Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Red and Green: Merry Rockwell Christmas!

Merry Christmas to all of you!

Typical Rockwell Santa before Sundblom's Coke ads. 
Norman Rockwell is well-known for many a Christmas cover painting featuring Santa Claus. However, he also liked to compose his other pictures around complementary contrasts. To mark the occasion I have compiled ten Christmas covers without Santa Claus that are nevertheless based on red and green.

In Christian color canonization green stands both for mercy and hope. It is therefore no surprise that Christians brought green christmas trees into their homes to celebrate the anniversary of their Redeemer's birth. Especially during the 20th century, red and green have become associated with Christmas to such an extent that any product logo composed of these complementary colors reminds us of christmas.

Nowadays most Americans are aware that their conception of Santa Claus as a red dressed man hearkens back to a series of Haddon Sundblom's ad paintings for Coca Cola starting in 1931 that referred to Thomas Nast's earlier Santa depictions.

If you mix red and green (pigments, not light, that is) you usually end up with a muddy brown that leans toward either of the two colors depending on which dominates the mixture proportionately. For easier study of the color combinations I have added three swatches at the bottom of every painting indicating the tonality of the defining areas of red, brown and green.

Rockwell Christmas Paintings Beyond Santa In Chronological Order

Norman Rockwell seems to have organized his paintings mainly on tonal values and not around the combination of different hues. When it came to color however, it looks like he favored complementary contrasts (possibly because they were less prone to printing deficiencies than analogous color schemes). Many of his magazine illustrations are composed around blue-yellow or red-green complementary contrasts.

In celebration of his Christmas covers, I have gathered ten of his Christmas paintings without Santa Claus that are mainly composed of red and green.

All of these composition are relatively flat and graphical, just look at the three full frontal characters from the 1930s. Before WWII the characters are vividly modelled with strong contrast of values and thus read equally well in black and white. However, he employs high-key lighting in all of the post-war paintings below. Thus, the flat staging is even more conspicuous.

Note: There are always two "originals": the oil paintings and the first print covers (reproducing colors differently). Most of these digitized pictures (below) look probably very different in reality. I didn't adjust white balance or any such thing because I don't have enough knowledge of the printing techniques or paper used for these covers.








This inferior reproduction (above) demonstrates how different colors can influence our perception of an artwork: Gone is the red-green contrast and thus the Christmas allusion. The heightened saturation also minimized the contrast between the brown drawers and the red dress

Friday, December 21, 2012

Dramatic Colors in a Mickey Mouse Cartoon (1/2)

RUNAWAY BRAIN was a Mickey cartoon in the style of 30s monster films and cartoons animated in France. In terms of color this 7-minute short is noteworthy for its use of strong color casts and expressionist lighting that was to become a recognizable feature especially of the French studio's segments for Disney features like THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME or FANTASIA 2000. [UPDATE: the second part of this post is HERE]

There is a certain color sensibility to the Brizzi brothers' work that stood out to me in most of their contributions to feature films ever since I stumbled upon their names in the credits of The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996). Somehow, I have never got around to blogging about it.

But when I saw Andreas Deja's post on Runaway Brain (Chris Bailey, 1995) last week, it dawned on me that this odd little test run for the newly renamed Walt Disney Feature Animation Paris studio was in fact an ideal example to showcase the strongly expressionistic lighting style that came into fashion during Disney's renaissance in the 1990s. The most obvious example of strong monochromatic color schemes for dramatic scenes is probably Pocahontas which was released in 1995 as well.
Highly saturated blue light that affects skin tones and takes a lot of getting used to (Pocahontas, art direction Michael Giaimo).

It turns out that what I perceived as the Brizzis' color sensibility did not originate with them. In fact, Paul and Gaëtan Brizzi were not personally involved in Runaway Brain although it was animated in their former Paris studio they had previously sold to Disney. However, their "sense for the grandiose" resulted in their assignment to highly dramatic scenes that were destined to get the "color cast treatment" as I like to call it.

Pocahontas' visual development artist Ian Gooding served as art director on Runaway Brain while Dave Bossert who is the main force behind Disney's digital restoration process was in charge of the visual effects and overall artistic coordination.

Runaway Brain is mainly inspired by 1930s mad scientist fantasies, the ape villain in Floyd Gottfredson's "Blaggard Castle" and the old body switch routine. For my taste, the pacing is still too fast. Everything reads clearly for sure, but the tempo is not supporting gags in the way of a Looney Tune, instead it just feels like a fast-forwarded conventional story.

This however allowed for a degree of exaggeration in the animation that wouldn't have been attempted in a 1940s Mickey cartoon (from which these character models are borrowed). Although nowhere near as original or specific as in a Clampett cartoon the animation is extraordinarily fluid, polished and expressive. In my opinion, it is highly reminiscent of the animation style taught at GOBELINS.

Consistent Character Colors
Although colored lighting has been in use ever since the 1930s as can be seen in this analysis of the Fleischers' Superman debut, color casts on characters (including skin tones) were relatively rare in Disney features before the 1990s because the Disney color model department apparently adhered to Technicolor guidelines for a longer time than any other studio (as can be seen in this post on character-background color relations).

Once the Mickey Mouse cartoons changed from black-and-white to full color in 1935 creepy scenes and horror spoofs like The Mad Doctor (Dave Hand, 1933) were mostly gone. In fact, the only one that comes to mind is Burt Gillett's Lonesome Ghosts (1937). Thus, I will draw on Ghosts and Brave Little Tailor (Bill Roberts, 1938) for comparison of lighting situations.

No matter whether Mickey is seen in the warm light of his office or in the darkness of a haunted house his clothes and skin tone are hardly affected. Even values are fairly consistent:
Just look how well these characters read against the dark background even though Mickey's "fur" is completely black (Lonesome Ghosts). I really like this so-called "restraint color mode" with primary color accents:

And no matter whether Mickey is relating dramatic events or feels really sad - hue and saturation remain practically identical throughout. Only values are affected by cast shadows:
The sun always shines on Mickey, no matter what happens to him (Brave Little Tailor).
The only expressionist take in these life-threatening situations are looming shadows that are wholly motivated diegetically.
Even within the giant, the hues of clothes and skin are intact. The yellow glow on white gloves is merely a symbolic touch to telegraph rather than simulate the lighting conditions.

It is safe to say that colored lighting was hardly ever used in regular Mickey Mouse cartoons of the Technicolor era. Even dramatic films of the golden age that featured human characters like Snow White (1937) limited expressionism to backgrounds and special effects with very little effect on costumes or skin tones as can be seen in the following screenshots from The Sorcerer's Apprentice (Fantasia, 1940):
The moment Mickey's magic animates the brooms, the lighting changes from cold and dark to warm and bright. The shadows are cast in the same direction, however.

Moody Color Casts

By the mid-1990s, strong color casts were quite common in live-action films. Instead of carefully designing the colors of every single object in a setting, overall lighting and color correction were adjusted to tinge whole shots in shades of one single (primary) color. As can be seen here, these color schemes - often yellow (warm, day) vs blue (cold, night) - resemble silent film toning. Red color casts were (and are) usually reserved for climactic scenes. In contrast to the lighting changes in the Fantasia images above, these color casts affected skin tones as well as anything else within the frame.
Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (Chris Columbus, 2001)
Generally speaking, these same principles can be found in the color design of Runaway Brain where red, magenta and blue color casts enhance the dramatic mood of scenes:

A closer analysis of these scenes will follow  in early January. In the meantime, I try to put up a year-end post about the films that impressed me most in 2012.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Laputa - Castle in the Sky: Red Pirates, Green Soldiers

This will be the first post in a series about complementary contrast based on red and green with this post. Over the course of the next few months, every now and then I try to come back to different examples of color schemes that are built around red and green (mostly film scenes, but also paintings or illustrations). Since we have already been looking at costume colors in Miyazaki's LAPUTA for some time now, my first example will deal with the uniforms of two opposing groups in that same movie.

Analogous color schemes
Let us first look at the pirates who are travelling in a bronze, goose-shaped airship:

As the image above proves, this bronze color is a lowly saturated shade of medium dark red.

The pirates' clothes are dyed in shades of different reds. Among the various reds there is contrast of value (light and dark) as well as saturation (highly saturated headgears vs lowly saturated controls).
The slightly different hues are balanced by dark yellow which is also rather close to red and brown on the color wheel. The harmony in these following images is therefore based on analogous colors:
12-part color wheel according to Johannes Itten (1961)

These analogous colors look warm and fresh in contrast to the blue sky against which they are often seen during flying scenes. Here, they wear gloves, guns and headbands that are closely related to the sky color:

Inside the ship, however, green is used to balance the predominantly red and yellow scheme. It is noteworthy that the green leans towards yellow rather than blue and thus emphasizes the warmth inside the ship.

To simplify orientation, Pazu's side of the table (where the pirates sleep) is still in the darkness while Sheeta's side (she comes from the bright and warm kitchen) is in the light. Because of the curtains there is no outside light leaking in.

Before Sheeta enters Dola's bedroom, her beige nightgown distinguishes her from the pirates. After she comes out, her highly saturated pirates' dress visually ties her to the pirates.

It is worth looking at Dola for a moment: In terms of color, the pirates' mother and outspoken leader is singled out by her dignified dark blue dress that fits her age and maturity far better than the boys' candy colors. Her salmon colored "Pippi-Longstocking" braids not only fit her flamboyance but also connect her to the rest of the pirates. Compared to the boys' clothes there are not only strong contrasts of value and saturation but also of hue (yellow headgear, blue dress) in Dola's clothes.

Unsurprisingly, her room reflects all the colors of her appearance and from the painting on the wall we can assume that Sheeta gets to wear the very harem pants that Dola wore as a young buccaneer.
So far, green has been kept to a minimum, used only in unobtrusive spots to balance the compositions. The whole pirate color scheme is based on neighboring colors - generally dominated by red (and magenta and blue in Dola's case). 

Camouflage and Identification
The less agreeable opponent in the children's race to find the flying city is the army. Before WWI, uniforms were brightly colored for identification and display in the field. Since Laputa takes place in a fictitious Wales around 1900, the uniform design is inspired by such full color tunics that were common before utilitarian camouflage uniforms came into fashion.

Nevertheless, these soldiers look familiar to contemporary audiences because their tunics are "military" green which fulfills modern camouflage requirements quite well. In many of these green-dominated shots and scenes, red spots are used for balance as well as identification of rank.
Camouflage: both the soldiers and their fortress are painted in shades of green and bluish grey. In the image below the red insignia on the general's uniform stand out even more than the yellow parts partly because red spots appear brighter when juxtaposed with the complementary green.

Not only medals but also colored epaulettes indicate different ranks and types of soldiers. Regardless of military hierarchy, the lack of contrasting colors on the lighter green uniforms of the soldiers behind the general makes them seem less important (though also mustached) than the bald general who is obviously reporting to Musca who in turn is characterized by brown throughout the film:

As we have seen in a previous post, Musca's henchmen often blend in with dark bluish grey (and often shady) areas of the background.

But back to the colored epaulettes: the low-rank infantry soldiers's uniforms are balanced by red epaulettes:

As you may have noticed, mustard-colored yellow features prominently on the general's uniform as well. Towards the end of the film, this color is linked to the earthly treasures of Laputa. Visually, the army is very much at home in Laputa's treasure chest:
Military green, mustardy yellow and earthy brown are relatively close on the color wheel. So like the pirates, the army is characterized by analogous colors that are however contrasted by spots of red. 

Complementary Antagonists
Because of their predominately green uniforms we recognize the soldiers even in extreme long shots:

And like differently colored armies on past battlefields, the antagonists are most clearly distinguished by silhouette and color from a distance:

The juxtaposition of red and green uniforms fulfills different functions: Although similarly organized and both pursuing the same objective of finding the flying city, the army and the pirates are clearly antagonists which is visually accented by uniform colors that are diametrically opposed on the color wheel.

Moreover these colors seem "right" on a more intuitive level since we are used to green military uniforms and flamboyantly vested pirates (from Gene Kelly and The Crimson Pirate to Captain Hook). Within the narrative it is no surprise that the pirate colors look more attractive and in keeping with their carefree childlike behaviour Dola's boys are surrounded by candy colors.

Basically, this post was all about contrast of hue. Neither value nor saturation are relevant to discerning pirates from soldiers. Overall, no lighting situation or color cast is visually favoring either red or green. Within the general color scheme they seem to be treated equally (neither the pirates nor the soldiers look foreign to the rest of the film).