Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Fantoche Impressions

This year I spent two sunny days at the 14th Fantoche International Animation Festival in Baden. Even though I have only seen a fraction of the films it was a wholly satisfying visit. Since I am not able to process too many short films back-to-back, I also went to see three features and a documentary about Michael Dudok de Wit and the making of LA TORTUE ROUGE. Unfortunately, I missed out on everyone's favorite MA VIE DE COURGETTE (MY LIFE AS A ZUCCHINI) yet again, but finally made it to THE BOY AND THE BEAST and KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS. 

So here, in no particular order, is a non-representative list of films that stuck in my mind because of their color work or simply because I liked them:


A whole new way of creating stop motion water for AU REVOIR BALTHAZAR
 First of all, I was really pleased that some of the films I really liked came out as winners on Sunday night. In fact, in the Swiss competition I have seen and liked all of the six winners. Raphael Sommerhalder's gently animated and almost tactile stop motion short AU REVOIR BALTHAZAR ("Special Mention") was one of those films that felt like 5 minutes but in reality last for 9 minutes. I remember it as more or less one long lateral multiplane traveling, two- and three-dimensional at the same time, with beautiful lighting and stylistically consistent special effects as you can see in the trailer below. Be sure to check out this making-of as well!

Anete Melece's ANALYSIS PARALYSIS ("Swiss High Risk" award) tells the story of a man whose head is about to explode from dealing with the many everyday decisions one has to make. At the same time he is not really able to connect with other people. What sounds like a depressing story is in fact a thoughtfully funny and refreshingly child-like colored cut-out film.

I also really liked Fela Bellotto and Etienne Kompis' HYPERTRAIN ("Swiss Youth Award") which I had a chance to see twice. Driven by an energetic soundtrack, the very short film relies on a whole array of original visual ideas revolving around the dimensionality of drawings.

CODA by Alan Holly, 2014

Within a "Cartoon d'Or" best-of screening I discovered the lavish colors of the beautifully lit 2D film CODA (Alan Holly, 2014) that reminded me of 1950s cartoons like MELODY (1953).
Just see for yourself:

OBEN by Frederic Siegel
Frederic Siegel's music video for "OBEN" by the band Panda Lux combined a mesmerizing bird's eye view of freight yard with hand drawn animation in his trademark flat colors without outlines. The lack of resolution of the live-action footage was more than made up for by the dizzying effect the psychedelic climax had on the vast screen.


There is so much to behold that even such a detailed long shot can be glimpsed for only a few seconds.
Most of Hosoda Mamoru's films are based on premises that initially put me off. In addition, I have to admit that I do not really like his character designs. But, and that is a huge "but", he always delivers as a visual storyteller and I always get far more than I bargained for. And although I think THE BOY AND THE BEAST is not his best film, there are so many ideas and sweeping scenes that I would revisit it any time. In the city scenes, THE BOY AND THE BEAST is a masterpiece of mood and atmosphere. Especially in the last twenty minutes which first feel like an epilogue that quickly segues into what is the true and emotionally rewarding final act of the story. And like in so many great animes, Hosoda leaves enough unexplained to keep our imagination going.
Incredibly atmospheric: THE BOY AND THE BEAST

There is a series of recurring shots of the "beast's" house including the surroundings. The camera angles are always the same but the background paintings which are based on one or more likely two slightly different layouts are completely new everytime the characters pass by as can be seen in these comparison pictures:
Six different backgrounds based on the same camera angle/layout.
The quality of these screenshots is not too good. Maybe I will look into this film once I get hold of a decent blu-ray.

I also enjoyed the comparatively small Norwegian children's film SOLAN OG LUDVIG: HERFRA TIL FLAKLYPA which, like THE BOY AND THE BEAST, will probably never be released to Swiss cinema screens. It is one of those lovingly made stop motion features where you thankfully still can see the animators' hands on flickering garments and organically crafted sets. And besides, one of the protagonists is a timid but lovable pessimist and there are cranky old men who tell embarrassingly lame jokes which is at least funnier than all the hyperactive sidekicks in most contemporary animated blockbusters.

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.

Coinciding with the films Swiss premiere at FANTOCHE a German version can be found here 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 incredibly 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.


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:


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.


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?