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.


Anonymous said...

I love dialogue heavy French films, which is why I don't like most things past 1950. Actually there are a number of dialogue heavy American films that are classics from this time period as well. I guess in cinema I prefer dialogue over design, since I have a degree in painting, and I don't consider visuals in film truely an art form.

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