Friday, May 31, 2013

One-Shot: Dr. No (1962)

Whenever I feel the urge to write about some detail that stood out to me in a movie, my impulse to only write about it within an appropriate context often leads to my not writing about it at all. To counter this habit, from now on, I try to post such observations every now and then as "one-shot" articles unrelated to the more indepth analyses.

The other day, I was examining the parallels of DR. STRANGELOVE (Kubrick, 1964) and DR. NO (Young, 1962). During the first act, Bond (Sean Connery) meets a Jamaican called Quarrel (John Kitzmiller) who wears a red T-shirt one cannot help but notice.
The original color as seen in the film.
Everything else in the shot is muted and in the same range of blue-grey-green. Next to Quarrel's red shirt, Bond looks like a part of the scenery. It just occured to me how different this first encounter would have come across, had Quarrel worn a less conspicuous color.
Digitally desaturated T-shirt: just an average guy whose appearance goes largely unnoticed.
Then I asked myself, why red, the most alerting color of them all? Well, the answer the rest of the film seems to suggest is as simple as unpleasant:

1.) The simple one: We have to recognize him in later scenes. The film makers may have been afraid that the audience would have a hard time distinguishing various Jamaicans if not for their clothes. After all, Quarrel always wears the same red T-shirt throughout the film while the Brits and Americans are allowed to change their clothes. In fact, Quarrel is so important to the story that we do have to recognize him even at night.
2.) The unpleasant one: Quarrel is a walking stereotype. He is the typical good guy who follows instinct instead of intellect and thus is shown as inferior (even childlike in his superstition about a dragon) to all the white men in the film. And what better color than red to symbolize a person who only acts impulsively ?

He also shares the common fate of black actors (until the end of the 1960s when Blaxploitation movies started to reverse the formula): Quarrel proves a worthy subordinate partner to the white hero and therefore has to die in order to make way for his British friend to save the day.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Bob Clampett: Black Cats in Technicolor (2/3)


Only available with "Blue Ribbon" reissue title cards

In 1942 right after THE HEP CAT, Clampett released another color cartoon with black cat protagonists: the Abbott and Costello parody A TALE OF TWO KITTIES. According to Milt Gray, Clampett claimed to have drawn all the layouts for this cartoon himself because he was temporarily without a layout artist. Be that as it may, he certainly had a strong background painter. While there are many connections to the previous cartoon, the colors in A TALE OF TWO KITTIES mainly serve to structure the cartoon.

Adaptable Character Colors
Babbitt (voice: Tedd Pierce) and Catstello (Mel Blanc).
As we have seen in previous installments of this series, many Warner Bros. characters have pitch black bodies and look more like cartoon humans stuck in an animal suit than caricatures of real animals. Here the two black cats are modeled after comedians Bud Abbott (Babbitt) and Lou Costello (Catstello)*. However, I would like to focus solely on the colors and not on the character design or animation (which deserved a closer look, too).

Babbitt looks like the standard black (C) cartoon character of the early 30s with white gloves. However, those are his real hands. This is further emphasized later in the story when he wears yellow garden gloves.

Catstello on the other hand has a white belly (B) and black hands and feet (D). Everything about his body seems to contrast Babbitt's.

Their heads, however, are painted the same way: skin colored faces (A), dark red mouth (H) and tongue (G).

left: THE HEP CAT, right: A TALE OF TWO KITTIES.
One detail has always stood out to me, though: the red ears that are even more saturated than the tongue. This way the red spots of color on black and white characters are even stronger than with the "hep cat". Keep this in mind when we look at the excessive use of red in this cartoon further below.

Also look at Catstello's lilac eyelids (F): even though they look rather feminine, it is not uncommon for a male Clampett character to have violet/lilac eyelids as you can see in the screenshots on the right.

With this cartoon, Clampett also introduced the prototype for long-lasting cartoon character Tweetie along the way. Here, the malicious baby bird is still naked and lives in the wilderness. Therefore, his whole body is painted in the WB cel color for skin tones whereas his beak and claws are yellow (best described as goldenrod).

Colors to Structure the Day
The two cats' attempts to catch the boid take place over the course of one day and are broken into four segments. These four segments are visually distinguished by four very distinct sky colors:

1. In the morning/dawn, the sky is pastel green with lilac-grey clouds.

2. At noon, the sky is azure (blue) with white clouds.

3. In the evening, the salmon/purple sky looks just like after sunset.

4. The night sky is about the same dark blue as in THE HEP CAT.

While the sky colors are relatively obvious, the distinctions do not stop there. Each of these segments displays a different color scheme favoring different prop colors and lighting conditions.

However, character colors never change according to these conditions. In my opinion, this is due to two concepts. The obvious economic one: keeping colors consistent is cheaper. This is a Schlesinger cartoon, after all. But in order to get away with this, you need character colors that go with almost anything in the background. Black and white do in fact harmonize with anything because they are basically just values. Spots of red also happen to be unproblematic.
from THE RIVER (Renoir, 1951)

That leaves the skin tone which brings me to the other concept: Technicolor realism. At the time, Technicolor consultants made sure that in live-action movies skin tones kept persistent regardless of extreme lighting conditions. So everyone was used to evenly lit faces even in night time shots when this cartoon came out.

Although the sky changes quite a bit, the ground reflects these changes but is generally stable. Overall, it is the most unobtrusive element of the cartoon. There's hardly any detail and apart from the "Victory garden" in segment 3, it just provides a plain for the characters to stand on.
Daylight influences the earthly brown only slightly, except at night when the change is obvious.
I now will look at the four color schemes separately:

1. Morning: Red and Green

In the beginning, it looks like A TALE OF TWO KITTIES was taking place in the same environment as THE HEP CAT, only during the day. The camera starts panning along a muted grey wooden fence with a lot of trash in the foreground.
Click on the image to see the characters on the right.
But unlike most of Clampett's introductory pan backgrounds, this one is not saving any time or money since its boards are fully animated. Behind it we here two Abbott and Costello impersonators so that we are intrigued what they look like when they finally appear at the end of the fence.
In keeping with the dump foreground we see cans and old boots kicked around behind the fence. As in most WB or MGM TOM & JERRY cartoons, these props are either brown or in primary colors.

Harmonizing pastel sky and cloud colors
At dawn, the background colors look very muted overall. The main contrast is with the black and white cats and the saturated spots of red (ears, mouth). After the expository dialogue, however, the main prop color of this segment enters in the form of intensely saturated red farm house.

This is obviously a glitch: no other background of segment 1 features a blue/white (segment 2) sky.
Basically this is a red/green complementary color scheme that favors red by toning contrasts of saturation. Or one could say that this is red against muted earthly colors that lean towards the green/turquoise in order to heighten the contrast.
Also note how often forced perspective is emphasized in this segment.

Forced perspective: height and vertical action are emphasized...
...and milked for gags.
Tree colors are "realistically" brown and green like a child would paint them. The only important prop that is not red in this segment is Tweetie's straw colored nest that is very close in color to the harmonious colors of Tweetie's naked body and feet.
Tweetie's nest in Segment 1 (left) and 2 (right).
2. Noon (Plain Day): Blue and Yellow
After showing off the comic potential of Catstello's "height-o-phobia" in the exposition, the second segment focuses on Tweetie's reactions to the cats' attacks.

With the focus on Tweetie's nest, goldenrod yellow becomes important and replaces red as prop color. Overall, red and green are superseded by blue and yellow as quasi complementary colors that structure the images. Now the sky, however, is equally saturated as the props. Therefore, we feel that this segment takes place in plain sunlight that brings out all the "real" object colors.
Springs, box and nest are all yellow against a blue sky with white clouds.
The props are either muted (grey, brown) or yellow with small red objects.
3. At Dusk: A Purple Glow
After two schemes that were based on colors as far away from each other on the color wheel as possible, the fading sunlight now yields a color concept that favors neighboring colors for both backgrounds and props:
A-D: Background colors, E: apple, F: house, G: anvil, H: wire.
Basically, all these colors are shades of red and/or blue. The salmon sky opens the spectrum to skin tones and Tweetie's feet which again works in accordance with the neighboring color concept.

Although the reddish glow does not affect any of the character or prop colors, the painter achieves the same effect by mainly using red and blue props with spots of yellow.

Harmonious props: red apple, red and muted blue exploding device.

While there is hardly any contrast between the red apple and the purple sky, the worm which is very slight and only visible for a few frames stands out because of its alien green color.

Even the Scandinavian style red house fits in very well (we did not see it in segment 2).


Both the power line and the anvil contain enough blue to contrast against the roof and sky.

And when in the end the whole area gets sucked into the ground by the force of the falling anvil (now more grey than blue), in contrast to Catstello the background trees and rocks are clearly affected by the dusk light.

The animators did not pay much attention to the background layouts: Babbitt's feet look misplaced on the Victory Garden. But in this shot we see that white is his natural hand color as he wears yellow gloves.
4. Night: Total Blackout
Many of Clampett's cartoons of the early 1940s ended on a wartime/propaganda gag. In this one however, the flying and air raid allusions seem more in keeping with the rest of the story. Up to now, the film makers have gone to considerable lengths to emphasize the distance between Tweetie's nest and the ground. Babbitt has forced Catstello into unsuccessfully climbing, bouncing and blowing himself up resulting in ever more extreme falls and impacts. Therefore, it is only logical to try flying.

In the last segment, the predominant color is dark blue. In the first shot we see the transition from dusk to night with purple vanishing on the horizon. In the next shot it is completely dark. The red rubber band stands out against the blue sky pretty clearly.
The remaining props are either brown or...

...desaturated (grey).
While the background is affected by the darkness the characters are not.

Whereas segments 1 and 3 were based on the predominance of red, segments 2 and 4 are based on two-tone schemes of blue and yellow with the blue sky dominating yellow props.

yellow bullets light up the blue sky.
And suddenly in the final closeup, the cats' eyes are yellow. Since there is so much "white" (actually grey) in the picture, the yellow serves to set the eyes apart from the less important hands and helmet. Besides, they are representing lit windows and therefore have to share the color of all the light sources that are blacked out in the final gag.
Here we are very close to the color scheme of THE HEP CAT again.

The cartoon ends with the now famous "all lights out" blackout gag. That's all Folks!


* I will focus on the Abbott and Costello aspect in my introduction of the cartoon in the Filmpodium Z├╝rich, May 30, 2013, 6:15 pm.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

HIAWATHA Revisited

There is one bonus feature on last year's POCAHONTAS (1995) Blu ray that justified buying the disc even for someone like me who isn't too keen on revisiting the flawed main film. To my knowledge, no one has reviewed this eleven minute clip yet.


Years ago when I first read Charles Solomon's book "The Disney That Never Was", I got really excited about two abandoned projects. One was the FANTASIA (1940) encore piece CLAIR DE LUNE which in my youthful spirit I immediately decided to remake (without having known about the 1995 restoration of the original). The other one was Disney's in-development-version of Longfellow's poem "The Song of Hiawatha":

"[Walt] kept bringing it up over the years, trying to find the right way to do something with it. He said to us, 'there's something there, y'know? Something we could do - something that's right for us. I don't know what it is or how we'd do it. Don't think of a film, don't even think of a show - don't limit your thinking to a regular theater. Maybe it's something out in the woods, or on a mountain, maybe people are brought in - or - I don't know - but there's something there!'"
(Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston in "The Disney That Never Was", p. 180)
 "A crew of artists led by Dick Kelsey sought to trim and reorganize Longfellow's sprawling 'Indian Edda' into a straightforward story that could be told in a single film." (Solomon, p. 180)
Charcoal, pastels; artist: Dick Kelsey

According to Solomon the feature was in development until the end of 1949 when it was finally shelved. The book contains many beautiful pieces of color artwork, mainly by leading artist Dick Kelsey.

It is well-known that Eric Goldberg, Mike Gabriel and art director Michael Giaimo looked at these HIAWATHA sketches when they developed POCAHONTAS. On the European BD we can now join them.
According to Goldberg, Minnehaha was the inspiration for Pocahontas' friend Nakoma.

After a short introduction by Charles Somolon, Eric Goldberg narrates an eight minute version of the full plot as visualized by storyboards (most of it enlargements from photostats of whole boards) and color development art. Listening to this retelling of the story, it is hard to imagine the many realistic looking characters animated convincingly. This and its primarily adult subject matter are probably the reason why the plug was finally pulled.

One of the photostats the storyboards are taken from.
Even those that are too small to be in focus are included.
Since this is not a gallery but an After Effects enhanced animatic, the images are always panning or zooming. This makes it harder to freeze frame and closely look at them. On the other hand, this whole feature is in HD which means that the picture quality is better than in any of the previous concept art galleries on DVD.

Of course, as usual, no artists except Kelsey and Bill Cottrell are credited, the clip is fairly short and obviously, the POCAHONTAS parallels are slightly if not unduly emphasized. But to date, this bonus feature is the most comprehensive collection of HIAWATHA artwork available. If you want to know what little there is to know about the development of the project, Solomon's book is still the place to go.
This reminds me of the great paintings by Canadian artists of the Algonquin School (Group of Seven).



Goldberg claims that POCAHONTAS' use of non-realistic color for emotional value was inspired by these concept drawings. If only they paid a little more attention to the absence of pink and purple...
Some of the images seem to be photographed straight out of Solomon's book.

Preview:
Originally, I planned to write a paragraph about the story itself as presented by Eric Goldberg. But especially in the light of Disney/Pixar's current DIA DE LOS MUERTOS trademark controversy these remarks have grown into a longer essay which I will have to revise for a future post.

In the meantime, it is time for another Clampett analysis!

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Screening DR. STRANGELOVE

My favorite (if rather inaccurate) foreign poster.

Some films never seem to become outdated. Unfortunately - one might add considering the fact that what keeps DR. STRANGELOVE (1964) still fresh is the current revitalization of the policy of deterrence in some parts of the world. Fortunately however, even 50 years later the film itself remains compelling and dead-on.

I am currently preparing an introductory lecture focussing on dialogue and acting for a theatrical screening on June 13, 2013 in Zug (Switzerland). As usual, I cannot possibly incorporate every detail that I find into my lecture. So after a short summary of what I intend to center on, I will have a look at two rigid compositions that caught my eye.

Stanley Kubrick's third film about the absurdity of war and his last black and white picture was also the beginning of his trademark style of ambiguous narrators (just think of Alex in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, 1971). While he exposed a seemingly omniscient third-person narrator as slightly unreliable in THE KILLING (1956) and a literary first-person narrator as delusional in LOLITA (1962) he not only opens DR. STRANGELOVE with a Brechtian news-reel narrator but presents us with three self-proclaimed first-person narrators who each impose their perspective on an isolated group of people.

Capt. Mandrake - Gen. Ripper - Dr. Strangelove - Maj. Kong - Gen. Turgidson - President Muffley
As embodied by Sterling Hayden, George C. Scott and Slim Pickens, these three characters are distinguished by contrasting voices and ways of speaking. The same goes for all the secondary characters played by Peter Sellers. In fact, it is the acting and Kubrick's dissection of military and diplomatic euphemisms that turns a dead serious thriller (Peter George's "Red Alert") into a biting satire. 

Disordered Communication and Framed Isolation
There are certain shots that fans and scholars have come to identify as Kubrickian: the low angle shot of a staring face, highly symmetrical long shots and the neverending tracking shot. A former photographer who often drove his DOP crazy or even operated the camera himself, Kubrick relied on meticulously composed images in almost every shot, though. This may be one of the reasons why his filmic worlds seem so inescapable and claustrophobic at times.

It is amazing in how many ways he is able to exploit Ken Adam's stylized James-Bond-type "war room" set, for example. When President Merkin Muffley talks to Premier Kissoff on the phone, a black bar in the background visually separates him from the Russian Ambassador, emphasizing the rift between the two and the film's major theme of communication between isolated spaces. Furthermore, this black bar looks like the splitscreen indicator common in movie and comic phone conversations. However, in this film, the phone seems to complicate communication - it separates the characters rather than bringing them closer together.
Ambassor and president in isolated spaces within the same frame.
SPOILER AHEAD: When General Jack D. Ripper tries to persuade RAF Capt. Lionel Mandrake of his fluoridation conspiracy theory, Ripper's head is narrowly framed by a doorframe. Soon after, we learn that this is the door to a bathroom in which Ripper's story finally comes to an end. And like arrows in a graphic representation, the guns at the wall all point to the characters' head like a visual reminder that their office is surrounded by attacking soldiers. But these guns may also foreshadow Ripper's bathroom scene.
In both of these shots, only one character looks at the other, there is no eye-contact. In the Ripper scene, Mandrake (left) is nervously messing around with a chewing gum, one of the few recurring props in the film that is not a communication device.