Monday, December 6, 2010

Tarzan – Oversaturated but natural colors (1/4)

More than most Disney features Tarzan (1999) strives for visual and dimensional naturalism, especially concerning the anatomically accented title character and the “deep-canvas” inflated jungle setting. To make sure, it all is very stylized but not in an obvious, graphic way.
There are quite a few elements that certainly look more out of place in this context, but that’s not the issue here.
After an introduction to the basic color scheme here, in the next post I look at an early scene that demonstrates the mastery with which the film makers handle subtle mood changes within their "natural” lighting scheme.

If we neglect the many lighting and mood nuances, basically the jungle presents itself either green or blue, depending on time of day.

There’s not much brown in the jungle itself. One could even call it uni-colored green (or blue at night).

Here the healthy green has already been drained of color after a gruesome fight.

In the green environment the characters’ earthlier colors stand out clearly enough (with the side-kick elephant looking unnatural at times).
The young cartoony elephant is integrated by some flowers in the background that pick up his skin color
It’s interesting to see that there’s hardly any contrast of value between elephants, jungle and surrounding water, just contrast of hue basically. 

In fact, there’s almost no untinged grey but several shades of brown. Gorillas and elephants are brown, with gorillas darker towards grey and elephants redder. In daylight, both of them contrast well with their surroundings (if not always completely to my taste, but that’s another story). This ongoing trend towards more saturated/glowing colors seems to have become unjustifiably popular somewhere during the early 1990s. It’s not that there are no muted colors any more, it’s only that when there are muted colors, the whole picture is toned down and not just some of the colors (and vice versa).

So, muted colors are only used for night time, dreary or rainy scenes and not so much for certain parts of “normal” jungle images. It’s very seldom that one character is allowed to stand out the way the red frog stands out here:

had the frog been green like in the storyboard, it wouldn't have signalled danger as easily and it would have been much closer to the night time background color
While red isn’t part of either blue or green, red and orange spots attract our attention. Not very surprisingly, red and orange are most always connected to danger as can be seen in the following screenshots:
You might want to enlarge this image to see the red nose of the mandrill and the red eyes of the dark monkeys. Clayton's scarf is clearly visible, though.

this piece of visual development art depicting the burning ship is taken from the DVD bonus features.
Sabor is a threat to humans and animals alike.

The (potentially dangerous) human world is generally represented by yellow and beige as can not only be seen in the three explorers but also in earlier scenes in Tarzan’s tree house.

These silhouettes remind me of the clown scene in Dumbo also featuring two layers of shadows but applied differently.
The tree trunks in Tarzan's jungle (green, right) and where humans have allowed sunlight to break through by clearing the forest (yellow, left).
Very similar colors like Sabor, note the scarf colors matching the personalities.

Even if we don’t take the cut of the cloth into account, colorwise Jane is very much belonging to the human world (so much for realism... as if anybody would travel the jungle in such a dress). Later on she is seen wearing a green skirt, tying her closer to the jungle and finally brown like Tarzan.
there's still a lot of yellow in the background green, she can't be too far from the camp.

now, she's really in the jungle, less light and less yellow, making her dress stand out even more.
after she has met Tarzan, she is seen wearing a green skirt closer to the jungle, finally she wears a brown one like Tarzan (and the apes, sort of).
in the preliminary art she is still wearing the (yellow?) Victorian costume, in the final frame she's very much adapted to Tarzan. This, by the way, is a good example of red not meaning any danger but just a wonderful effect.

All the color schemes in Tarzan seem to be dictated by “realism” meaning that they are based on reality assumptions like time of day, natural colors of objects and animals and weather conditions. Even though all the colors are fairly oversaturated, this still is a far cry from the artificial cinematic color schemes in What’s Opera, Doc (1957) or even in the more realistically rooted Alice in Wonderland (1951) with red grass and all.
Maurice Noble/Phil DeGuard vs. Mary Blair
What makes Tarzan’s color design fascinating to me is the fact that – like in many Hollywood live-action movies – “realistic” lighting is very precisely utilized for subtle mood changes and emotional development.


Rob said...

Great post! Really interesting to see it laid out! Can't wait to read more

Roland MacDonald said...

Interesing post. Thanks, as ever, for your time and insight. I am learning so much from this blog