Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Bob Clampett: Black Cats in Technicolor (1/3)

 According to most sources Robert Emerson Clampett was born May 8, 1913. In honor of his 100th birthday I will look at the colors in three of his most beloved cartoons involving black cats. The first of these (THE HEP CAT, 1942) is a good example how to apply contrast of hue, value and saturation in favor of a nicely structured color scheme.

You may have noticed that most of my Clampett posts so far have been about some rather particular traits of his films. Since I am aware that there is already a plethora of articles about Clampett's overall style available online (not in print, unfortunately), I try to focus on specific subjects that haven't been analyzed in detail yet.

Limited color palette in THE HEP CAT.
For readers looking for some background information on Bob Clampett, I recommend the once controversial 1969 interview by Michael Barrier and Milt Gray this recent interview with Clampett's daughter Ruth by Chris Lukather as well as Adrian Danks' article "It can happen here! The world of Bob Clampett". There is a wealth of further information on

Colorful Clampett
I used to say that Clampett didn't really know what to do with color when he was finally able to leave the black and white Porky cartoons behind. That is not true, however. More accurately, I should have said that Clampett wasn't too subtle or sophisticated in his use of color as a storytelling device.
But then, with Clampett nothing is ever subtle or sophisticated in the conventional sense of these words. Everything has to be extreme, even outrageous.

There are a few exceptions to this rule, though. His first few cartoons with Avery's color unit work within a strong and beautiful but limited color palette, very unlike the garish and muddled colors of his later masterpieces like BABY BOTTLENECK (1946). I have already mentioned the candy color scheme of HORTON HATCHES THE EGG (1942). In THE HEP CAT and TALE OF TWO KITTIES (1942) his color/background person (most likely Johnny Johnsen) made expert use of a very limited color palette.

John Kricfalusi has already attempted to write about these backgrounds here but soon digresses into other aspects of the cartoon.

Muted Background, Strong Foreground
Harsh contrasts dominate the opining of the cartoon: a black cat is strolling in front of a pale beige moon surrounded by dark blue night:
a typical Clampett character: ambling hind and fore legs look identical.
A-D: background colors; E-H: character colors.
The same basic hues are used for background and character (the feet (E) might have been less pink on the cel). The whole image is based on a duotone scheme of near-complementary colors pale beige and dark blue. The cat's colors are more saturated (H and F) than the corresponding hues in the background (A and D). This is a good example for contrast of saturation.

Characters and background are not only separated by saturation but also by stronger values. As you can see in the following desaturated images, the background is in the middle range overall whereas the characters are near the extremes of black and white:
This difference in contrast of value was quite common - necessary, in fact - in black and white cartoons in order to achieve readable silhouettes. In color cartoons however, we are used to more subtle dark colors than this pitch black cat (Sylvester and Daffy remained pitch-black until today, though). Seen in color, the saturation of the skin colored facial parts stands out more clearly. The strongest elements however are the spots of red that mark the mouths and the femme fatale's slender neck.
More saturated colors are not restricted to characters alone but are also used for foreground objects such as Rosebud's doghouse (why did Clampett include so many out-of-place CITIZEN KANE allusion into his cartoons?).
A-D: doghouse colors; E-H: most saturated versions of red - green scheme.
Brown lies inbetween green and red.
While the backgrounds are basically built around cold and warm grays rooted in pale yellow and blue, the foreground colors are built around the red - green complementary contrast. This makes for a brilliant contrast of hue.

Although most of the night time backgrounds look rather earthy, there is a wealth of different colors. This variety of hues does not distract from the characters because saturation is low and the values are all very close:
upper row: moonlit planks; lower row: planks in shadow.
It is the same with these bricks: since the dog's color is so much lighter and more saturated we don't even notice at first sight that every brick has a different color.

The character colors in Clampett's cartoons are often stereotyped. Cats are pitch-black and dogs and wolves are brown. It is interesting to see that when the cat turns into the proverbial wolf when aroused by the cool female the colors also change to the dog/wolf scheme.
The cat and dog character however differ in almost every instance: even their hand and seemingly white muzzle are colored differently. Since we only have a digitally restored NTSC version of a Technicolor cartoon at hand, it is impossible to say if the dog's muzzle already looked slightly violet. But what we can see is the relation of these colors (which could be digitally tampered as well, of course) and they work well so that we intuitively know even in strange drawings which body part belongs to what character.
However, the downside of keeping the cat completely black like in a monochrome cartoon is that its silhouette can hardly be read in front of backgrounds that are not based on high or middle values (below left). In static camera setups, the layout/background person is able to contrast the visual void that is the cat's body with a slight pool of light.
As we have already seen in the example with the black and white cats above, pure red as a spot of color is a recurring theme within in this cartoon. In fact, it looks like only red is used as a "spot color" which makes for an unusually restrained color scheme (by Clampett standards at least).
The commenting bird is small and seldom on screen. But because it is red and saturated, our eyes are involuntarily drawn to it. The same with the brick: with such a high saturation it contrasts with every other color in the picture and therefore reads very easily.
And as we have seen, the female - and her puppet imitation - is all white with spots of red. The same can be said of the fake love letter attributed to her.

Color Harmony and Drama
After focussing so much on contrast, one should not forget that at the same time color harmony is important to the success of any color design. In the second part of the cartoon, orange and warm yellow become more important.
If you look closely, you can see that there are two different shades of orange.
Although we usually think of orange as a hue in between red and yellow, one could also argue that it is a brightly saturated shade of the same hue as the brown fur of the dog. Therefore, these two colors go very well together, they are part of the same family.

Now that the dog has successfully lulled the cat into believing that his hand puppet (an early reference to Cecil the sea serpent?) was a hot girl, the characters proceed into a less deserted area. While the fences have almost exclusively been illuminated by moonlight until now, artificial light sources start to turn up next to the houses.

The more saturated yellow/orange light of these windows and streetlamps increases the sense of drama.
Beyond the wooden fence a warm light source illuminating a tower building is visible.
The more dramatic lighting becomes obvious when comparing the two silhouette shots in the cartoon: early on, when the cat is wooing the the girl and is given the cold shoulder, the shadows are the product of pale moonlight.
When the dog is chasing the fooled cat, however, the lighting is more yellow, far stronger and more dramatic. This chase culminates in a high angle shot of the fire ladder of the harshly lit tower building the two are about to climb.
While the main impression in this picture (above right) is one of strong contrasts (bright yellow vs. dark purple), the pieces of laundry do not draw our attention away from the staircase because they are all painted in closely related harmonious tones.
Yet, none of these colors (above) are reused when the characters actually hit the clothes line. Here we have green, yellow and orange - colors that are closely related to the dog's brown fur:
Since black goes with virtually anything, the cat fits into any color environment.
Left: laundry colors; right: dog colors.

Limited Cel Colors
I believe that if we looked at actual cels of this cartoon, the two tones of orange (above left) would be identical to the two versions of orange flowers. This observation is very typical of colors in Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies. While the Disney model department used a vast variety of cel paints, the Schlesinger Studio (later Warner Bros. Cartoons) cartoons usually display a very limited range of character colors.* They also tend to favor purer colors - more saturated and closer to primaries and secondaries - than Disney or MGM.

I suspect that this is one of the reasons why so many of these characters are either completely pitch-black, grey or brown. After all, these non-colors go with almost any background. Even when there was no time to avoid black characters in front of dark backgrounds, most of these characters (except for Daffy) have white hands so that their gestures are still comprehensible without seeing most of the silhouette.

But the limitation to colors that are close to "nameable" hues like red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple and the lack of subtler shades may explain why many Warner Cartoons look a lot less impressive than their more expensive contemporaries when it comes to color. Of course, a strong artist like Maurice Noble, Phil DeGuard or Hawley Pratt could turn these limitations into assets. And whoever was responsible for the color design of this cartoon did a great job integrating the few cel colors with the infinitely available background colors.

As we will see in Clampett's next cartoon, TALE OF TWO KITTIES, a similar color scheme is structured even more clearly around two black cats in pursuit of a naked bird with a characteristic speech impediment. 

* At least, due to the production process, the colors change slighty from shot to shot. Just think of how sterile these cartoons would look, if they were colored by a computer!


Thiago Levy said...

Amazing article! Thank you very much!

Joshua Marchant (Scrawnycartoons) said...

Really great article! The Hep Cat is a beautiful cartoon thanks in no small part to the color.
Your analysis was amazing! I never noticed little things like the great contrast of the cat against the moon, the use of red, the two different shades of orange flowers and all the differently colored bricks. When you begin to analyze these cartoons you realize that no decisions were arbitrary.
Also, I like that Clampett caricature at the top! Did you do that? Nice to see people getting into the spirit of Clampetts centennial!

Oswald Iten said...

Yes, I've done the caricature at the top. However, after posting it, I suddenly noticed an unintended similarity to Gaston from Beauty and the Beast, one of my least favorite Disney characters...