chosen a better film to analyze for color. it really is a masterpiece. Much like Dumbo, it is craftsmen working at the top of their game and not trying to show off.

That really sums up my opinion of them too.

Gerry said...

This is a terrific and thoughtful analysis of one of my favorite Disney animations. I look forward to further installments, but in the meantime I'm going home tonight to watch it again!


Molasses said...

great read! thank you for posting this

rafianimates said...

Great analysis and perfect choice of film. It certainly is my favourite in terms of visual style, very pleased you're putting so much thought and care into this - really helping me understand why I find it so appealing


Anonymous said...

Wow, this is great - I'm really looking forward to the next installments of this. I've always loved the style of this film and I've already learned a lot from your initial comments. Thanks for doing this!

Kirsten McCrea said...

Thank you so much, that was wonderful! Having just graduated from art school I can't help but wonder why I'm hearing this for the first time, but no matter...

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Amy said...

Wonderful analysis. Am writing a short book on 101 Dalmatians and will certainly be featuring Walt Peregoy. Thanks for this!