Sunday, January 25, 2009

Jazz Cartoons on the Big Screen

January was a lot busier than expected and blogging had to take a back seat for a while. The other reason for the lack of posts recently is that at the moment I'm more involved with live-action than animation. On the one hand I am co-writing on a treatment for a feature film. On the other hand I'm going through many of the 29 theatrical features directed by Clint Eastwood because I'm involved in putting together a small retrospective of Eastwood's directing career of the past 20 years.

But now for something completely different: If you happen to be in the area of Zürich (Switzerland) this week, don't miss Jazz Cartoons Part II on Tuesday, January 27th 2009 at 6:15 pm. The Filmpodium is showing the following classic cartoons in 16mm:

Three is A Crowd
Dir: Hugh Harman, Rudolf Ising, USA 1932, 7 Min., sw
Organ Grinder
Dir: Hugh Harman, Rudolf Ising, USA 1933, 7 Min., sw
Shuffle Off to Buffalo
Dir: Hugh Harman, Rudolf Ising, USA 1933, 6 Min., sw
Three Orphan Kittens
Dir: Walt Disney, USA 1935, 9 Min., color
Speaking of the Weather
Dir: Frank Tashlin, USA 1937, 7 Min., color
Wholly Smoke
Dir: Frank Tashlin, USA 1938, 7 Min., sw
A Star Is Hatched
Dir: Fritz Freleng, USA 1938, 8 Min., color
Juke Box Jamboree
Dir: Alex Lovy, USA 1942, 6 Min., sw
One Froggy Evening
Dir: Charles M. Jones, USA 1955, 6 Min., color
Mud Squad
Dir: Art Davis, Fritz Freleng, David H. DePatie, USA 1971, 6 Min., color
Señor Droopy
Dir: Tex Avery, USA 1948, 8 Min., color

In Switzerland, such 16mm screenings are rare occasions, but whenever there is one, the name Theo Zwicky (a.k.a. Mr. Jazzfilms) is involved in one way or the other. Zwicky is an ardent collector and admirer of all things jazz and song and dance short movies of that era in particular. Jazz Cartoons Part I about ten days ago was absolutely magnificent and I must write about it some day soon.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Color in 101 Dalmatians: 4. There's no place like London

Location-wise 101 Dalmatians can be divided into two parts: London (familiar ground) vs. the countryside (unknown territory). After spending so much time with interiors I’d like to finally focus on the London exteriors in order to complete the analysis of this part of the film. I’ll visit the countryside (and Hell Hall) in upcoming posts.

There are basically two locations within London: The street in front of the protagonist’s house (two different streets actually, but treated equally) and Regent’s Park nearby. During the twilight bark we see additional random places around the city which ultimately lead to the countryside for the first time. Then there are a couple of establishing shots from high above. In fact, the establishing of London already starts during the opening credits.

We see several stereotyped images such as the red phone booth, a double-decker bus, Big Ben and the Tower Bridge. Rivers are an integral part of the story serving both as continuous connections over vast distances (London and the countryside) and as obstacles (Pongo and Perdi have to cross icy rivers, Roger and Anita fall into the pond, symbolically they have to cross bridges).

As with the interiors, London is established in rather diffuse white light that brings out the “natural” colors of everything we see. I think it is most admirable when an art direction team manages to make everything look natural while adhering to a strongly restricted color palette. As the story sets in on a “beautiful spring day”, there is a lot of fresh green foliage. Later on, the colors change most obviously depending on weather and time of day.

In almost all the urban layouts strong verticals and horizontals are emphasized to give the backgrounds an architectural impression. This prologue (like the kitchen scene described here) is also a good example of the flat theatrical staging that is a major part of this film’s production design. We also see that Regent’s Park is just across the street to the left.

Coming back to colors, just look at the sky: Unlike most recent features that almost always show a Southern Californian blue sky to suggest nice weather, here we have a cloudy gray and most importantly no airbrushing. The far away houses are far bluer in accordance with aerial perspective.

Sixth months later (already past summer), there are less leaves on the trees. Some of the trees (behind the house) have already lost all of their foliage. The pillar box that helps us recognize the Radcliffes’ house is seen for the first time and therefore it is naturally red. However, it appears to be desaturated in comparison to Cruella’s car.

After Sequence 02 we never see London in daylight anymore. So the pillar box is henceforth seen in blue light because it is part of the “cold” setting as opposed to the “warm” light emitted from the windows. As we have already seen, the Dalmatians themselves are seldom affected by hue changes.
When the puppies are stolen, the trees are leafless, the sky is muddy and judging from the reflections it seems to have rained before.

In Sequence 09 there is fog everywhere and the whole set of backgrounds is painted differently (more classically Disney) from the rest of the film. As we will see the two-tone scheme is even more restricted here. In fact, color-wise the façade looks the same here and in the final shot, only with fog instead of snow.

The Prologue

Although the setting is limited to a flat brick wall, what at first looks like random muted colors behind characters seems to be rather well thought-out. Storywise there is a progression of about four stages: The first person Pongo sees is a shuffling artist (“unusual breed”) who resembles Roger’s own personality way too much (big nose, hunchback, untidy). She’s also too much into her art, not even having eyes to see what’s going on around her. Note also that her clothes and hair are in the same color as Roger’s coat and gilet. Just imagine how an apartment with two messy artists would look like…
Next we have a pair Pongo calls “a little too short coupled” (pug), followed by a “fancy breed” (poodle). These two are farther away from what he’s looking for in respect of their type, but at least they are of roughly the same age as Roger.
The following pairs are worse, because they are also too old (lady on the bicycle) or too young (yellow girl with lollipop).

While all of these human types are mirror images of their dogs, the pair of passive Roger and active Pongo is far more interesting because they complement one another. It is only much later that they finally get their look-alike shot.

All these women and their dogs are basically painted in shades of one hue, sometimes balanced by a spot color. I think the “much too fancy breed” with the poodle is an aristocratic reflection of Cruella: She seems to be into fashion and even wears a coat that seems to be made out of poodle fur.

But suddenly Pongo sees Perdi (his gaze zooming right in on her, quickly eliminating Anita from the frame). Up to now, the sidewalk and the wall were roughly the same muted turquoise and beige in all the backgrounds (close ups and long shots). However, Anita and Perdi are set against a darker turquoise wall. This new background is painted from and overlaid with the same layout as the other one. The red pillar box that beautifully balances the green lamp posts is far more saturated in the Perdi-background, it is hardly seen though. Together with the natural grace of both characters this color change to a more uniform hue that is actually darker than both characters helps us see them in a different light than the previous ones. On an artistic level I’d say that this is the very first expressionistic use of color in this film.

While all the women wear hats and carry something under their arm, Anita’s decent gray costume is greatly enhanced by a large yellow flower on her hat. As the brightest spot this attracts our attention and serves as a nice contrast to the dark blue-gray wall behind her. Right down to the collar, blue is the color most strongly associated with Perdi. Just think of the brick wall in the kitchen where Perdi is hiding under the stove (decent women exposed as objects and connected to a kitchen by a gazing male protagonist would make for a field day for feminist film theory, don’t you think?).

Now at the latest, it becomes clear that the main interest in 101 Dalmatians can’t be romance. Unlike in Lady and the Tramp, the lovers here are of equal species and class, so this is not about crossing boundaries or the domesticating of a libertine. There’s simply no possibility for conflict except maybe Roger’s untidiness which becomes less important after they move to a larger apartment.

While Anita and Perdi leave for the park, the flat theatrical staging is opened up and we finally get a deeper composition. This change from flat to deep staging can be seen in several scenes throughout the film. The colors along the way change according to the overall effect. Pongo is back in the reality and realizes that he will lose his chance if he doesn’t get Roger to follow them. Therefore the surroundings are back to normal with houses painted in desaturated shades of red and green.

The establishing shot of the park emphasizes the bluish green trees as opposed to warm and cold neutral tones present everywhere including the sky. Accordingly, the red pillar box and dust bin are in the shadow and do not draw our attention from the characters entering the park.

In the very first post we have seen green as the color of Roger’s bachelor apartment. But it also serves as the unifying color of the whole first sequence. In terms of color, Regent’s Park is nothing more than an outdoor extension of Roger’s flat. Apart from neutral grays and browns, the neighboring colors blue and yellow are equally spread indoors and out in the park. Once the story has kicked in, there won’t hardly be any green outside because it’s always night or snowing. This way, a color that is linked to Roger’s bachelor life is easily eliminated.

Again, all things are painted in their most stereotyped colors: water is blue, daffodils are yellow. And again there are certain restrictions in the planning that make for pleasant color schemes. The yellow that has been established by Anita’s flower is again seen in the park when Pongo mistakes the woman with the pug for Anita. Only after they have crossed the brigde there are yellow daffodils all over the place, particularly next to the women.

Anita is sitting in the shadow, so it seems completely natural that the flower on her hat is darker and less saturated than before. After all, her face is the center of this shot and therefore it is the brightest area in the frame.

There are a lot of continuity errors during this scene that go unnoticed. The most peculiar one certainly is Anita’s book changing into a purse by the time she falls into the pond. This happens very naturally because the purse looks and can be opened like the book.
I think it’s noteworthy that once they are in the park (like in the apartment before), there are no red objects except for the leash. Surrounded by all the complimentary greens the leash is always perfectly visible. In the end, it is this very prop that brings Roger and Anita physically together.

By the way, this movie contains several text book examples of “planting”: Pongo’s habit of twining the leash around people’s legs is already shown when Roger stands on the bridge watching the artist. More subtly, Pongo is stepping into the pond shortly before the humans fall into it. This way, we are reminded of the “dangerous” water on the right offscreen. In this shot we also see how well the couple’s clothes’ colors match and that they are closely related to surrounding colors (green and brown).

The Twilight Bark: some subtle adjustments

Sequence 07: As we have seen earlier, male skin tones (Pongo, the Baduns, Roger) are slightly darker than their female counterparts. This is generally adhered to even against other concepts like aerial perspective which implies that objects farther away from the camera should look bluer and lighter (less contrast of value) than closer ones. On a compositional basis the main point of interest normally is in the brightest area, because our eyes tend to be drawn to the brightest spot first (coming right after movement within the frame), usually the area of most detail or contrast.

As far as character styling goes, I think that several details – whether chosen consciously or just expressing gender perception at the time – are re-inforcing the notion that Pongo is the protagonist. Although it could be argued that Pongo and Perdi are equally bland Dalmatian prototypes, I think that Pongo - apart from being male and therefore bigger and more angular - is a stronger design simply because of his black ears and red dog collar. The black ears read better against the face and thus are more expressive than white ones. Furthermore they enhance the contrast within the face. The red collar on the other hand stands in contrast to almost every background in the film.

Even at twilight when all the surroundings tend to look either grey or blue, the desaturated red provides more contrast than Perdi’s blue collar. Perdi on the other hand is always closer to the camera because she’s usually one step behind and thus would be obscured by her bigger husband. To come back to skin tones: Pongo is doubtlessly the only active character in this scene, so in the establishing shot, he is slightly brighter than Perdi. In the following shots however his usual darker “white” is restored. But this time he is seen against the lighter, more saturated sky and therefore his darker color provides a slightly stronger contrast. Interestingly, the leash is not red anymore, probably because it is not important.

Although we’re in the same Regent’s Park as before there are hardly any traces of green left, the foliage has gone and the grass is almost in complete darkness. Of course it is night and the streetlamps don’t illuminate their surroundings too much. Compared to the earlier establisher, the reaction shot of the city (we hear dogs barking in response) shows more detail, stronger contrast and higher saturation because, this time, the background and not a character is what we should look at.

Although everything looks rather blue-gray during this twilight sequence, different materials are generally painted in different hues. So The Great Dane (aka Danny) is discernible mostly because of his brown fur while the trees are blue-gray and make for a better contrast between background and character.
The small dog can be seen clearly because he is far brighter than anything else including the milk bottles that make for a nice comparison of sizes. Although his eyes are often covered by hair, we are immediately drawn to that area because (apart from wonderfully frantic animation) the bushy brows are brighter than anything else.

The transition from park to inner city is seamlessly created by having first a house with a large garden and fencing, then a long pan to a corner house with some gardening utensils lying around that is connected by a rain pipe (including two cheat cuts) to a penthouse with no green except the artists painting and the window shutters - the artist still seems to be in her green bachelor stage. Through all this, pale yellow windows are present that hardly suggest warmth inside the houses. Far from being bold concepts, such unobtrusive color choices in throwaway backgrounds are an important part of what makes classic Disney features worth studying in my opinion.

During the twilight bark there are some closely linked cameo appearances of characters from Lady and the Tramp as well as extras from earlier in the film. While we obviously should recognize the extras that are played for a smirk, the Lady characters, particularly the two protagonists, are carefully disguised because they are either there for cheap re-use or as in-jokes that shouldn’t break the spell for most audiences. In this light I don’t think that it’s by accident that Jock (the black dog in the recreated pan above) is in the darkest corner. Nevertheless, he gets a closeup right afterwards but stays in the dark.

The artist and her Afghan stand out from the blue surroundings particularly because of their brown colors established in the beginning (and not affected by outside light). Peg and the bulldog in the pet shop window however are surrounded by generic Dalmatian designs without spots painted in neutral greys and browns in an equally desaturated surrounding. Again there is no warm light inside any of the visible windows. The pet shop even looks unlighted.

Then the “much too fancy breed” with the poodle is seen driving through (almost in silhouette) in a Rolls Royce that resembles a more dignified version of Cruella’s expensive sportscar. While the poodle is staged against light blue windows, the woman in the backseat is only visible because her face and hair are painted in the same bright way as in the prologue. In keeping with the color design of the fancy lady the neon signs here are all in pastel colors (primarily pink, another allusion to Cruella and her fashion tastes).
Then another dog on another car appears in silhouette: it is Tramp followed by Lady’s silhouette in the shadowy lower frame area. After all the flat layouts, again the scene ends on a deep focus shot.

By the end of sequence 07, the windows have become gradually less important in favor of flashing advertising signs – now mostly in primary colors.
If we compare the vistas at the beginning, in sequence 07 (about halfway into the film) and at the end of the film, we can see different emphasis. Of course the first one is not at night, but the city seems to lie in the shadow of a large cloud. There’s no color detail apart from aerial perspective. The director credits and the mere establishing of London (the brigde) are important. In the second image the annoying side of the city is stronger, on the soundtrack we hear dogs bark and people shouting at them. Finally, peace is restored on Christmas Eve and there’s no sign of consumerism, the windows are warm again. Nobody shouts at the barking dogs now, people just wake up and turn on their lights. There are turquoise and salmon colored clusters of windows among the warm yellow ones. Overall, there is considerably more detail and contrast now. I have already pointed out that in the end even the bold new painting style is more or less abandoned in favor of color areas that strongly stay within the Xerox lines.

A foggy variation

As we have seen in the introduction to this post, the painting style is already changing in Seq.09, obviously because of the fog around the city. To achieve the misty effects airbrushing – a device that in Walt Peregoy’s opinion usually separated the backgrounds too much from the flat cels – was indispensable. Moreover, the colors are much more confined to the layout lines because at times the overlaid Xerox lines would be erased altogether to create foggier backgrounds. If it weren’t for the different mood, the Big Ben shot could be well out of Peter Pan.

Seen from outside, the light behind Pongo is considerably warmer. Note that the music room looks much friendlier mainly because of the muted green curtains – remember, green distinguishes the music room from the rest of the house. Is it possible that Roger has already made some money? Although watching the film I would never think of that at this moment, this has to be the case. After all, it is only one or two days away from Christmas if we take the rescuing into account and there’s no time to redecorate the whole house within such a short time.

As far as mood goes, these foggy shots are among my favorites. In a visual progression, the whole city has become bleak and monochrome. For once, even the dogs are affected by this (very unusual in this movie). This would be less effective without the earlier scene where the The Great Dane is introduced as a brown dog. Also the park looks even colder this time seen from a lower angle than in the previous establishing shot. Thanks to the fog and low camera angles, we can destinguish the silhouettes against an otherwise dark night.

The only visible light sources are the hazy street lamps. Inverting the picture we discover that light and darkness are painted in negative (complimentary) hues. Sparse red ship lights prevent the scene from appearing too unnaturally monochrome. The pillar box however looks almost gray. Saturation and contrast is much lower than in previous night scenes.

To leave London the dogs have to symbolically cross the Thames and finally pass through a tunnel into a new morning. Although this may be geographically wrong, the screen direction is still forward, i.e. from left to right. Again the scene ends on a deeper composition and a fade-out.

Like the interiors, the London locations are seen in such different light each time that a first time viewer might not even consciously recognize certain spots. Most of the changes are dictated by weather and time of day however. Or let me put it this way, weather and time of day have been chosen to support the emotions of our protagonists. Nevertheless these are hardly farfetched choices. Even without listening to the narrator the backgrounds and colors would tell us that the story spans about nine months with the bulk taking place in late December. It’s only in our age where most animated features are set in aseptic surroundings that one notices a refreshing lack of standard blue skies with white clouds in this film.

the park's colors change from colorful to monochrome in three stages

Again color schemes are constant throughout whole sequences, even if they integrate interior and exterior sets. All in all there is a progression from full color daylight to almost monochrome at night. Character colors remain strongly constant – apart from obvious value differences – until the darkest night time hour, when there’s nothing of interest left in London.