Thursday, March 24, 2011

Book Review: Color and Light. A Guide for the Realist Painter.

A book by James Gurney, creator of DINOTOPIA.

"This book examines the painter's two most fundamental tools: color and light. It is intended for artists of all media interested in a traditional realist approach, as well as for anyone who is curious about the workings of the visual world." (Introduction, p. 8)

I have rarely seen a book that is as clearly structured and at the same time as thoroughly informative as Color and Light by James Gurney. Even artists who have no interest in realism or oil painting benefit a lot from the extensive knowledge in this book.

Gurney's approach doesn't "contain recipes for mixing colors or step-by-step painting procedures." He sets out to "bridge the gap between abstract color theory and practical knowledge" and succeeds in giving us a set of tools which help us translate our observations into the pictures we're working on.

The book is divided into 10 chapters on specific topics like “Sources of Light” or “Color Relationships”. Each of these chapters is broken down into 6 to 16 double-page spreads devoted to one single subject.

After analyzing some acclaimed realist painting by old masters in the first chapter, Gurney then reverts to his own paintings. That way, without coming across as narcissistic, he is able to explain the thinking behind each picture.
Gurney's illustrations demonstrate that he knows what he talks about.
Limiting himself to just two to four paintings, some explanatory graphics and photographs and one spread per topic, his writing is very focused and precise: always enjoyable, never colloquial. The compressed but easily readable text alone offers a lot to chew over. It contains eye-openers (about color reflections in shadow areas) and reminders of well-known concepts that we too often tend to ignore when working in color (the virtue of using grays and neutrals).

A short 11th chapter summarizes the themes that came up in the previous chapters. The book is rounded off by a “Resources” chapter that contains among other things a guide to “modern, familiar, reliable pigments” and a commented “Recommended Reading” section – each filling exactly one double-page.

No matter whether I’ll be able to successfully incorporate the lessons into my future work, the book has already sharpened my perception and triggered my imagination. What more can I wish?

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Fantastic Mr. Fox: Prolific Limitations: Autumn Colors (5/5) Part II

This will be the final post on Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox for the time being. Here, I will look at how the autumn colors are balanced by gray and where that leaves blue and green which according to the publicity interviews were banned from the film.

This palette is the one Mrs. Fox uses for her thunderstorm and landscape paintings, but it could as well have been the one the art direction team used for the movie.
Autumn Colors
Initially Wes Anderson wanted the whole film to be in mud and dirt colors but eventually settled for a limited palette of autumn leaf colors like yellow, orange, red and brown. Nowadays such an overall tint is often achieved by colored light or color correction in post production to unify all the colors in a shot. But as someone who had a lot of the sets of his previous live-action films painted in flamboyant colors (see screenshots in post 3 and 4) Anderson seems to prefer color concepts that rely more on local (object) colors than on colored lighting. Therefore skin tones remain relatively constant (mostly on the warm side) and the movies themselves are evocative of those glorious Technicolor musicals of the 1930s and 1940s.

Green lighting/color correction unifies the elements in this shot from The Princess and the Frog. Left: original, right: automatically white balanced to see how many hues would come to light.
In Fantastic Mr. Fox, objects are already painted tone-in-tone in the limited spectrum of autumn.
Although all the objects are in autumn colors, the warm lighting simulating the golden hour sky becomes visible when you look at the stones.
left: grass and plant colors; right: stone colors which our brain sees as gray in contrast to the more saturated grass.

At the same time the golden hour lighting and overall warm colors of The Royal Tenenbaums and The Darjeeling Limited evoke the 1970s. This is even taken a step further in this animated film because the autumn color palette is heavily associated with that decade that wasn’t shy of combining dark wooden textures with patterned wallpapers in orange and yellow.

From dirt to dandy: interiors are also in 1970s autumn colors. Note: down-to-earth Mrs. Fox always wears the same dress.

Although Fantastic Mr. Fox deliberately isn’t set in a specific period of time, many elements (songs, the time the book came out, cars, costume and interior design) suggest that the story takes place in a parallel version of England in the 1970s. It’s not just about a family being stuck in the past like the Tenenbaums, Mr. Fox seems to be rather a trend-setting kind of guy. 

Emphasizing Tactility
I have already written about the camouflage or chameleon effect where characters are blending in with their surroundings (color-wise, that is). Here are some more complex examples:
This is my favorite example: Mr. Fox is doubly framed within the frame and his head is approximately the same color as the wallpaper. Kylie on the other hand is outside in front of the wood that is almost of the same gray as his fur. Both have a white spot below their heads (the shirt and the card).

Keeping most of the characters and sets within a limited range of hues (and values) results in a shift of emphasis from color contrast to contrast of materials. This way, the tactile qualities of sets and puppets come into their own.
It’s been widely known that the director insisted on using the actual materials (i.e. real wood, real stones, the same fabric these clothes would be made of in the human world etc.), especially the controversially discussed real fur for the fox puppets. To what extent this has finally been achieved I do not know, but a lot of the materials lend a strange kind of realism to the film.

As we have already seen here, neutral colors are present to balance the autumn hues and prevent our brain from correcting the colors. Even a relatively small gray road highlights the intense (and unnatural) colors of the countryside.
The sewer system in the end is complete devoid of brown and yellow. The animals have adapted from dirt dens to stone caves.
The kitchen of the Bean family is easily recognizable by its creamy, neutral walls. Being the realm of a mean manly woman it’s no wonder there is hardly any warmth in this room. 

Specific Objects
At least since the India themed Darjeeling Limited Wes Anderson seems to like large yellow areas. Apart from the title card, there is a large yellow door that has to be easily identifiable because it is quite important during the showdown. The terrible tractors are also yellow.

The showdown is mainly taking place in a gray environment. The lighting is not as warm as before because the sky is gray. Therefore, the autumn colored objects like the patterned motorcycle stand out in these scenes.
Bean's annex is mostly gray with some objects painted yellow (and red).
The door behind Bean is distinguishable from other yellow doors by the large "21A".
This yellow door is important because the rabid beagle is finally let loose on the humans by opening it.

There are a couple of red props like the artificial bone for the rabid beagle or Kristofferson’s apple cage. 

Isn’t it ironic that a man as lean and gaunt as Bean has his property painted in an “autum colored rainbow”? At least, this pattern is unique and instantly recognizable. 

The Remains of the Spectrum
Although there are no large blue or green areas (at least in the daytime), all the hues of the spectrum can are present in the movie, even purple. But as expected, these only serve as tiny spots of color to contrast and balance the dominating warm hues. They remind us of the orange nature of most of the pictures.
Green props are visible but kept to a minimum.

left: a small green bottle at the bottom; right: liquids of all hues including green and blue.
What other color could poisoned blueberries possibly have?
Since the eyes are where we’re usually supposed to look at, it's not surprising that there is contrast of hue. Mr. Fox and Ash have green eyes, Mrs. Fox and Kristofferson blue.

To emphasize Kristofferson’s outsider status the film makers decided to dress him in light blue. His blue eyes also identify him as a member of Mrs. Fox’ side of the family.

In fact, blue is rather heavily used. Basically, in every night scene the lighting accents it so much that the dark blue sky looks unnaturally saturated. 

Sky Colors and Lighting
After all those local colors, let’s have a look at how lighting and sky colors achieve different moods:
During the prologue, the autumn colors dominate completely, with a late afternoon yellow orange sky.

Right afterwards, the sky is overcast with gray clouds (slightly tinted brown).

We get a whole variety of moods by changing sky colors:

Indoors there is mostly warm light, as we have already seen in many interior shots at the Foxes' home.
The cider cellar is rather dark but illuminated by light shining through yellow cider bottles.
Left: the badger's office, dim warm light sources, rather sober; right: Ash's room: feeble but warm yellow lights.
Outside with the farmers: no blue night sky, just darkness. Bean is taking the lead and holding the lights.

The Bean kitchen, the supermarket or the refrigerating storage house on the other hand are seen in cold light. Overall, there are more objects painted in neutral colors than autumn tones.
Both of these frames highlight the center in warm light. Left: Mr. Fox dancing; right: the cookies (in an unusually strong contrast of value).
The lights in the supermarket resemble those in Mrs. Bean's kitchen we have seen further above.

After the showdown at Bean’s annex, red seems to have vanished from the landscape, with almost all the leaves fallen. This change of seasons culminates in Mr. Fox’ climactic confrontation with the wolf where winter is looming on the horizon. It feels as if they had reached the boundaries of their land of eternal autumn. This winter really feels cold 
left: top autumn, bottom gray; right: bottom autumn, top winter (gray).

Fantastic Mr. Fox is a film of extreme opposites. It is so full of details that it may well overstrain you the first time you see it, yet its formal execution is defined by so many rigid limitations. The geometric compositions appear highly artificial while details and used materials evoke a kind of hyperrealism at the same time. The protagonist’s inner conflict between animal nature and domestication is translated into a very unique style of animation. Much of the laconic humor is based on the combination of deadpan dialogue delivery in scenes of great emotional tension.

A few weeks ago, I have written that on the surface, Fantastic Mr. Fox contained “everything that defines standard Hollywood animation blockbusters”, but that all these elements – family themes, stereotyped animals, star voices, pop songs, side-kicks – were also part of Anderson’s trademark style. In the case of the stereotyped animals, the writer-director even adds an existential dimension by having his characters question their “natural” role in the world.

Looking at Fantastic Mr. Fox in the context of Wes Anderson’s previous films (and not in comparison with current animated features) it seems that it actually represents an advancement in content and style. Regarding content this may be his most stringent film although he still seems to be more interested in the individual scene than the superordinate dramatic arc. Formally all the familiar limitations like understated acting, 90° camera angles and intense colors are applied with a precision that would have been impossible in a live-action film and it all works in favor of the story. If ever he was accused of “style over substance” again, it wouldn’t be for this film.

The story itself is rife with interesting topics like the advancement of city foxes in England and their adaptability to new habitats, the country animals growing dependence on the farmers, a protagonist who comes off as winner although his selfishness is the reason for the misfortune of those who hail him. But all this goes beyond the scope of this analysis. Anyway, I’m already looking forward to what Wes Anderson does next.