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.


Christina Forshay said...

thanks for this really interesting piece. if there's anyone whose work you can analyze for symbolism/color theory, its definitely spielberg. and even though schindler's list is devoid of color, there is so much to learn about lights, darks and composition by watching it.

Daisy Church said...

excellent piece! when it comes to the whole animation/live action thing, when it comes to studying color/ light/ composition, it all boils down to good cinematography. If we want to be great artists and filmmakers, we study all the great resources we can, animated or not! :)

Oswald Iten said...

Thanks for your comments! Sometimes I worry if these posts are getting too long for people to read.