Monday, November 10, 2014

Lukas Moodysson revisited: LILJA 4EVER


During my research for an introductory lecture on Lukas Moodysson's VI ÄR BÄST! (WE ARE THE BEST!) I couldn't help marvelling about the recurring color schemes in his first three features. Even LILJA 4EVER (2002) which most people remember as particularly grim and bleak is full of carefully chosen colors.

From warm to dingy
To make up the lack of in-depth posts I will have a superficial glance at the color coding of Lilja's three apartments during the course of the film:

Initially Lilja lives somewhere in Russia in a world of warm colors that go quite well with her blue and lilac clothes.


But when her mother is leaving for America and dumping her for good, her aunt Anna forces her to move to a dirty room with hardly any heating or electricity.
She always carries with her a framed religious picture.
 Now her pink and blue clothes support the already cold bluish-green feeling of her new home...

...while Anna has secretly usurped the warm apartment of Lilja's mother.

Lilja's friend Natasha still lives in her cozy family environment...

...after Lilja has been lured to Sweden where she is locked up in an empty but nevertheless dingy apartment.

There, the furniture is almost exclusively brown and gray and thus reflects the appearance of Lilja's tormentor.

Her daily routine now oscillates between equally brown and gray/white clients' homes and the cold blue back seat of a shabby Mercedes 190 E...

...until her face looks as pale as her future.

If you have not seen LILJA 4EVER yet, go for it! It is one of the rare occasions of an important movie that is actually great and accessible for a late teen audience and thus highly recommended.

Friday, April 11, 2014

DOG DAY DOCUMENTS

Yesterday, I have had the pleasure of introducing a 35mm-screening of Sidney Lumet's masterpiece DOG DAY AFTERNOON (1975) and enjoying the movie with a very receptive audience.

During my research for the introduction I came across some interesting documents of the real bank robbery/hostage situation/media event that inspired the film.

If you haven't ever seen DOG DAY AFTERNOON, don't click on the following links because the movie follows the actual events so closely that reading the articles would destroy some of the most unexpected twists in the film.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Captain Hook's Red Coat (Part 2/3)

In this second installment I am looking at the next three Captain Hook sequences in Disney's PETER PAN (1953). As we have already seen in Part 1, Captain Hook's flamboyant red coat is covering his pink and purple undergarments representing two layers of his personality. In the establishing scene, he was seen with and without his coat depending on whether he was strong and evil or vulnerable and whiny. Here, I will demonstrate that this notion is fortified by Hook's later scenes. Additionally, I will look at Hook's costume in the context of its surrounding colors.

Hook surrounded by red planks and purple sky.
In Hook's introductory sequence (No. 04.0 according to the studio drafts) we have seen that the planks of his pirate ship are reddish and the sky surrounding his presence is purple which makes him feel at home. The visual hierarchy of character over background, however, is still maintained by Hook's far more saturated costume colors.

Hook's next appearance (08.0 "Skull Rock") is preceded by sequence 07.0 "Mermaid Lagoon". I am including it here because of the temporal color contrast between the two:
The sky over the mermaid lagoon is slightly greenish-yellow which at first suggests that Peter is very much "at home" (as I like to call it when background colors reflect character colors).

It also sustains the basic magenta-green concept (actually a triad with blue) of the mermaid lagoon. And is a perfect backdrop for the mermaids' vitriolic jealousy attacks against Wendy. In the 1950s, unnaturally stinging magenta and purple almost always indicated strange or unsettling situations (unlike later when those same colors were used for love scenes in THE LION KING, 1994, and POCAHONTAS, 1995). As can be seen further below, the unusual color of the rocks also serve as orientation guides since only those around the mermaids are eerily magenta while the rocks in other locations are neutrally gray.

One of PETER PAN's basic concepts in both Barrie's play and Disney's visualization is the ambiguity of light and shadow. The theatricality of Barrie's play is often emphasized by recreating wholly artificial lighting situations that are grounded in theatrical traditions rather than location filming.

In this analysis, I will only touch upon it when it comes up in combination with a color change in connection with Captain Hook - as is the case in the following shot:
Suddenly a shadow falls over the lagoon for no apparent reason. But Peter immediately knows that Hook is coming. Technically the shadow cannot emanate from Hook who is passing in the distance in a small boat. It could probably come from a looming change in weather, i. e. a dark cloud that accompanies his appearance.

As we see in the reconstructed pan below, there is indeed a bank of clouds approaching from the left:
Pan reconstructed from three separate frames, which is quite easy since we are basically looking at the quasi-CAPS version of the film.

This is one of the frames that matches Mary Blair's sense of color quite good with the red sun against the greenish yellow sky: completely unnatural but easy on the eye.
And hardly surprising, these clouds color the sky violet/purple as you can see in the frame above. Soon the whole sky is covered in violet clouds, showing Peter and the crocodile out of their depth - only color-wise that is.
"Looks like they're heading for Skull Rock!"
Skull Rock
For the remaining shots outside Skull Rock the initial background color triad of magenta, green and blue is basically down to violet and blue balanced by neutral grays.
Pan reconstructed from three different setups (with deliberately visible overlapping rims).
Note that Skull Rock is completely devoid of color and therefore association with one of the characters in both Mary Blair's concept sketch and the final frame of film.
Mary Blair concept art lifted from Jim Hill Media.

To me, the resulting long shot is one of the most iconic images of my childhood since the "Skull Rock" sequence has always been one of my all time favorite scenes ever put on film.*
Contrast inside - outside: violet vs green.
By way of two dissolves the camera enters Skull Rock through one of the eye-sockets and establishes another beautiful temporal contrast: outside the overall mood was violet and strange, inside it is equally eerie but dominated by the emerald colored water. The neutral rocks and more or less constant skintones in both lighting setups strengthen our awareness of those dominating background colors.

It is in fact the first time, that Hook seems to be completely out of his element. Magenta and emerald green make for a strangely artificial contrast we often associate with the supernatural. What I particularly like about the lighting setup of this first part of the sequence is the expressionist lighting on the two characters:
Hook is coldly illuminated from up above resulting a highly saturated upper surface of his pirate's hat. Everything else is in the shadow showing him as a rather dark figure with slightly boosted skintones. Tiger Lily, however, is depicted as an almost radiating light character with clothes that are darker then her skintones.

When Hook is momentarily scared by Peter's imitation of a supernatural voice his face is completely in the shadow so that the frightened eyes stand out even more. As soon as the shock has worn off and he guesses who was behind the eerie voice, Hook's face is bright again so that we can see his facial expression much better.* Note also the glint on his hook that not only reflects the cold spotlight from above but also helps distinguish the hook from the blending in with the background:
Left: emphasis on the eyes; right: emphasis on the whole facial expression.
While Hook's clothes appear to be darker and more violet inside the harshly lit cave, he looks completely natural outside when surrounded by gray rocks and rather diffuse light:
The basic red - green complementary contrast of Peter and Hook is strongly visible against the colorless rocks outside.
The heart of the sequence is one of those beautifully designed set pieces that intersperse dramatic action and soaring flight scenes with cartoon swashbuckling. After the transition back inside, Hook is no longer seen in frightening magenta light as before. Now he is fighting a fearless boy who does not recognize him as a real threat. But still Hook is wearing both his hat and his strong red coat. The characters stand out against very dark and quite desaturated backgrounds.
Although the light and shadow pattern is still maintained for strong dramatic effects (the source of the pale light still seems to be high above), the green water is only visible in cutaways to Smee and Tiger Lily.
Again a perfectly matched Mary Blair color concept (by way of Jim Hill Media).

But then Hook is forced onto the defensive by Peter who first destroys his magnificent hat and then lures him (in the most controversial cartoony move) away from the rock so that he is only falling when he realizes it (like in a WB cartoon).
There goes the first part of the "strong and evil" Hook: his hat.
When he hangs from the cliff and hears the crocodile approaching, once again his left eye is covered up while he whines. Only this time it is not a blanket but his own flowing hair.
And the first thing the crocodile eliminates is - of course - Hook's red coat...
...so that he looks mainly magenta/purple when he is screaming like a little girl. Needless to say that this outfit works perfectly within the green-magenta color scheme of the crocodile that more than ever is at home in this emerald green water.


Captain Hook's Lair
After Hook has been chased into sunset, the next sequence fades in on an establishing shot of the silhouetted pirate ship against the moon:
The only other source of light is a small yellow bull's-eye in the captain's cabin. Inside the lighting is seemingly white insofar that all the objects and costumes look natural without a basic color tint: we see an almost bluish white chair and green garments against a ginger wooden interior (below left).

As is often the case in Disney features, the first time we see a room, all the props are painted in clearly distinguishable colors so that we get a sense of the stuff that surrounds a character. When the emphasis is on the characters in subsequent shots (above right), however, either everything outside the pool of light is less conspicuous or the background details are painted in hues closer to each other than in the establishing shot (as can be seen in the kitchen backgrounds in 101 DALMATIANS, 1961).

As is expected from a broad cartoon character, Hook's clothes have magically been mended. But he is still without his red coat and purple hat. Instead he is covered with a green blanket and wearing a red hot-water bottle on his head. Both colors are slightly pastel. At this moment he is probably at his weakest - and wearing green.
Unfortunately, Blogger somehow changed the color of this JPG. The blanket does not look as different from the shots above as it seems here.
After Smee's hammer and hot water accidents (resulting in a tea kettle on the captain's head), Hook's vitality is rapidly returning and within seconds he decides to kidnap Tink whereupon he calls for his best coat (there seems to be an endless supply; in the German version, by the way, he asks for his best English coat) and Smee is happily assisting his master who has found his old strength.

"Get me best coat!"
While there is no sign of a new hat, the coat is closed and Hook dons a golden Hook, making his appearance even stronger and more wealthy.

In The Red Hot Lion's Den
After Smee has captured Tink, the next Hook sequence (No. 11 "Hook tricks Tinker Bell") is again taking place within the captain's cabin. But unlike the previous scene that only showed a weak light and a room that was evenly lit color-wise...
Introduction to sequence 09.0 "Hook has a cold".

Introduction to sequence 11 "Hook trick Tinker Bell". What looks like a candle is none other than the jealous fairy.
...the wooing scene is established by having all of the ship's windows glow reddish. And the interior now is illuminated by a warm golden light that blends the golden props (no contrasting colors whatsoever) with Hook's very strong red. There is hardly a sign of purple. And since skin tones and Smee's clothes are not affected by the mood lighting, our perception does not balance the red hot overall tone. Most important of all, there is no green (except Tink's green dress that is in fact glowing yellow).
Then Hook offers Tink his soft lilac handkerchief.
The hot intimate mood is slightly broken when Hook pretends to leave the cabin which is reflected in the background painting that balances the reddish wood with the blue outside the door and the blue globe in the back. About to leave, he also wears his hat again.
But compared to sequence 09.0 the lighting is still not evenly white. This is most easily visible by the color of the floor boards:
Left: seq. 09.0 light wooden floor; right: seq. 11 ginger wooden floor.
It makes no difference whether the two scenes are supposed to take place within the same cabin or not (after all, the film unlike the play suggests that we are inside Wendy's dream). It is a fact, that the color schemes of these two scenes have deliberately been designed to transport different moods.
Even within the red cabin Hook's coat stands out mainly because of its saturation and not its brightness.
When Hook finally succeeds in tricking Tinker Bell, the whole scene is back to neighboring colors in the range between gold and dark red.

In the third and last installment of this series I will examine Hook's final confrontation with Peter Pan and the crocodile.

* If only I was able to see it one more time in Technicolor on a 35mm print... If only to see to what degree the meticulous digital restoration heightened the color concept. Although I have some reservations with all the de-grained 1950s Disney restorations (from CINDERELLA to LADY AND TRAMP), I certainly believe that they increase our awareness of the artists' original color concepts by eliminating the slightly shimmering quality of the original prints in favor of clinically clean images that match the digitally composited direct-to-DVD sequels.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Captain Hook's Red Coat (Part 1/3)


Captain Hook has often been criticized for not being all of one piece (the magnificent Frank Thomas acting vs Woolie Reitherman's cartoony coward). In this first part I am analyzing how deliberately his dual personality seems to have been planned. The visual key to this is Hook's red coat that establishes him as both a wealthy leader and a flamboyant villain. The next post then will be about the variations in the following Captain Hook sequences.

Of all the 1950s Disney features, PETER PAN (1953) is still my favorite. Although Walt Disney and his storyboarders missed almost all of the play's interesting subtext, they came up with a film so full of memorable set pieces and visual wonders that it would be unjust to dismiss it solely on the basis of failing to capture J.M. Barrie's intentions*. In fact, there are only a handful films from that era that still feel as fast-paced and action-packed as PETER PAN. And hardly ever has the studio managed to create a movie so timeless - nothwithstanding the dated attitude towards women and American Natives.

A Child's Outlook On Life
In my opinion, Captain Hook is one of the greatest Disney villains. And although this has been criticized ever since 1953 I daresay BECAUSE (and not in spite) of his dual personality as a menacing brute and a whimpering cartoon character.
"...all the characters are really children with a child's outlook on life. This applies to the so-called adults of the story as well as the young people. Pull the beard off the fairy king, and you would find the face of a child." J.M.Barrie

As you can see from the stills above (taken from the 1924 silent film version of the play), James Matthew Barrie emphasized the notion that all his characters are basically children in disguise, no matter how old they are. And I believe that this is indeed one of the things the filmmakers managed to translate really well to the screen. As an adult, it is hilarious to see all grown men in this film behave like children, especially when they cannot have their own way. And Hook, however much authority he has over the pirates, cannot have his way with Peter too often.

Traditional Color Coding
Humans perceive the color red most strongly. Therefore it has always been seen as a very powerful color that stands out against almost any other color, especially against gray and muted earth tones. So in classical paintings and illustrations leaders often wore red displaying their power. In the Technicolor "consciousness" red was to be kept precious, i.e. sparsely and deliberately used so its dazzling effect would not wear off.

It is therefore no surprise that group leaders in Disney features have been wearing red coats (sometimes with expensive golden buttons) from the very beginning in 1937. This practice did not stop during the 1950s when pastel shades came into fashion (most notably in CINDERELLA, 1950).
Doc, the dwarfs' leader in SNOW WHITE and Jacques, the mice's leader in CINDERELLA.

While red is associated with blood, fire, rage or passion, the color purple - although basically red with a blue tint - evokes different connotations.

Most importantly, Tyrian purple used to be a very old and very expensive color. It was therefore used almost exclusively for the elite like Roman emperors or later aristocrats. When synthetic colors made it widely available about a century ago, it remained associated with the upper class but often used in paintings of elegant women. On a basic visual level, violet and purple feel more artificial and therefore stranger than the "natural" primary red. Therefore supernatural occurences are often depicted in shades of purple (or artificially poisonous neon green).

About 100 years ago, the suffragettes adopted it as a color of dignity. And since shades of violet and purple felt (and still feel) different (they are among the least favorite colors) and are commonly associated with either snobby or insubordinate women and therefore individualism, vanity and extravagance - in short: non-conformism - purple is and was a natural color for ambiguous characters or outright villains. Also it could hint at the feminine side of male characters (traditionally strong colors like red were male and receding colors like blue were female like the Virgin Mary).

There is a strong tradition of Disney villains - especially women or effeminate men - wearing purple which is closer to red than blue. More often than not, non-conformism is portrayed as evil and must be fought by the protagonists.
Grumpy, the angry dwarf in SNOW WHITE and Lady Tremaine, CINDERELLA's evil stepmother.
Although Grumpy is not the villain of the film, he certainly is the dissenter within the dwarf group. [On a side note: in the light of classical character development he could as well be the protagonist because he is the only person who is psychologically growing in the course of the events.] Cinderella's evil stepmother Lady Tremaine who married into a well-to-do family certainly epitomizes the appearance of the beautiful but sinister aristocrat.

Characters with a more controlled exterior appearance like the wicked queen are often wearing red underneath or inside a coat or cape, so that it only flashes up during frantic movements (as can be seen here).

top left: wicked queen, top right: evil coachman, bottom left: Lady Tremaine, bottom right: queen of hearts.
The red in the dress of the flamboyant queen of hearts who wears her heart literally on the sleeve is pure without traces of purple (ALICE IN WONDERLAND, 1951). In fact, she acts more like a man than a woman. And like the coachman in PINOCCHIO (1940), she is typically wearing red with gold ornaments which denotes her as a leader.**

Just to show that this concept has not been abandoned in more recent films, you could look at the violet sea witch Ursula (THE LITTLE MERMAID, 1989) or the bullying leader Gaston (an update of Brom Bones) in BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (1991):
Gaston from BEAUTY AND THE BEAST.
But back when PETER PAN was in production, the Disney studio still mainly sought for outside inspiration (as opposed to the derivative approaches of recent features that seemed to consciously refer back to the company's own body of work as a main influence).

Obviously red coats have been commonly used to make captains and flamboyant pirates stand out not only from a picture but among their crew as can be seen in the following illustrations by the great Howard Pyle:
"The Buccaneer was a picturesque fellow" by Howard Pyle.
"Captain Keitt" by Howard Pyle 1907.

Look at the black hair and moustache in this Howard Pyle illustration.


Captain Hook as we first see him: wearing a blood red coat with golden hems.
Hook's coat not only identifies him as the captain but also as a rather wealthy character (note the crown painted on his "throne" and combination of warm color red and gold).

Probably more than in any other Disney feature the antagonists are painted in colors that are complementary to each other on a traditional color wheel. So Peter seems to represent the total opposite of Hook. This goes as far as the feathers on their hats (pointed vs bushy) and toe-caps (pointed vs flat).

Establishing The Villain
Before we see Captain Hook for the first time, we see a reddish wooden door that gets pierced with knives by the bored crew while Smee skips and bounces to a pirate's shanty mentioning "Hook".

Then Hook is finally seen as a scheming and easily irascible man with long flowing black hair, a moustache and a five o'clock shadow.

When his concentration is disturbed by a singing sailor...
 ...he pitilessly shoots the man without displaying any emotions.
 However, he is furious as soon as Smee makes a jokingly accusatory remark about the incident.
It is notable, that until now, even during the fast eruption Hook's coat has remained closed so we do not see what he is wearing underneath. From what we see here, he is all red (the dark purple trousers do not compete for attention).
But then Smee is helping him take off his fiery red coat and underneath we see his pink shirt that makes him look softer, weaker (not unlike Michael's pyjamas) and slightly more effeminate when he whines about how Peter fed his hand to the ticking crocodile.

He behaves like a real drama queen while getting prepared to be shaven by Smee.
Of course, the crocodile comes precisely at the right time. And like Peter, Hook's second antagonist is also completely green. Interestingly enough, the crocodile never seems to be menacing or even thinking about eating the boy, so it is not surprising that they are on the same side of the color wheel, so to speak. [Note: in the original stage productions Peter used to be red and brown because his clothes were supposed to be made of (autumn) leaves. So the highly influential decision to give him a naturally green Robin-Hood-like appearance must have been a very deliberate choice by the film makers.]
And now Hook is finally acting like a cowardly child who tries to hide behind a parent's legs in the face of danger.

Although Hook is not wearing his coat, he is none the less covered in a piece of cloth, a barber's blanket to be precise.
This is one of my favorite shots because of the one-eyed expression that is picked up later in the film.
After Smee has been able to chase the crocodile away, he behaves so clumsily that Hook is about to bash him when one-eyed pirate up in the crow's-nest announces Peter Pan's arrival.

So it comes as no surprise that Hook demands his red coat as soon as he is strong and determined again. After a few orders to the crew he finally demands his hat...
... and then he is capped and gowned (coat firmly closed) and ready to fight his nemesis.

Hook's conflicting appearances as strong/evil and weak/fearful have been firmly established in this expository sequence by contrasting the flamboyantly red pirate with a pink and purple child that ducks and covers.

Next I will look at how these changes are varied during the film and how the surrounding colors define the characteristic look of each sequence.

* Two major points are lost in the adaptation:
1) J. M. Barrie's Peter is a self-centered and therefore cruel child with little concern for other people. This rather dark and ambiguous aspect of his personality is barely touched upon in the film.
2) Peter is a preadolescent boy with no understanding of love between a boy and a girl. He does not even know the concept of a kiss (as seen in the beginning of the film, the "thimble" allusion of the play is hinted at by having Tinker Bell glare from under a thimble when Wendy tries to kiss Peter). When Wendy falls in love with Peter and repeatedly tries to talk to him about that he is completely oblivious of what she is trying to say. Therefore it seems to be a major blunder that Peter gets red after Tiger Lily "kissed" him at the powwow.
Considering these alterations one can comprehend the rather strong British reactions that Walt Disney "murdered" Peter Pan when the film was first released.
Tinker Bell with thimble on head;      Peter turns red after Tiger Lily's "kiss".

**Note: I am not saying that these color decisions have all been conscious or entirely based on rational rules. I am pretty sure that a lot of it simply felt right and was intuitively done because it looked right to the color stylist. But there is little doubt that once the basic concept was laid out they sought for coherence throughout a film.