Tuesday, May 17, 2016

MAD MAX: FURY ROAD - Soundtrack Analysis - Video Essay

My following soundtrack analysis including the three clips was first published in the Swiss film magazine filmbulletin in German. Since voice-over narration would have obscured the very object of sound analyses, the video essay is broken down into three segments that are each preceded by written text. It was originally written and edited in February 2016, shortly before the crew of MAD MAX: FURY ROAD received their well-deserved Academy Awards for best achievements in "Sound", "Editing" and "Sound Editing" among others.

Creation of a Sound World

The illusory effect of modern blockbusters is often rather based on a close sound-image relationship than on realism of content. Thus, in George Miller's MAD MAX: FURY ROAD sounds, voices, even music appear to be organically anchored within the visual world we see, when in fact they were created as far away from the images as the initial car engine sound compared to the Warner Bros. logo it accompanies. As long as audiovisual synchronicity is preserved, we (the audience) accept quite absurd sounds as realistic depictions of a fictitious world.

To me, Miller's post-apocalyptic action film is fascinating exactly because of its virtuosic and single-minded audacity in sketching such a world by means of a gigantic two-hour car chase. According to supervising sound editor Mark A. Mangini, the fact that the soundtrack (that was carefully constructed over a period of two years) is every bit as rich as the film's much lauded visual language, is due to the unusually collaborative atmosphere under the septuagenarian director.

Although because of engines and wind machines, almost none of the meticulously recorded production track made it into the finished film, Ben Osmo's gargantuan miking concept was necessary for Miller to monitor the acting. Apart from that, every phrase of dialogue had to be reconstructible in post production. The actual performances were later created in a lengthy ADR process during which the dialogue was cobbled together word for word from different takes by Kira Roessler and her team.

Acoustic Subjectivity
While the voice of Charlize Theron's rebellious Furiosa sounds authentic for the most part, Tom Hardy's booming mumble appears strangely detached from the image. This highlights how the tonal integration of a voice into its sonic surroundings shapes our impression of filmic reality. Especially during the sparse conversations with Furiosa, Max's highly compressed baritone becomes irritating precisely because the soundtrack tries to force us into accepting Max as the hero protagonist by focusing on his subjective perception, when in fact we consider him as a stowaway in Furiosa's story.

Sharing Max' visions
And yet, in their scenes together, we clearly share the point of view of Max who has been degraded from "road warrior" to a war boy's "blood bag". This is particularly evident during his flashing visions that are accompanied by loud undefined sound objects. Equally effective if considerably subtler, manipulations of ambient noise communicate Max's subjective perception during his gradual unshackling.

The "resurrection scene" after the sand storm is a real masterpiece of sound design by David White*: After a moment of total silence, Max slowly rises while the grains of sand vividly trickle past his - and our - ears, until a swelling droning noise that vaguely resembles the sound of emerging from water grows into irregular pulse beats. The tension is finally released in an alleviative hissing sound when the blood hose is pulled out of his neck.

Although many approaching noises would long be audible in the open desert, time and again, we only hear them when Max notices them. The firing of guns next to Max's head results in momentary deafness and a piercing ringing in our ears while the same action does not affect our perception when it happens close to Furiosa's head. But instead of telling us that she is a tougher character, this simply tells us that we do not share her perspective to the same degree as we share Max's.

Rhythmical Punctuation
Subjectively fading ambient sounds are skillfully utilized to increase shock effects as well as already anticipated explosions. Likewise, the soundtrack accentuates individual cuts with striking sounds and drum beats. When war boy Nux is "struck" by Immortan Joe's glance, for example, a meaty rattle emphasizes the very jump cut that visually conveys Nux's excitement.

The extent to which sound editor Mangini collaborated with the Dutch composer Tom Holkenborg aka JunkieXL is especially evident in a seemless transition from beating noises to drumbeats: Furiosa first hits her war rig with a wrench. Imperceptibly, these beats are then picked up by extradiegetic drums the speed of which was retroactively adjusted to the sound design by the composer. Later, Holkenborg's synthetical "Brothers in Arms" - itself composed of samples that blur the line between music and noise - is triggered by an abrupt arm-gesture of a furious motorcycle warrior.

When Holkenborg joined the production of MAD MAX, the director only wanted to have diegetic music that emanated from the Doof Warrior's mobile battle band. Yet, the composer argued Miller into using an external score by submitting his ideas as musical sketches that could be used as a temp score. Thus, the Doof Warrior's guitar riffs (composed and added in post-production) are indeed remixed to match the spatial position of the fire-breathing guitar. However, they are also interwoven with the continuous rhythms of the action scenes.

Multi-instrumentalist Holkenborg creates his rhythm-based tracks by layering self-made sounds and drum samples directly in a three-dimensional sonic space**. His brand of repetitive rhythm patterns, multiplied bass lines and a general preference for sound modulation over melody and harmony reveal his former association with Hans Zimmer's Remote Control Productions.

Leitmotif Sounds
While Max's survival instinct to which he seems to be reduced in the first act is expressed by a brute cello note, Furiosa's determination is accompanied by a kind of heartbeat the elements of which suspensefully drift apart when the war rig enters the canyon. Hence, Furiosa's initial fight against Max feels like a tuneless ballet choreographed and edited to a rhythm of tonally varied drum beats and synchronous hitting sounds.

Only after Furiosa discloses the motivation for her rebellion to Max, a music-box-like Adagio emerges from the viola section. Holkenborg orchestrates this melancholy theme for strings with added bass in a chordal*** way and brings it into full bloom as "Many Mothers". Where musical sounds distinguish the human characters, the cars are stylized into organic creatures by sounds recorded and created by Oliver Machin and Scott Hecker.

When the Russian speaking "Buzzards" attack Furiosa's war rig with buzz saws, their spikey vehicles buzz metallically. The war rig itself is provided with a leitmotif sound that resembles the take off of a helicopter. The truck's engine noise, however, always conforms to the mood of the passengers. Occasionally, it is hardly audible during quiet dialogue scenes.

As a reference to Captain Ahab and Moby Dick, Mangini synchronizes Immortan Joe's self-destructive hunt for the war rig with whale sounds. For instance, when milk is squirting from harpooned holes, we hear fountains from a whale's blowhole. Eventually, the destruction of the war (accompanied by the pathos of "Walhalla Awaits") is dubbed almost exclusively with animal sounds instead of engine noises. At this point, we are so immersed in the story, that we never even question the origins of those sounds and accept them as purely diegetic.

* however difficult it may be to credit specific people within this team effort, the "resurrection scene" has been ascribed to David White in more than one interview (SoundWorks Collection).
** see Holkenborg's detailed process in a series of official videos.
*** "melody with chords" as opposed to "counterpoint".

Music: Tom Holkenborg aka JunkieXL
Production Sound Mixer: Ben Osmo
Vehicle Effects: Oliver Machin
Supervising Dialogue Editor: Kira Roessler
Sound Designer: David White
Supervising Sound Editor: Mark A. Mangini, Scott Hecker
Sound Re-recording Mixer: Chris Jenkins, Gregg Rudloff

External links:
Ben Osmo interview (videoandfilmmaker.com)

Mark A. Mangini interview (scpr.org)

Interesting aspects of MAD MAX on my companion blog

Friday, May 6, 2016

Sumptuous Costume Colors: A Fairy Tale (Part 5/5)

In this concluding chapter of the series I finally return to SLEEPING BEAUTY (1959) that inspired me to write about Disney costume colors in the first place. This analysis also serves as a rough summary of what was discovered during the process and why I think that SLEEPING BEAUTY is the crowning achievement when it comes to analogous color schemes.

A Fairy Triad
Unlike its stunning visual and musical presentation, the formal structure of SLEEPING BEAUTY is rather undecided about too many key elements. It is even disputable whether Aurora is the protagonist. In my opinion, the plot is about three middle-aged guardian fairies fighting a bad apple (Maleficent*) within their own ranks.
Like many protagonist trios in previous Disney films, Flora, Fauna and Merryweather are each identified by one distinct hue. Together they form a triad of orange, green and blue.

While the primary triad of red, blue and yellow dominated during the 1940s, the choice of secondaries orange and green reflects the more sombre tone of the film. Keeping the fairy costumes basically in different shades of each basic hue has two advantages:
1) we can clearly identify them even when they are mere light spots or stand very far away in vast long shots that took advantage of the 70mm format.

2) their silhouettes are clearer inside the castle because the stylized backgrounds do not provide too much empty space for negative shapes to read. Instead the fairies are often staged against highly detailed textures and patterns in colors similar to their costumes. Sometimes not even the Disney doctrine of "light characters against dark backgrounds and vice versa", which ensures that characters still read in black and white, is obeyed.
The backgrounds in the throne room are often reflecting the fairies' colors quite closely: orange, green and blue.
The level of detail in SLEEPING BEAUTY is so high that in some scenes shadow or glow layers are added on top of these detailed costume designs:

When the fairies decide to hide Aurora in the forest cabin they transform themselves into plain old maids with headscarves instead of pointy hats. Their colors remain the same but the accents are different: Merriweather's black corset and an emphasis on the desaturated browns of Flora's costume provide more visual variety that is possible because the earthly cabin interior is much more unobtrusive than the castle.

Olive green Fauna has not changed all that much. In fact, she was more of a follower in the first place. And now that she is in an environment where her clothes only stand out because they are more saturated, she looks even less dominant.
Fauna seems to be especially at home in the cabin. Even the props are in analogous colors.

Aurora or Briar Rose, as they call her, looks really at home in this simple cabin. In fact, her appearance is so devoid of color that even the dark violet cloak stands out. The strength of her beautiful outfit lies in the strong contrast of value (black, white and two distinct shades of gray) and the subtle contrast of warm blonde hair and rosy skin against a cold gray shirt. In addition, her gray dress is not related to any of the fairies' colors.

Unusual for Disney films of the period, there is even a distinctive color scheme for night scenes instead of just darker versions of the same basic hues. Here, the fairy costumes are integrated into their surroundings like in more contemporary films.
Night time schemes in disguise (top) and as fairies (bottom).
Given that the relatively plain fairies wear such detailed costumes, how could the clothes of the royal family look more sumptuous?
The answer is relatively simple: add gold and more contrast. Contast is created in two ways: 1) broader variety of values, adding significant areas of pure black to the kings' coats. 2) broadening the spectrum of analogous hues. A combination of distinct orange and yellow for King Stefan. About the same range from purple to blue for Queen Leah but without the black parts to make her look softer.

Medieval illustrations often show similar colors (orange/blue, black/gold) and patterns.

Another inspiration for SLEEPING BEAUTY's style might have been stained glass windows from different periods.
The implementation of gold, however, is not so simple. After all, every color in SLEEPING BEAUTY was allegedly desaturaged by adding black to achieve that medieval look Eyvind Earle was after. The overall color style eliminates both the shiny depiction we have seen in THE GOLDEN TOUCH (1935) as well as the warm saturated yellow of the harp in FUN AND FANCY FREE (1946).
Shiny gold with gloss and shade in 1935 (left) and fragmented in 1946.
The gold in SLEEPING BEAUTY never feels warm and glowing.
Since human color perception is almost exclusively based on relativity, we do accept the greenish-gray, that is actually a darkened yellow, to be gold. The most striking example of this stylized approach is the chalice the shiny effect of which is achieved by accentuated contrast between dark and bright segments. Since everything is desaturated by black, gold is, too. In fact, these tones are a lot closer to real golden colors in medieval paintings.
top row: actual colors of chalice, bottom: respective hues.

Real medieval gold color, again balanced by orange and blue.
Even grouped together the fairies and the royals are distinctive insofar as the clearly differentiated fairy triad does neither include yellow nor purple. The royals, on the other hand, do not wear anything green at all. Their overall impression is of a rather opulent palette of analogous colors ranging from blue over magenta to orange and yellow, partly separated by deep blacks.

The group of fairies next to the group of royals opposed to the powers of evil.*
top row: the royal costumes are all based on these colors; bottom row: corresponding hues to actual colors.

Left: the range that is covered by the royal group; vs right: the fairy triad.
The funny thing is that the drunk lute player exhibits all the same characteristics as the kings: black pieces of clothing, clear contrasts and analogous colors ranging from green to orange. The patterning makes his clothes look decidedly less elegant, though. In fact, he looks more like an ornament. And more important, there are no golden hemlines and regalia.
King Hubert's shades of orange are reinforced by large spots of contrasting blue. This color connects him to his son Phillip who is but a boy when Aurora is christened. Phillip's monochrome blue costume is balanced by a red feather. As we have seen earlier, analogous color schemes are often balanced by such small spots of complementary or negative colors.
Orange and blue for Hubert and his son Phillip.

Father and son: the spot color of one is the main color of the other.
Feathers in contrasting colors to balance the costume precede SLEEPING BEAUTY.

Phillip's feather might be a hint at what was withheld so far from the film: red as a costume color is retained until we see the prince as an adult. Since red (the strongest hue to human perception) appears even more luminous when surrounded by muted green, Philipp's appearance in the gray-green forest makes quite an impact. It is also in keeping with art history and Technicolor "consciousness" to use red - considered the most precious color - very sparsely for important objects or scenes.
Looking closer at the hues of Phillip's overall appearance including skin tone and saddlecloth, I was quite surprised, that ALL of his costume colors are closely related to red:
Top row: actual colors, bottom row: respective hues.
Whether this was as carefully planned all along by the artist responsible for the color model or whether the colors were fine-tuned during the digital restoration process is not known to me. But it certainly fits into the monochromatic as well as the royal concept. Except that there is no gold. But after all, that is exactly the point: Aurora does not recognize the beautiful hunter as the prince he is.

While her attention is called to Phillip's red cape through the play-acting of her monochromatic animal friends, the prince's extremely desaturated costume colors match Aurora's quite exquisitely in their first real encounter.
Meanwhile the scenes revolving around the fairies' practical and magical powers revert to two concepts that were visible in the more experimental films analyzed in chapter II. Costumes in analogous colors were often put together with gradually descending values: brightest piece of clothing near near the neck, darkest more down to earth. The costumes in SLEEPING BEAUTY are less predictable as can be seen from the different value and saturation patterns of the three fairies.
"Values" are referring to brightness on the gray scale.
In Part II we have seen a tendency to arrange colors in rainbow order. Such a concept seems to be at work in this shot of Aurora's woodland friends.

Therefore, the arrangement of hues in rainbow order (like in the images above) does feel out of place in the sophisticated medieval themed stylings of SLEEPING BEAUTY, even when it comes to the princess' obligatory woodland friends. Nevertheless, when it comes to Aurora's coming-of-age dress, the colors converge dangerously close to 1950s American tastes. Flora and Merryweather carry those fabrics that are most closely related to their own costume and in Merryweather's arms they are arranged in ascending order from violet to pink.
orange, purple, violet, blue: rainbow order
Top: Pink with scattered spot colors, bottom: streamlined shades of pink.

Judging from the monstrosity above, Flora is not the seamstress she thinks she is. So finally, the fairies break their vow and use their wands instead. When magic comes into play, the colors - not to mention the design - become more streamlined. The broader range of hues from violet to pink with spots of blue and greenish yellow is replaced by one single hue (magenta) with a similar dispersion of values as Aurora's gray country dress. Once the wands are out, however, colors are subject to change. Whether blue or pink, the values stay the same.

Both versions are closely related to Prince Phillip's red and blue as well as to Queen Leah's dress that ranges from blue to pink (soft red in itself). Intuitively, the queen looks older than Aurora because the colors of her costume look darker and less saturated. Interestingly, the pink dress looks decidedly more sugar-coated and out of place than the blue one and does not fully match the overall color styling.

Aurora matches both her mother and Phillip because all the "group colors" are in between red and blue.

I have always wondered whether the final vanity battle between Flora and Merryweather was reminiscent of the fact, that the traditional light blue had recently been replaced by pink (light red) as the symbolic color of innocence and girlhood. For a long time, pink (the "small" i.e. light version of strong red) had been the designated boys' color.
Magic also provided the artists with the opportunity for one of the rare instances of expressionist colors reminiscent of the experiments with colored lights in THE THREE CABALLEROS (1944). It starts when Maleficent's* luring green ball casts the whole room in green light and thus affects not only Aurora's costume but also her skin tone which was unusual even in live-action Technicolor films at the time.

Looking at the long shot more closely, we can see that there are still some fabrics that are so orange that they are not too much affected by the green light source and provide enough contrast to reinforce the green tint.
Top: original green image; bottom: I have digitally "divided" the green light emitted by the ball in order to see the colors without the tint.
Whereas this is simply colored lighting very common in today's motion pictures, the more interesting part comes when the fairies try to alleviate Maleficent's* doing by putting the whole royal suite to sleep. This time, the green tint of magic transforms the whole frame into a near monochromatic image that resembles the tinting of silent movies. As you can see, there are some colors that are less affected, keeping the impression of color film rather than tinted black and white.

But then towards the end, expressionist contrast is achieved by keeping the fairies themselves wholly unaffected by their green "slumber light". This is strikingly obvious, when orange Flora flies by King Hubert's head and both his skin and his orange coat are green. The unexpected part here are the balancing blue parts of Hubert's costume. I would love to see how those frame enlargements looked on an original Technicolor print as opposed to the digitally enhanced versions available today.
It is also noteworthy that the fairies are most often painted in their daylight colors when they are flying at night. That strengthens the impression that they are emitting light themselves and certainly makes it far easier to identify them in long shots.

After all, the main advantage of the clearly defined "fairy triad" of orange, blue and green is clear readability against highly detailed backgrounds and when characters are dwarfed by their surroundings. So with this, we have come full circle back to the pictures of aristocrats entering the castle that initiated this series.

Red/orange, green and blue dominate, warm yellow is absent in favour of yellowish-green. Most of the characters consist of a broader range of analogous hues than the almost unicolored fairies, giving the impression of more realistically random colors. And although the composition thwarts the danger of clutter by grouping characters based on analogous color schemes, in extreme long shots, individuals are never arranged next to each other in fake looking rainbow order.

At the risk of merely stating the obvious, in this series I have aimed at tracing a predominant Disney concept to simulate sumptuous textures despite flatly painted surfaces. Yet, Disney's three fairy tale features SNOW WHITE, CINDERELLA and SLEEPING BEAUTY, however dated their attitudes, still have a lot more in store to savor and learn from with regard to color.

* I have deliberately ignored Maleficent and many of the other villains so far because there is enough to write about them in a separate post some other day.

Note: In most cases, I am not able to tell who selected what color with what intention. In short, the thinking that went into a certain composition or color concept can never be proven. But what really matters is what we actually see in a film. Thus, my attempt is to analyze how colors impact our perception of a given composition and why this is so. The ultimate goal then is to see if overarching concepts can be extracted that broaden our understanding and use of color as a storytelling device.

Caveat: all screenshots are taken from DVD/BD releases that most certainly differ in various ways from what we used to see in Technicolor film prints.