Saturday, December 25, 2010

Merry Christmas

Chomet - like Tati - relies heavily on long shots both in space and time.

If you live somewhere around Los Angeles or New York, do yourself a favor and see Sylvain Chomet's poetic feature The Illusionist. It may not follow tried-and-tested formulas but those who are able to adjust to a pace representative of a dying art form (vaudeville, stage magician, cinema, you name it...) will discover a marvel with many a reference beyond Jacques Tati's films.

Mood is everything.

Here's a clip of a key scene in the relationship between the magician Tatischeff and the girl Alice.

I haven't written about it yet, since most of my readers seem to live in the United States where the movie hasn't come out until now.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Tarzan - man made vs. natural light (4/4)

In this last Tarzan post the focus is on the final confrontation between humans and apes. Visually it is also a confrontation of nature vs. civilization, natural light vs. man made light. In such instances usually warmth is associated with nature and coldness with technology, but here natural light is accurately shown as being cold and artificial as being warm (visually, not physically). So basically, it all comes down to contrasting warm against cool colors again. However expressionist these lighting changes seem they are carefully justified by story events.

Faint hope
Clayton has managed to capture the Porter family and Tarzan with them. The lower deck seems to be dark with the only light being white and coming from the sky. The situation feels cold and desperate.
But on the right side there's a lightbulb from which yellow light descends. The contrast is symmetrically emphasized by Jane in the light in front of cool blue and Tarzan in the shadow in front of warm yellow. The two-color scheme of the Porters' clothes is expanded into the background.
On the one hand, all hope seems lost for the professor, he almost blends in with the surroundings, Jane and Tarzan on the other hand are full of angry energy after the boat has been rocked by Tantor. The group and room are divided in a dispirited blue left half and a resurgent yellow right half.

Red light and blue night
Apart from the prologue, blue night colors have so far been associated with the tender relationship between Tarzan and Kala. Now an unexpected load of hot colors is induced achieving yet another progression of expressionist lighting for a scene that brims with fury. It's the ultimate cold - warm contrast with almost primary blue and red. For the subsequent fight between Tarzan and Clayton, there are hardly any colors left other than rainy blue and grey as natual light takes over again.
The jungle at night is almost monochrome, very much like the tinted versions of silent films used to be. This soothing blue night has been established over the whole movie. Usually it was associated with Tarzan’s “mother” Kala who is now sadly sitting at a distance. Like Tarzan earlier on, she is emotionally distant. That’s why we stay with Kerchak here.

Suddenly a red glint disturbs the blue calmness.
An exploding illumination rocket spreads red light all over the clearing.
As we have seen in the first post, red is connected to danger throughout the film (and much of real life). Apart from that, red is physically perceived as the most intense hue.
The strong red light affects everything within the clearing. Everything that’s out of this range is still blue preventing our eyes from adapting to the all red frame too easily. Because without contrasting colors even an all red image is perceived less intense after a while.
Even Kerchak is blinded by the light and appears relatively bright. He is the only one having to shade his eyes after keeping them most of the time in the shadow (this may just as well be a coincidence because this pose looks stronger than had he solely looked up).

What looks like an expressionist effect is clearly motivated by a light source within the story world. Because we tend to forget time and surroundings in moments of extreme tension, we don’t pay attention that the red light (supposed to be coming from a signal rocket) is glowing without fading for a rather long time. Now the whole frame expressionistically becomes red. Emotionally, this part of the jungle is on fire.
Contrast in time
These monochromely red shots (above right) are intercut with blue ones showing Tarzan coming back - from right to left, of course, as he is on his way back home. By contrasting whole shots against each other, we have a color contrast that unfolds over time, something only film can do.

Notice how the texture of the right picture benefits from these blue leaves (their shadow side).

With very different primary colors and the strongest possible cold vs. hot contrast you couldn’t get confused which shots are from which story strand even if the shots themselves are intercut at a very fast rhythm and you don’t have time to see what’s actually going on. This technique has already been popular in silent film which more often than not were somehow colored. After the arrival of Technicolor consultants, such color schemes that strongly affect skin tones were not in fashion for many decades. In the last twenty years, monochrome palettes have become standard again.

The closer Tarzan is getting, the closer the camera and the shorter the shots.

But first, from the edge of the clearing where the light already seems to fade Clayton steps into the red light.

Kerchak is still on fire emotionally, because he has finally lost control and cannot protect his family. Correspondingly, he's still in the center of the hot light which reflects on Clayton whose red figure stands out against a dark blue sky.

Tarzan emerges from a misty, monochrome blue background. His getting redder shows us that he has arrived at the clearing at last. Since we don't have time to actively think about the changing of his skin color and what that means, this change affects us unconsciously.

The elephants following him have also reached the clearing.

On Tarzan's ground again
At the exact moment Tarzan hits Clayton, the illumination rocket dies down and the red light is fading.
I like this a lot because, figuratively, Clayton and his men were in control first (casting their red light all over the clearing), now they’re fighting on Tarzan’s ground (the blue night time jungle). On an expressionist level it feels like the red light were emanating from a glowing Clayton that is deactivated by Tarzan's kick in the head.

Every background is a little less red until the whole clearing and all the characters (including the elephants) are only affected by the dark blue night.

Where there's light, there's shadow, even in the darkest night.

The final confrontation between Tarzan and Clayton takes place during a thunderstorm. With the rain and all, this reminds me of the final confrontation in Blade Runner (1982). It has become a cliché that weather conditions (not only) in animated films seem to be disposable for emotional expressionism. Just think of the many thunderstorms that accompany climactic battles in films like Snow White (1937), The Jungle Book (1967) or The Lion King (1994).

The vines are really Tarzan's ground: he is very much at home while Clayton gets all tangled up...

...and dies in the course of it. This frame's intensity is due to a splitsecond lightning.

To speak in terms of "the hero's journey", Tarzan's central internal conflict is finally resolved: Kerchak has accepted him as a son because he has redeemed himself by protecting his family against intruders.

Following Kerchak's death, Tarzan has already chosen to be the ape leader (we see the herd following him) in a scene that works without dialogue. Actually, this scene is as strong and emotionally complex that it would have made a perfect ending to the film with either leaving the Porters' destiny open or showing how they leave from a distance. But since this is a film that has to (has to?) live up to certain expectations - or better: conform to certain formulas - there follows a coda in plain sunlight with an external happy ending on all levels and against all probability.

All in all the capturing scene loosely mirrors the prologue with the burning ship (fire vs dark blue night), at least concerning color.
The intercutting pattern is already established in the prologue. There it connects two story strands about young families by means of match cuts rather than separating two locales defined by red and blue in the end. Narratively, the prologue symmetrically unites humans and apes in different locales while the final confrontation shows us the asymmetry of humans and apes by having the intruders overwhelm the clearing.

The personified connection between Tarzan's human and ape family is Sabor who apparently murdered Kala's baby and Tarzan's parents. Before Clayton's arrival in the jungle, Sabor is the main villain - painted in the same colors as Clayton.
Even the concept of getting tangled up high above ground is established early on. It's only consequent that the animal villain has trouble with man-made constructions whereas the human villain is unable to master the natural "construction" of lianas.

Although I still have many reservations against specific aspects of Tarzan - a lot of it, including the character design and Phil Collins' songs, is simply not to my taste at all - I cannot deny that the story is as well-constructed as the jungle setting with the greatest possible attention to detail.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Tarzan - Kerchak: a shadowy figure (3/4)

Kerchak, the ape leader, is my favorite character in this movie not only because I prefer his design over that of all the other apes, but because he is also most consistently animated with seemingly perfect construction. The reason I focus on his appearance here, however, lies in the staging and not the character design. In the fourth and final installment I will look upon the climactic scenes.

I'm sure you've already noticed that shadows have been attached to virtually all animated characters in any lighting situation in this film. While this is a very time-consuming and expensive technique, the integration of characters into a naturalistic background benefits from it if done properly. Essentially the luxury of shadows is only justified if they are used to enhance the storytelling. So in many animated films we only see animated shadows when needed to strengthen a composition or achieve a certain effect. In Tarzan, the shadows do not attract our attention when they are used for stronger staging because they are always present. The foundation for this can be found in the magnificent visual development work by John Watkiss among others. Watkiss' paintings and sketches are on display in the DVD bonus material and in this slim book.

These Watkiss images have been lifted from Hans Bacher's animation treasure site

When young Tarzan is accidentally running into Kerchak (who still has trouble accepting him), the lighting doesn't change since it's not that time of day.
The color change here is cleverly achieved by having reddish-brown pillars right next to Kerchak's head. These pillars are only seen in the Kerchak frame, never in Tarzan’s monochrome green jungle. Of course, their layout function might only have been to emphasize the extreme perspective.
As a sidenote: just look at the marvellous clean-up in all the close-ups of Kerchak.

When rocks are finally seen in the following setup, they are grey-green and blending in with the jungle.

Back light
Apart from the rocks and the extreme low angle shot, in the scene above Kerchak has also been seen in the back light
After Tarzan has almost killed a young ape by provoking an elephant stampede, Kerchak is arriving in back light once again. This way, he is always casting a big shadow ahead of himself and over Tarzan. The glowing color of his eyes is emphasized by the resulting darkness on his face.

Shadows over Kerchak
During the "son of man" montage we see Kerchak, still shown from a relatively low angle but without a shadow over his face.
In a following shot however, a shadow scurries across his face...
...Tarzan has finally grown into a man.
For the first time, his shadow is over Kerchak's body and not the other way round.

Dramatic lighting
After Sabor has overthrown Tarzan, Kerchak attacks the leopard. Sabor is stronger, though, whereupon Tarzan fights back and finally kills Sabor in a riveting action sequence.
Sabor is now virtually in the back light (as seen from Kerchak's lower point of view) which makes him look far more impressive and scary.
The colors are generally drained from the picture. Hard light coming from above generates deep shadows. The characters' yellow/orange parts (including Tarzan's tanned skin) shine fiercely against the backdrop consisting of dark grey and olive. By the way, this is one of few moments in Tarzan where spots of saturated colors stand out against muted background colors.
As Kerchak is able to off his attacker, he is once again seen in the back light which makes him seem all the more powerful.
The light shining through the thicket (together with Tarzan's eyes) is guiding our attention to the spot where the leopard most likely will strike. The idea of realistic lighting has been taken to a degree here that has hardly been seen in a hand-drawn fully animated feature before. We even see dust particles floating around in the light.
While Sabor is fully lit and not scary any more, Tarzan himself is standing completely in the shadows. He has finally killed another animal and it looks like he doesn't know how to react to that immediately.
Such cinematic shots and forced perspective compositions (above right) seem to be influenced by the powerful dynamism of Frank Frazetta illustrations and the realm of Fantasy Art paintings.

Kerchak turns from the light to the shadow again. When Tarzan is coming to him, he doesn't look him straight into the eyes.
These deep focus compositions (above right) are where I see John Watkiss’ influence most. In his paintings he likes to divide the frame graphically between foreground and background (see image at the top of this post).

Both Kerchak and Tarzan seem to have mixed feelings about this mutual approach. Both their faces are halfway covered in shadows. This is a really subtle way of communicating the fragility of this slow approximation.

Greeting Jane
In the camp, Kerchak is seen in plain sunlight at first. His large angry figure and dark appearance is enough, of course, to scare Jane and force her to crouch down.

But by showing him from Jane's point of view his face - bent over her - is in the shadow again. I'm amazed at how much trouble the film makers have taken with these shadow effects even though Kerchak's fur color is very dark anyway.
left: another great example of careful clean-up; right: Kerchak's shadow over Jane's face.

The warning
In the next two key scenes – Kerchak tells Tarzan to protect his family (1) and Kerchak calls Tarzan a traitor (2) – dusk is already in full swing and colors the emotional impact very strongly.
As is expected, the glowing light comes from behind Kerchak once again. There is a dramatic effect to backlit characters, but especially in the case of Kerchak there is also a compositional advantage: Kerchak is a very dark character, so in order to have his silhouette read properly, he has to be staged against a lighter background. With the light source behind him, his silhouette (head in particular) is often the area of highest contrast. The stronger the contrast, the more dramatic the composition looks.
With Kerchak almost in silhouette, Tarzan and his mother are in full light: Kerchak fears the humans, Tarzan is in love with one.
The golden light influences the whole color palette. These screenshots (.jpg) are deceiving because they are based on a different color profile, the color profile that is used for DVDs leans more towards the red and is generally darker, so if you see these scenes on the DVD the yellow is much more fiery.

Tarzan is almost completely in Kerchak's shadow. The frame is very dark overall.

Kerchak has to straighten up to his full height, to "overwhelm" Tarzan. Now there's no light area on the forehead left.
After running away, he seems to be occupied with himself. We are denied any closer shot of him.

Against Kerchak's warning Tarzan brings his human "friends" to meet his “mother” Kala at dusk. It's no surprise that this scene is using the same type of color palette as the warning. Like the very first scene, the light changes according to Kerchak's emotional involvement.

Humans in light, Kerchak in shadow.
Similar lighting as in the Sabor battle but with warmer colors overall.
It's getting darker, redder and more dramatic..
Tarzan is turning against Kerchak to save Clayton.

Technically, the light would probably not come from high above at this hour, but dramatically this "heaven's light" works very well. In this stark light Tarzan realizes what he has done.

Tarzan is running away once again after a confrontation with Kerchak. A thousand thoughts seem to spin in his head. Visually this fiery place is brimming over with detail. Tarzan's silhouette is almost obscured by the shadows and leaves.
This time he gazes far out to the horizon, we are given a reverse shot
I'm aware that film makers might be surprised what scholars see in their creations. It is entirely possible that many of the things I notice when analyzing were never planned in such a conscious and schematic way as they present themselves. The artists may have just done the scenes the way they intuitively felt was right, or they may have discussed and planned certain aspects over a long period of time.

To me it is important to analyze what there is in the film and not what film makers say they wanted to achieve. However, if I write about a certain composition that it has a dramatic effect, this is based on my emotional perception of that composition and the effect it has on me.
As these posts show, I'm able to write extensively (and not in a negative way) about a film I don't even really like as a whole. This would be different had I chosen to write a movie review and not an analysis of certain aspects.