Monday, October 19, 2009

character - background relation: monochrome color schemes

Many contemporary live-action films work within fairly limited color palettes. Often, whole shots are tinted in a particular hue or display very muted palettes. They help to convey a certain mood in broad strokes. In the context of The Princess and the Frog (Musker/Clements, 2009) which I'll discuss later, let's have a look at an easy way of evoking warmth and nostalgia.

Good color schemes are always limited to a few carefully chosen dominating hues, many times two or three, sometimes only one. If you try to photograph a real environment, there are most certainly too many hues in the picture to fit a predetermined color scheme. In painting, one way of relating all the colors of a palette to each other is mixing one color into all the others, so only one hue will appear pure and all the others are less brilliant but brought into closer harmony.

Rembrandt van Rijn (selfportrait, 1660)

Pablo Picasso (selfportrait, 1901)

So in live-action films, unless you choose to incorporate only local colors that are consistent with a narrow color scheme, this same effect is usually achieved by colored lights, filters or color timing. Such schemes that are strongly dominated by one single hue mostly depend on the contrast of value. I’ll call them “monochrome” which is not technically accurate but serves the purpose here.

Monochrome schemes have been carefully avoided in mainstream color cinema until the French Nouvelle Vague of the early 60s, but are quite common nowadays in live-action films because accurate skin tones aren't the benchmark any more.

Sometimes contrast on a larger scale is evoked by placing differently tinted monochrome shots next to each other. This was standard practice in the silent era where night scenes were usually toned or tinted (depending on the dying process) blue and daylight was a warm yellow. 

This scene from Chris Columbus’ first Harry Potter (2001) movie uses approximately the same very limited palettes (they are almost exactly complimentary, if you invert the picture in photoshop) but rather for mood than to indicate daytime.

Let’s focus on the yellow scheme: the sepia tone is usually associated with vintage photographs and has been overused for flashbacks and memories. It instantly evokes nostalgia and warmth. In fact, Columbus uses it to make us forget that this movie takes place in our very own time, so the prep uniforms don’t seem too conservative. And besides we’re supposed to believe that this castle is lit by candles and ancient magic.

Slightly awkward...

These screenshots from the French cult classic Delicatessen (Jeunet/Caro, 1991) show yellow as a very different color: Almost everybody looks sick. After all, the story deals with cannibalism. Sometimes the yellow tends to dingy brown, sometimes to olive, but the whole film is deeply drenched in sickly yellow.
(this palette corresponds to the right image above)

Here we have two images from an early scene of Les Triplettes de Belleville (Chomet, 2003), a movie that is heavily influenced by French graphic novels (especially the background style of Nicolas de Crécy).

(corresponds to the left image above)

Here the yellow is not only indicating autumn, very different from, say, in Hitchcock's The Trouble with Harry (1955), but it also strongly unifies complimentary colors red (the bike) and green (the sweater). Such palettes have been derogatorily called “pee and poo colors” because the colors aren't balanced by natural grays and white.

...but also warm and golden
More typical is the use of “golden” light for romantic scenes. It instantly reminds the viewer of early morning as well as magic hour daylight which makes everything look warm and glowing. 

This scene from The English Patient (Minghella, 1996) is not only an early morning love scene but also a flashback. In the context of the movie both lovers are connected to desert sand which displays the same range of colors.

This monochrome color palette of the image on the right shows the slight differences between background and characters (left half vs right half). The characters look definitely warmer. Yellow/orange palettes have the advantage that skin tones aren't too far from reality (compared to blue or green).

This resulting saturation of all the warm colors in the picture appeals to most people and therefore is heavily used in advertising photography. There is a certain gravitas, a sense of lavishness to it. It’s no coincidence that an orange glow is often associated with magic and gold as in “golden hour” or “magic hour”.

Note: PAL/Secam and NTSC have different color profiles, yet both look considerably warmer than the standard RGB that .JPG uses. Especially yellow may look closer to orange on a TV screen than in these screengrabs.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Inbetween IX

Last week I had to design a flyer for a small concert I'm co-organizing.
Initially I wanted to have a simple photograph of the performer, singer/songwriter Elritschi (lead singer of Jolly and the Flytrap), but there aren't too many good photos that haven't already been used for years, so I decided to copy his pose from the following concert picture.

I then played around with a few color combinations focusing on his face...

 ...but then we opted for the following more eye-catching color:

Friday, October 2, 2009

"The Audience Contract" by Roland Zag

“Sometimes you want to upset an audience so you can change them. I’ve done so-called Hollywood films, and I know that it’s all about wanting the audience to feel upbeat, give them a happy ending. But they also like complete stories. If your story’s complete it doesn’t have to be a happy ending.”
Morgan Freeman

We can always tell whether a film moved us or left us cold, but we can hardly explain why exactly this was the case. A German book about emotional screenwriting proposes a detailed framework to describe universally (for western audiences, that is) comprehensible emotions in stories. It is based on analyses of a wide array of successful films, not just Hollywood blockbusters with happy endings.
Should the book ever become available in English, the animation industry would certainly benefit from it.

Analysing the emotional impact of movies has always been of great interest to me. I even did my master thesis on David Lynch’s sound design (after being told that analysing color schemes of animated features was not a workable concept). But all those tools we usually associate with creating emotions in a movie – music, color, sound design, even acting – are merely artistic devices to emphasize emotions that are already in the screenplay. Sometimes they do work on their own, but that’s not what I’m after here.

Whenever there is a discussion about recent animated features, the term “heart” is used excessively. But people hardly ever manage to explain what they mean by “heart” or “emotional maturity” other than admitting that they fought tears during projection. So the basic question is: what conditions have to be fulfilled within a story to be able to cause emotional response from an audience?

German script doctors Roland Zag and Norbert Maass have been researching that topic under the premise that in order to be successful beyond the first weekend (which heavily depends on marketing budgets) a film has to generate word of mouth recommendation. In order to do so, it has to be emotionally accessible to people with different personal experiences.

In his book “Der Publikumsvertrag” (“the audience contract”), Roland Zag presents us with guidelines for emotional screenwriting based on what he calls “the human factor”. I’m usually very skeptical of these kinds of manuals because many of them try to sell you the secret of success based on very narrow normative assumptions by their authors. However, this one is not concerned with formal story structure (like plot points or three act theories) but with the actual content of stories: characters and their relationships.

Zag explains the subject matter of the “audience contract” as follows: In return for a leap of faith, the audience expects stories whose conflicts, which are more or less difficult to resolve, undergo more or less successful coping strategies. The author then presents detailed categories of interhuman relationships based on the empirical analysis of 200 feature films. Zag is always aware that box office success is no indicator of artistic quality, instead he attempts to explain why films and not only blockbusters are successful.

Some of the most important factors that trigger socially conditional emotions are: affiliation to social groups, commitment and an imbalance in give and take. Of course, emotional plausibility is also an issue, but never taste or artistic concepts. Unfortunately, the book and the accompanying blog where Maass and Zag continue to do market analyses of current films are only available in German. There is a general summary in English on the blog, though.

There are no animated features among those 200 films (a market analysis of Up! can be found on the blog), mainly because the author takes it for granted that animated family films depend almost completely on the human factor. Several examples have shown, though, that its basic rules have been violated which led to less successful films compared to production and marketing costs.

What the book ultimately provides us with is a framework that enables us to talk about the creation of emotional stories in more or less clear categories. They also serve as a set of useful tools to analyze any given movie or screenplay concerning emotional resonance and audience response. Of course, success is also dependent on other factors, but on a large scale, without “the human factor” there is little chance.