Saturday, August 27, 2016

Refined Minimalism in LA TORTUE ROUGE / THE RED TURTLE


Michael Dudok de Wit's mostly hand-drawn animated feature LA TORTUE ROUGE/THE RED TURTLE is not only Studio Ghibli's first international co-production (they even coaxed the Dutch master animator into creating it) but also a poetic masterpiece and one of my (if not the) greatest cinematic experiences this year. It should absolutely be seen in a cinema, if only to immerse yourself in the engulfing sound design.

In the following video essay I focus on Dudok de Wit's specific style of visual minimalism that already worked so well in LE MOINE ET LE POISSON (THE MONK AND THE FISH, 1994) and FATHER AND DAUGHTER (2000) which are among my favorite animated short films. Since THE RED TURTLE has only just begun its theatrical run and is not available on DVD, I completely rely on images and clips from the official promotional material in order to illustrate concepts that I have found during the two times I was able to see the whole film. There are no allusions to the story and therefore no spoilers. By the way, this is my first video essay with a commentary spoken in English which - as you will notice - is not my native language.


Refined Minimalism: an analysis of visual composition in THE RED TURTLE from Oswald Iten on Vimeo.

A German version will soon appear on filmbulletin.ch

There is so much more to savor and write about in THE RED TURTLE that I will probably return to it in a future post for a review or a discussion of artistic producer Takahata Isao's influence. I certainly would want to ask Michael Dudok de Wit whether THE NAKED ISLAND (Shindo, 1960) was an inspiration at all.

The incedibly subtle, highly consistent character animation that - unexpectedly for a silent film - relies on very small, realistic movements instead of grand gestures deserves a detailed analysis itself. But this must wait until I have the film available in digital form once the Blu ray/DVD is out.

And last but not least, if you have not seen LE MOINE ET LE POISSON or FATHER AND DAUGHTER yet, see them before you see THE RED TURTLE! Also check out THE AROMA OF TEA, TOM SWEEP and Dudok de Wit's commercials. They are all on youtube.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Red vs Green: Striking Basics

Although I am not really a comic book or graphic novel enthusiast myself, I am nevertheless fascinated by and draw inspiration from the way composition and colors are handled in French bandes déssinés. In this post, I analyze the basic color concepts behind one of my favorite covers.


I often revisit this cover (above) by Vincent Mallié with colors by François Lapierre (at least he did the great color work inside the book) because it always reminds me how the basics of color theory can be applied in pure form to achieve a striking image. What I love about this picture is its simplicity and its strong sense of focus. [Note: As always, this does not necessarily mean that the artist consciously thought of these concepts when he applied them.]

Contrast of values

So first of all, let us have a look at values (or brightness, if you prefer) regardless of color information. In Photoshop, there are three ways to strip an image of the other two parameters hue and saturation. Most often people use the "desaturate" algorithm which works for quick comparisons but actually gives a distorted impression because it does not take into account how we perceive brightness of different hues inreality. If you look at my extreme example on the right of this paragraph, you will notice what that means: yellow always looks brighter than red to the human eye, yet simply "desaturated", yellow and red look exactly the same.

That is why I usually convert the image to "grayscale mode" which creates an organically weighted version better suited to study values or print a grayscale version of a photo.

There is, however, a third way for purists: create a white layer underneath your image and choose "luminosity" as blending mode of your color image. By this, you basically extract the luminosity channel. Often this does not differ too much from grayscale and besides, it always depends on the color profiles you are working in, so for most normal images "grayscale mode" is clear enough.

As you can see in the following GIF, even in a "normal" image there are considerable differences depending on the process I applied to achieve a black and white image. Look closely at the value of the Rige's red trousers that change from brighter to darker than the background:
The black and white representations of the same color image.

But what I am actually interested in, is how these values relate to each other:
If we ignore the thin-headed character called "le Rige" for a moment, there are basically two opposing gradients from dark gray to light gray. The one on the left (below) is the basis of a low contrast background that draws no attention to itself, the reverse gradient on the right (of the image below) defines the values of the butterflies. Of course, the butterflies only stand out in front of the background, if they are either lighter or darker. Instead of just keeping the background darker than the butterflies, these opposing gradients give variation...
opposing vertical gradients (left for background, right for butterflies).
...and, what's more, they overlap in the vertical middle of the image which results in a very low contrast area with butterflies almost blending in with the background regarding their values. This actually emphasizes the focus on the character who stands more or less in the middle.

Since human perception is pulled towards the strongest contrast (combined with the highest degree in detail), it makes perfect sense that the Rige as our intended point of focus displays a greater range of values (from pitch black to almost white) compared to anything around him (dark gray to lighter gray). While the trousers are only separated from the background by thick black outlines, the top of the character is dark on light while the axe and the rock he stands on are light on dark. Thus, by the distribution of values alone, our eyes are drawn to the important part of the image: the character. It further helps, of course, that he stands in the center and the butterflies gravitate towards him.

Contrast of saturation: green


The background is all painted green with no contrast in hue, just soft differences in value to suggest a hazy forest. In the image below you can see that the yellowish to dark green hues of the background gradient (1, 2, 3, 5) are considerably less saturated than the mossy rock the Rige stands on. Here the contrast is not of hue but of saturation. The stronger the saturation, the more a color stands out, the closer it feels to the observer. So even if there was no character on top and the bottom would not be as heavily black, the more saturated green would always feel closer to us than the background.

Contrast of hue: red

It then becomes clear that the gradient of the butterflies is not only contrasting against the background by opposing values but also by complementary colors (more or less). Red/green is among the strongest contrasts of hue. Nevertheless, there is a unifying element: like in the green background gradient the red gradient (1, 2, 4, 5) is leaning towards yellow.
red and green combined: left half of the squares: color as it appears; right half : same color fully saturated.

Since the butterflies are smaller and closer to the spectator, they are more saturated than the background colors. The larger they are, the lighter and less saturated they are painted so as not to upstage the character. The two largest butterflies certainly do attract our gaze yet lead it towards the character because we unconsciously follow the direction the are facing.
The only instance of pure and strongly saturated red is right in the middle on the Rige's trousers (color patch #3, further above). Since the contrast of hue (red vs green) and saturation (saturated vs almost desaturated) is that strong, it is irrelevant that there is no contrast of value against the background. Thus, the most saturated instances of red and green are the trousers and rock that are part of the same "middle ground layer".

The Rige's outfit certainly contains no green that could blend in with the overall green background. But if you look closely, you will notice that it is actually not just black, white and red. There are also objects in the primary hues of yellow and blue (both dark and desaturated, but none the less), colors that do not appear anywhere else in the picture and thus contribute to the visual attraction of the character by contrasting with everything else in the picture. The beauty of it is, that blue and yellow are so unobtrusively incorporated that they don't draw our conscious attention.

Summary

The following basic color concepts are visible in this cover image:
  • values: opposing gradients
  • values: narrow range (from dark to lighter gray) vs wide range (black to white) 
  • values: soft contrast = further away, hard contrast = closer to spectator
  • saturation: low saturation = further away, high saturation = closer
  • saturation: the smaller the object, the higher the saturation
  • hues: complementary colors reinforce each other (red vs green in our case)
  • hues: complementary/opposite colors look unified if they lean towards the same color (yellow in our case) 
  • hues: primary colors and additional hues are best kept to very limited and small areas
  • overall: the area of strongest contrast draws our attention.

The artists 
According to French websites, color artist François Lapierre was born in 1970 in Québec (CA) and studied Arts and Graphics and worked on the "Quête" series from 2007 to 2013.
"By a happy coincidence in 1996, François plunges into an animation career where he was responsible for background colors. Besides getting to know wonderful people, his function allowed him to get used to a computer which became a driving element in his creation of comic books (bande dessiné)." (bedetheque.com my own translation) 
Other artwork by François Lapierre on "la contrebande".

Illustrator Vincent Mallié (born in 1973) is very strong on composition and a fine color artist himself as can be seen on his own website

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Annecy Colors

A visit to Europe's largest animation festival reminded me of two things: colorful animation is very much alive in all parts of the world. Computer tools and the internet have enhanced the awareness and skills of color design. But the full impact of colors is only perceived in a dark theatre (or any other darkened room without contrasting colors). 

After missing out on it for several years, I managed to visit the Annecy International Animation Festival once again at last. In those two and a half days I saw a lot of films and it dawned on me that I must come back for the whole week again next year. It is, after all, a celebration of the cinema going experience and seeing a film in the packed Bonlieu rightfully gives one the impression that this is indeed "the greatest audience in the world", as some of the world-renowned guests liked to put it.

Of course, an animation festival is also a great place to see how artists work with color to tell a story and create mood. That is why I would like to share a list of films that stayed in my mind because of their colors, some of them conventional, some of them innovative. So here it is, in no particular order:

Shorts:

LA SOUPE AU CAILLOU: Cut-out animation made of vibrant layers of translucent watercolors. Striking use of basic colors red, yellow and blue. Simple but sweet children's story.



CRABE PHARE: Cruise ship passengers build a candy colored city on top of a blue crab. Diamond shaped clouds and a color scheme that looks limited but actually spreads across red, yellow, green and blue.

PETE'S STORY: High contrast duotone style with additional spot colors. Strong and beautiful anidoc.



A COAT MADE DARK: The combination of gray and orange-red is very powerful, even as subdued as in this film. Unfortunately, I could not really connect to the story but maybe a second viewing will enlighten me.

RUBEN LEAVES: A film I wanted to mention for a long time since I have seen it at least four times now. Strictly limited to three (or five, if you count the two shades of blue and yellow as two colors each) colors without variation of saturation and darkness. Outlines are also limited to the most basic needs.


LAST JUDGMENT: Not sure why the story turned out how it did, but liked it anyway. Blue and yellow.

Features:

The great thing about independent animated features (especially French ones) is that the beautifully personal design approaches that you usually only see in "art of" books are right up there on the screen. The storytelling, however, is often another story and there are reasons why some of the films are limited to special-interest audiences.
 

PSICONAUTAS, THE FORGOTTEN CHILDREN: What works in a comic book divided up in panels and pages does not automatically make for a captivating story arc of a 76 minute film. Despite a strong and quirky opening, the narrative unravelled rather quickly. But the fine and varied choices of color and mood kept me interested.


LA JEUNE FILLE SANS MAINS: For me, this was one of the highlights of the festival. A highly inventive combination of realist animation and abstract design. The still images do not live up to the experience. The full beauty lies in the combination of mood and motion.

TOUT EN HAUT DU MONDE (LONG WAY NORTH): Technically not an Annecy 2016 film. But I bought the Blu-ray there and have never seen it before. There are no outlines, just razor sharp shapes of colors next to each other. Color-wise this is such an enormously thrilling film that I would love to look into it any further. Unfortunately, this is the only Blu-ray I own that prevents me from taking screenshots...

There are certainly many more films presented at Annecy worth checking out regarding colors, but these were among the ones I managed to see this year. I would like to end this post with a few (mostly experimental) shorts I remember fondly but not particularly related to color design:
  • THE EMPTY (CHAMBRE VIDE): surprisingly fresh and poetic
  • WALL DUST: experimental cinema is gaining momentum. This is a fast and excitingly unpredictable ride.
  • MODERN LOVE - A KISS, DEFERRED: animated documentaries with sketches over white backgrounds have become an inflated staple of graduation film programs. This visual New York Times column nails it, though.
  • I FELT LIKE DESTROYING SOMETHING BEAUTIFUL: I kept thinking: why do I never see such a film coming out of Switzerland? Then: oh wait, this IS actually a Swiss film!
  • BALKON: If there is something like a genre of films that seem to be custom-made for the Annecy experience, BALKON is one of them. No, there is no "lapin" in it. Much easier: just give the crowd in the Bonlieu a reason to scream...

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

London Screenings

London must be a paradise for cinemaniacs. There are so many great films playing (in cinemas and on rooftops) every day that one gets easily overwhelmed. Being in England for only a few days, I nevertheless grabbed the opportunity to see two very different films that I highly recommend to anyone near the city for different reasons:

Every patron matters


Practically by chance and out of curiosity, I went to a very small, very independently produced first time feature called CHICKEN, simply because there was a Q&A by its London based director Joe Stephenson.

The film has already finished its festival circuit, where it drew the attention of audiences and people like Sir Ian McKellen, and is now practically self-distributed because its opening weekend got eclipsed by the latest X-MEN movie. So like in the good old days of independent movies, Stephenson books the film on a screening per screening basis around town and country, often with a Q&A, because he is a strong believer in the cinema experience as opposed to DVD/VOD.
Yasmin Paige

Scott Chambers and Joe Stephenson
CHICKEN is an adaptation of a play that feels so natural that you would not even think of its theater origins if you were not told. It might not have a high concept or even a star (well, Yasmin Paige should be well-known for her part in SUBMARINE, but that has not happened so far), but for a first time effort it is extremely focused and consistently gaining momentum. In fact, the film is completely built around Scott Chambers tour de force performance that really carries the small scale coming-of-age drama.

Besides, Joe Stephenson is a great interviewee. In the screening at the Prince Charles Cinema last Wednesday, he even managed to win the audience over without a proper interviewer. But what's more, try to catch a cinema screening because every single patron really matters to these filmmakers!

Next screening: Thursday, June 9, 9:00 pm, Genesis Cinema Whitechappel
Further screenings here.

Like most of us have never seen it before

And then there was VERTIGO. A film that anyone with an interest in cinematography, editing patterns, and especially color and music has to see at least once in a theater, and one of my all-time favorites. So why see it again in a place that offers culture and entertainment in abundance? Because the Prince Charles Cinema at Leicester Square is currently showing it in 70mm! Except for a few scratches and such (that were adverted up front) the print itself as well as the projection were perfect.
And it is true, you absolutely positively have to see it in 70mm, accept no substitutes! The characteristic Technicolor reds, greens, skin tones and deep blacks were there, and most of all: the rear-projections and special process shots looked awesome, i.e. much more invisible than on digital or 35mm versions. Besides, the PCC members are a great audience which adds a lot to the movie-going experience.

And if you are near London, make sure to check out their schedule. Who would want to miss out on a special screening of THE IRON GIANT - SIGNATURE EDITION followed by Hitchcock's THE BIRDS?

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".

Credits: 
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