Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Indiana Jones: Red objects (2 of 3)

Indy: “There’s a big snake in the plane, Jock!”
Jock (pilot): “oh, that’s just my pet snake, Reggie.”
Indy: “I hate snakes, Jock, I hate them!”

The first red object we see in Raiders is the red furnishing of the waterplane in which Indy escapes his pursuers. As we identify with Indy whose goal is to reach the plane in time, we focus on the red cockpit that is clearly noticeable against the gray and green background. Once inside the plane, Indy discovers something rather unpleasant: Jock’s snake Reggie. This way, we learn about Indy’s irrational fear of snakes that sets him apart from a lot of movie heroes (and works as a running gag in all four films). I think, it is no coincidence that the snake is found inside a red environment. In our culture, red is often associated with warnings, alerts, or more directly danger and threats. Keep that in mind when reading on, because many of the red props we are about to see can be interpreted that way. Besides, it is characteristic of this movie that means of transport (that connect set pieces and action sequences) are containing new threats (Germans on the plane, explosives on truck).

As I have mentioned in the last post, the overall production design is based on naturally desaturated colors (sandy desert, stony caves, dull university halls where even the most colourful student wears only muted pastels, lots of washed-out browns and grays) with occasional spots of muted greens and strong reds as accents. Although a lot of the movie plays out in plain sunlight, low-key lighting (generating high contrast) is used a lot.

When Indy travels to Nepal to meet Marion, he is secretly being observed by a man who hides behind a copy of LIFE magazine. Not only does this attract the audience’s attention right away (the rest of the plane is almost confined to the gray-scale) but it also establishes a visual connection between the observer and a red and white emblem. Remember, we haven't seen any Nazis at this point in the story; they have only been mentioned during the discussion about the ark. Even later, when we hear the bad guys speak German (or with a German accent), we never see a swastika on red ground. This image is thoughtfully saved for a later surprise moment:
Almost exactly halfway into the film, after Indy has found the exact spot to dig for the ark and calls for Sallah, someone is lowering a cord made of flags. The first flag Indy sees is the familiar red one. For a brief moment he – and we, the audience, who have seen Sallah being distracted by Germans – thinks he might have been already discovered.
What I especially like about this scene is that Spielberg doesn’t explain anything, he just cuts to the next scene showing Indy with Sallah on the way to the digging site. This kind of elliptical editing at a major turning point of the main storyline is something, I think, you would never see in an contemporary animated feature, even though it keeps the picture moving.

We see the emblem again right after the Nazis have taken over the ark, when Indy and Marion are crawling out of the pyramid. It gives the planes in the “Flying Wing” scene the necessary sinister touch.
It isn’t seen fully saturated until the big guy’s blood is spilt theatrically.

Now that the Nazis have the ark, red swastika flags are constantly seen around it.
Next to the flamboyant red flags, the subtlety of the scene’s color scheme really pays off here. While the muted green uniforms are emphasizing the complementary red of the flags, they help us tell who is who even in long shots (at least in a theatre or on a reasonably sized TV): Toht is always dressed in black, Marion wears a white dress, while Belloq’s beige/grey suit is still lighter than the rest. Indy of course is again darker than the background and is kept apart by staging.

Belloq, the great opportunist who is collaborating with the Germans only to get a hold of the ark himself, has bothered to learn various Indian and Arab languages, thus approaching the people along his way as a “friend” adapting to their needs. Indy on the other hand is simply focused on the treasures and has to rely on benevolent people around him (Sallah, Marion, the children in the market place), just because he's the good guy in their book. In a way, he is more like a rebel working underground, whereas Belloq sides with the powerful. This way, Indy is forced into superficially disguising himself more than once, first as an Arab, ultimately as a Nazi.

Cairo (ext. day)
Nearly all of Act II is set in Cairo. The first sequence (roughly 8 minutes) almost plays like an independent action movie that ends with Marion’s apparent death. I will come back to this “production number structure” when discussing Temple of Doom. But back to Raiders:
Cairo is established by our new “tour guide” Sallah as the “city of kings”.
After the dark bar in cold Nepal, Cairo is seen in bright sunlight that washes out almost all the colors except for some red and green accents provided by props and plants. Most of the people are dressed in white with the occasional red fez or belt.

Sallah warns Indy again about the powers of the ark
Then suddenly a monkey wearing a red waistcoat spills red liquid and takes an interest in Marion. By the end of this sequence, the monkey will have played a critical role in the kidnapping of Marion. However, it isn’t perceived as a threat yet (despite its color, I'm tempted to add).
Then we cut immediately to the teeming streets of Cairo. Among all the white robed people Marion’s glaring red trousers are easy to locate at all times.
Look at the many colors these facades come in. They are so desaturated, though, that we tend to ignore them.

During the chase, points of focus are marked by red props in order to make them stand out - or even read if they are on screen only for a short time.
Indy’s sword bearing opponent in the notorious shooting scene actually looks like a “boss” of a jump-and-run game (black/red and big among average white extras). But as we – unlike Indy – can see, the biggest threat (purely red explosives, heightened effectively by dull green boxes) is still to come. At the end of this sequence it seems as if Indy had lost this game, though.
Until his interest in the ark prevails over his grief, he is completely passive, letting outer forces do the decisions for him (first he is following one of Belloq’s men, then a group of children saves him).
By the way, Sallah wears an outfit similar to Belloq’s, except for his red flower in the button hole.

Cairo (int. night)

The first suspense moment (where the audience knew more than Indy) led to Marion’s apparent death. So we don’t expect too good, when witnessing somebody poisoning the dates. The red threat here comes in three guises within the same scene: the poison vial, the drink and the monkey’s vest. Only this time, the monkey traitor has to die to save Indy. This scene plays like a dark version of the monkey's first scene (seen above).

Meanwhile, a wise old man is deciphering Marion’s amulet. While he – but not Indy – is lighted slightly blue, the red and blue lamp hanging above his head matches the “heaven’s light” pattern mentioned earlier. At the words “Hebrew god” a sudden wind gust makes the lamps and curtains jingle.

Out in the desert, while Belloq frees Marion to give her the white dress, Indy and Sallah are about to discover the ark, hence the blue lighting outside the tent. Belloq "would very much like to see" her in the white dress he hands over to her (this kind of turns her into the plain white surface onto which he projects his desires).
Marion hides the fruit knife under her red trousers before she indulges in Belloq’s drinking game.

Marion as a threat?
Red, of course, is also linked to love and passion in most cultures. So it's no surprise, that Marion is enveloped in red before she kisses Indy. Interestingly, the lighting is not too different from her scene with Belloq (she's also wearing a white dress given to her by the captain), only the stripes on the wall are horizontal instead of vertical now.

But, to come back to my adventurous interpretation of red designating threats: Is it possible that Indy sees Marion as a threat? If we look at his behaviour towards her (he cannot forget her and doesn't want to fall for her again), it could be (I don't want to get into the snake/woman analogies, because this, as Bart Simpson would put it, "is gonna be biblical!"). She is also threatening to undercut his mission, because he starts worrying about her more than about the treasures. In the end he's better off with her, of course.
Except for some red lipstick her whole appearance is in keeping with the desaturated university. They both look rather domesticated.

Interpretations aside - as they may not represent the filmmakers' intentions at all - it is obvious that this movie's color scheme has been planned very carefully. Although it may not look this way in these posts, red is only used sparingly for accents within the big picture.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Indiana Jones: colored light (1 of 3)

A post on Indiana Jones? What’s that got to do with animation?, you may ask yourself. Reading the comments on cartoonbrew, I’m always a little irritated that there are people who believe it’s sacrilegious to post about live action movies on an animation blog. In the case of cartoonbrew, this is specifically unjustified because there are so many posts a day, not all of them have to appeal to all the readers. If somebody would complain here - I post not even once a week on a regular basis - I could at least see the point (without agreeing, though). However in my opinion, animation doesn’t exist in a vacuum, or in other words: isn’t everybody always asserting that to come up with good animated movies we should direct our attention to other media for inspiration?

In the case of Spielberg’s movies there is so much to study and learn in the way of mise-en-scene, clear staging, geography, character development, lighting, cinematography, editing… even if the stories themselves are often somewhat irrelevant (or even cliché) as in the case of Raiders of the Lost Ark and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (my third Indy-post will be on Temple of Doom). You could possibly freeze frame any shot in Raiders and learn something about composition.

What’s important here: Despite the masterful execution this is fairly conventional narrative filmmaking, so the visual and aural concepts are not meant to be noticed by the audience. Many a sound designer, in fact, has stated that it is paramount not to follow the rules of a certain concept too slavishly in order to hide it. To make a color or lighting concept work subconsciously (so that it enhances the story experience), it must come natural to the world the characters inhabit. I'm trying to superficially analyse the use of red light (this post) and objects (post 2) in Raiders and how this changes in the sequel (post 3).

Much has been written about light and backlight in Spielberg’s films and his collaboration with cinematographers Vilmos Zsigmond (Close Encounters), Douglas Slocombe (Indy I-III) and most recently Janusz Kaminski (11 films up to now). Some time ago, I’ve written here about the way red was used sparingly in classical cinema in order not to waste it. The rarity of anything makes it appear more precious. In a normal natural environment, pure red is hardly there except in flowers or exotic animals. Although yellow is a brighter (but far more common) hue, red is associated with heat, fire, desire, sex but also danger and warnings.

There are basically three ways to make a given object look a certain color on screen:
1) the object surface is painted in that color (or naturally so),
2) colored light is cast upon it,
3) in postproduction the whole image is color timed to make it look a certain color

Unlike today when movies like The Matrix or In the Valley of Elah are timed to look mostly green/blue, classical Hollywood cinema (1930s to 1950s) generally shied away from making faces appear any other hue than what was supposed to be accepted skin tones. Tinted shots or colored light on a face were used for certain effects, of course, but most of the shots featured natural (if slightly oversaturated) skin tones. This is maintained throughout most of the Indiana Jones series.

In Raiders, most of the sequences’ color schemes seem to be dictated by the sets. Most of them are kept in rather muted earthly colors (jungle, desert, university, see also the depiction of India in Temple of Doom) not to be confused with the lavish sets of many a James Bond movie. This makes red as a spot color (both in objects and light) stand out even more. (There is also a fair amount of blue light, generally associated with the light of god, but we’ll come to that later).

Light and darkness

Throughout Raiders, Indy is depicted as a shadowy guy, almost always standing in the dark (in the picture on the left, Brody mentions Marion to him). As opposed to Marion who is associated with light and ultimately enlightening the hero. For a good analysis of this basic concept see Mark Kennedy’s article.
When we see Indy’s face for the first time after three minutes of looking at his silhouette, it’s still in the shadow (as seen in Mark's post).

Only when he’s close enough to the object of his desire – an idol that is the brightest spot in every shot it appears – do we see his face clearly, illuminated by the golden/orange light reflected from the idol. Although this feels like expressionist lighting, it is diegetically explained by a ray of daylight from up above that illuminates the idol. This exposition tells us that Indy cannot avert his eyes from a golden object, no matter what it costs. In the end he will have learnt to look away from the ark partly because he believes in its supposed powers. He cares more for Marion than for the golden treasures.

Fire vs. heaven’s light
Marion is introduced wearing a muted green blouse among people clad in earthly browns and grey. Although subtle, this contrast is enough for us to keep track of her even in crowded shots. In close ups this is supported by a spotlight on her face and hands.
While the spectators of the drinking contest are leaving the joint, Indy’s shadow appears on the wall behind Marion. Now her face is increasingly illuminated by a nearby fire (seen in the following reverse-shot), until she looks merely orange. So much for meeting an “old flame”. The varying intensity of the fire influences the characters’ appearances until they meet at the bar.
There is an assortment of yellow and red bottles behind the counter opposite to the fireplace. We see them long enough to accept them as the source of the strong red side light cast on the arguing couple’s faces. For once there is not much difference in the depiction of Marion and Indy himself.

“It’s important, Marion. Trust me…”
...she wants to hit him again.

Their dialogue delivery and actions may be suppressed but their red faces tell us that they both are burning inside. This certainly doesn’t look naturally anymore, but is still motivated by lights inside the room.

After Indy has left, the bottles behind the counter seem to have lost their radiance so as not to distract from Marion. Also note that there is no golden reflection on her face when she looks at the golden item. She is not so much obsessed with its literal value but with what it means to her emotionally. Also, her skin tone is not so much affected by the flame, after she’s calmed down.

“your fire is dying here.”

With the arrival of Toht – the Nazi in black – her face starts to get orange (motivated by the flames again), while she gets agitated inside, trying to remain cool in her behaviour until she is physically threatened. Although the harsh orange under lighting is justified by the glowing poker, it also works as an expression of the extreme threat and danger Marion is experiencing.

Later, inside the Egyptian dome with the three-dimensional map, again white (almost blue) daylight is shining through the hole in the ceiling. The ruby on top of Indy’s staff casts a red reflection on the model to help us see clearly where the spotlight travels to.
The resulting beam that shows the location of the ark again casts a golden reflection on Indy’s astounded face. The light itself is so strong, it is almost blinding. Until now, these outside beams could be clearly interpreted as normal “white” daylight which – because of its higher physical temperature – includes more blue light than, say, a candle or a light bulb. But now, it gets clear that within the story, there’s something supernatural to the blue light from above. It foreshadows the effect the opening of the ark will have.

Very close to the discovery of the object of his desire, Indy gets rid of his disguise. The whole frame is glowing with anticipation while Indy himself is again seen in silhouette. (With the “staring” sun as the strongest presence in the middle, this shot always reminds me of HAL reading the lips of the astronauts.)

At night, we know that they are close to the discovery of the ark as the sky is coming to life right over the digging spot. The powers from up above seem to warn the diggers not to go any further. For once, everything is bathed in unnatural blue light, caused by the flashes of lightning. It all culminates in Sallah almost getting a heart attack from looking at the suddenly flashing stone creature. Note that even now Indy’s skin color (apart from the sidelight) remains fairly normal.

This blinding "heaven’s light" has a lot in common with David Lynch’s frequent use of electricity and blue light to suggest supernatural occurrences (see Twin Peaks, Mulholland Drive). During the opening of the ark it is this light - and therefore the supposed “power of god” - which kills all the bad guys who can’t avert their eyes.
I think it is important to note that this light is not only blue but also golden because it reflects both the humans’ greed and heaven’s revenge, so to speak. And besides it just looks better that way.
The two people who are able to resist looking at it are spared, of course. While it certainly fits the biblical hodgepodge at the heart of Raiders, it also is a nice commentary about the voyeurism that is film when we see the camera spreading the deadly light exponentially.
There are striking visual parallels between the introductory sequence with the idol and the opening of the ark.

I have omitted one scene with red lights on purpose: When Indy pretends to be a German officer in a submarine, his face is almost constantly reddened by the ceiling lights that tell us (from movie experience) that we are inside a submarine. Just look at the occasional white light bulb that immediately attracts our attention and therefore most of the time is situated close to the face of the character we’re supposed to look at. (This technique has been used throughout Temple of Doom quite consistently for most of the scenes without daylight.)
With these red light bulbs I’d like to lead over to red objects, which I will discuss in the next Indy post.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

A fistful of links

Last week I finally received my pre-ordered copy of Eric Goldberg’s Character Animation Crash Course! It made me want to go back to the basics and start doing all the proposed exercises, but I have to postpone this a little. So far I’ve read the book twice cover to cover. It works perfectly as an addition to The Animator’s Survival Kit and Preston Blair’s books.

If you haven’t already listened to Clay Kaytis’ Eric Goldberg Podcast Part 1, I'd highly recommend to do so, because the second instalment is expected to be available soon.

I’m sure you have already read this on various blogs, but none the less: Hans Bacher is back since last Friday! I don’t know how he does it, but there are already countless wonderful posts and the good news that he’s working on a new book. Anyone with a serious interest in color or production design will be delighted.

You may have noticed, I added another new link: On Ushuaia, art director Luc Desmarchelier shows some of his spectacular design works for various major studios. Check out especially his older posts with pencil and color sketches for Sony’s Open Season.

Speaking of color, recently posted some classical optical illusions.

Last but not least, Luke Farookhi wrote a beautiful piece about the early David Hall storyboarded version of Alice in Wonderland.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Inbetween III

Some attempts at composition. Only the first one is based closely on photo reference (above)
I'm not quite content with the tree on top, because it somehow doesn't match the stumps around it.

I don't want to make this sound like a lame excuse, but I really need to get another scanner someday. It sure works great for animation drawings, however when it comes to color and values I have to heavily adjust them in photoshop to make them resemble the originals...