Friday, April 29, 2016

Simulating a projector shutter in HUGO 3D

Martin Scorsese's HUGO (2009) is a real compendium of film and animation techniques. In a pivotal scene, the film even simulates the one device that is most often taken for granted but is essential for the illusion of motion in mechanical film projection: the shutter.

If you pull a film strip through the gate of a projector past the lamp, you simply see a fast moving strip in a blur. In order to fool the eye into perceiving motion within the frame (due to persistence of vision) the images on the filmstrip have to stand still for us to register. Then the strip has to be transported without the viewer noticing. This is achieved by an intermittent mechanism consisting of a Maltese cross for transportation and a revolving shutter (see below) that shuts out the light exactly at the time the film strip is transported to the next frame.
(Image from English Wikipedia)


As we all know, a flip book does not need a shutter because the pages flip out of sight (or rather past our focus). Due to its nature, in a book as opposed to consecutive frames on a filmstrip the images stay in place.

In a key scene near the mid-point of HUGO, while Méliès' pre-production art floats around the room due to clumsiness on behalf of the investigating children Hugo and Isabelle, Martin Scorsese shows us two animation sequences based on sheets of paper:
I like to add a time code* so that the scene is easily found within the film and we also see how long each image is on screen.
video


The Fire-Breathing Dragon
The seven animation drawings slightly aligned.
In the first one of a fire-breathing dragon, Scorsese's film basically simulates the action of flipping (or rather rolling) through a stack of animation drawings. This is the same mechanism as a flip book. But in addition to that, Scorsese simulates a visual shutter:

Whenever an animation drawing is floating away, another piece of paper zooms through the frame (in roughly the same direction, and closer to us in 3D) obscuring the actual transition like a rotating shutter in a film projector. In the video excerpt above you can hear that this is matched by a chattering sound. Note that the animation artists even included a "hold" of two identical drawings (#5 and 6) to accent the animation.

This scene is based on a Méliès drawing (above) for the film LE PALAIS DE MILLE ET UNE NUITS (1905). A variant of this scene is later used in an extensive flashback sequence to show how Méliès shot his films (below).
In the real film, the dragon scene looks slightly different with a less elaborate dragon on display.

The Magical Thaumatrope
The butterfly lady animation in the second part of the video above plays a trick on the setup of a Thaumatrope (see a Thaumatrope in action). When we turn a piece of paper around its horizontal axis, the transition to the next image, i.e. the flipside, is "invisible" because the paper is visually contracted and then expanded. We do not need a shutter to mask the transition.

Because we focus on an object close to the imaginary turning line, we see it long enough to register. This also works so well because of the strong contrast between the moving object (the bright fantasy character) and the muddy background. The impossible "magic" trick here is obviously that, every time the page turns, a new animation frame is visible resulting in a continuous motion whereas a Thaumatrope only combines two images into one.

* The time code refers to the Blu-ray3D version of HUGO.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Sumptuous Costume Colors: Soft and Simple (Part 4/5)


This fourth installment in a series about analogous costume colors in Disney films deals with how the concept of analogous costumes is used in CINDERELLA (1950) and PETER PAN (1953).

The mid-century Disney features that I analyze in this entry have been subjected to heavy digital restoration. In the case of CINDERELLA, the complete removal of film grain and any traces of texture that hinted at manually painted cels did not only diminish the colored outlines but gives the impression that it was painted and composited in the 1990s with Disney's proprietary CAPS software.

Regardless of whether you prefer historically correct presentations or not, such an impression influences reception in dangerous ways. If a film like CINDERELLA that is so much the product of conservative post-war escapism is perceived as contemporary (or maybe from the 1990s ? all production dates have been omitted from DVD packages) the dated acting and attitudes towards women become problematic.

If its genuine Technicolor look would remind us of the proper historical context (making kids aware of the fact that it was made long time ago and still holds up as entertainment), it would be clear that its attitudes are not contemporary any more. Thus, the film could still be appreciated as the tightly plotted, gorgeous looking gem it really is. One can only hope that the original successive exposure negative or at least some IB prints are still existing in the archives and will not be replaced by a digitally "enhanced" internegative.

The basic color concepts, however inaccurately pushed to extremes to match contemporary tastes, are still clearly visible ? or even more so, now that characters and backgrounds are not unified by the organic quality of film stock any more. So when analyzing any of these films, we have to keep in mind, that saturation, values and color temperature might have looked differently (just compare the two DVD editions of SLEEPING BEAUTY).

But in our digital age, it is also important to recall that each Technicolor print (not to speak of "normal" prints for re-issues) looked slightly different, even though there was a basic aesthetics to them that was easily recognizable. Compared to what we get on DVD and Blu ray nowadays, they did look rather dark with rich blacks and probably warmer overall because of different lamp temperatures.

Color Connotations: Cinderella
With that out of the way, let us start with animals again. Somewhere in between the woodland creatures in SNOW WHITE (1937) and the clothed mice and ducks of the cartoons, Cinderella's little helpers are composed of a barking dog that looks and behaves like a dog, a few sparrow-like birds with minimal clothes and a cast of fully anthropomorphized talking mice on two legs.
The plumage of these birds is painted in closely related shades of one single hue each, like slick prototypes of the analogous color scheme. The more interesting part of their design lies in the strange pieces of clothing that a) connect them to the mice (why would birds wear shoes that stop them from clasping branches?) and b) add individuality to the most generic design imaginable. Contrast is provided by scarves and caps in soft pastel versions of complementary colors red and green.
Top row: actual costume colors of blue birds; bottom: respective hues.
The animals most people remember, though, are the mice Jacques and Gus. From what we have seen in previous films, their costume colors reveal quite a lot about their personalities and roles: like Mickey (or Doc in SNOW WHITE), Jacques must be the leader because he is wearing saturated warm red that overall leans towards orange rather than purple (the designated villain color, but more on that later)
Warm red (leaning towards orange) is often shown as the color of leaders: SNOW WHITE (left) and CINDERELLA.

Purplish red is most often reserved for hostile characters: SNOW WHITE (left) and CINDERELLA.
Gus on the other hand is the more simple-minded, confused Goofy type with more disparate colors one of which is green, a complementary to Jacques' red. Among the rest of the male mice who all wear blue and yellow (or green in between), he stands out because of the warm yellow shirt Cinderella gave to him.
Jacques is easily identified by his orange-red clothes...

...as opposed to the other mice's colors ranging from yellow through green to blue.

The leading female seamstress mouse is wearing quite an elaborate dress in different shades of pink/magenta with a lilac hat.
CINDERELLA's most obvious stylistic departure from its golden age predecessors SNOW WHITE, PINOCCHIO (1940), DUMBO (1941) and BAMBI (1942) lies in a new dominance of art deco pastel colors. These soft colors of higher value and mid-saturation are most evident in costumes and still determine how children imagine princess dresses today.
Contrasting cold blue (Cinderella, water) with warm brown (horse, father, puppy).

While color temperature is an overarching structuring element with light blue against brown/beige (above), predominant costume colors are light blue, light green and pink with an overall emphasis on pink/green contrast as can be seen within groups of mice as well as Cinderella's wealthy stepsisters:
The stepsisters are distinguished by magenta/green contrast. The same concept is used for the singing seamstresses.
Both these contrasts, brown/blue as well as magenta/green, are complementary colors in the additive RGB system. I usually call them "negative colors" as opposed to complementary colors like red/green in the painterly red/blue/yellow subtractive color model (more on confusing complementary colors here). If you want to see the negative colors of an RGB image, just invert it:
Magenta and green are opposites or "negative colors" in the additive RGB system.

The same goes for light blue and brown.

The magenta/green contrast is slightly more interesting than the cold-warm concept because neither of these hues is receding. Because of their opposing overall colors, we can not only distinguish these otherwise similar stepsisters, but also store them in our brain as the green and the magenta sister without having to attach their appearance to their names. But the excessive lushness of their gowns illustrates Cinderella's blatant discrimination in the household after her father's death. After all, the prologue shows us that Cinderella once wore a lavish but far less garish and therefore purer princess dress as well.
The sisters in the prologue, reconstructed from two screenshots. Together with Cinderella's dress they form a triad of pastel red (pink), blue and yellow.
Although the colors feel vastly different with excessively patterned fabrics that would have been a nightmare to animate, the 2015 live-action remake adhered to the basic concept of single-hue dresses in clearly distinguishable colors:
A similar triadic color scheme in the 2015 live-action remake.

So while her stepsisters are properly dressed in artificial colors, Cinderella is clad in warm earthly browns of discrete values balanced by a light gray shirt (leaning towards cold teal). Cinderella might be the one held captive in an ivory-tower, but based on her costume she looks less one-dimensional and certainly more down-to-earth than her aloof stepsisters.

Even on identical costumes, Cinderella's color make the first "Anna" look more down-to-earth than the other two.
Color schemes like this often reflect the notion that supporting characters are more one-dimensional compared to the protagonist. Hence, more interesting character means more variety in its color design.
Protagonist Pedro (right, from SALUDOS AMIGOS, 1942) is less monotonous than his supporting character parents.

Sumptuous vs Simple: Peter Pan
I have already written extensively on complementary red and green in PETER PAN (see Captain Hook's Red Coat: Part I, Part II, Part III). Peter Pan and Captain Hook are complementary opposites and like all the characters above can be described by their analogous color schemes: Hook is all red and purple (he a leader AND a villain, after all), Peter is all green (leaning slightly towards warm yellow and cold blue, depending on the scene). Tinkerbell is actually wearing green as well and therefore is visually connected to Peter. But her strong glow makes her look like a yellow light source.
There is one additional concept to gather from this film upon which I have not written yet: communicating simplicity. So far, it has become clear, that in order to make costumes look rich and sumptuous, they are broken into many different parts with closely related colors (e.g. Cinderella's stepsisters). On the other hand, to make clearly distinct pieces of clothing go together well, the same principle can be applied with more closely related shades of the same color (e.g. Jacques) or contrasting colors from two different hues (e.g. Cinderella) or one hue but strong contrast of value and saturation (e.g. the boy).
left to right: Jacques (CINDERELLA), the boy (RELUCTANT DRAGON), Cinderella herself.

To show the simplicity of a costume such as a nightgown or a pyjama in contrast to fancier dresses, these garments are often painted in only one color even though the design would allow for different colors (Wendy's sleeves, for example).
Simple clothes are in one color only (two, if we count the darker shade of Wendy's belt and bow).
The same triad as above.
Nightgown triad of blue, green and magenta.

The gauchos in THE THREE CABALLEROS, top row: actual soft colors; bottom row: respective hues reveal the primary triad of yellow, blue and red.

As these screenshots prove, the simple gowns are not new to PETER PAN, but here it is probably the first time that the protagonists (Wendy, John and Michael) keep it on throughout the whole film. More often, pyjamas are only seen for brief moments like when the gauchos in THE THREE CABALLEROS (1944) are undressed by a draft. Not surprisingly, their pyjamas are in muted versions of the primary triad yellow, blue and red that dominated so many of 1940s Disney characters.

In the concluding chapter of this series I will finally return to SLEEPING BEAUTY (1959), Disney's crowning achievement when it comes to analogous colors.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Swiss Animation Hits Video on Demand


swissanimation.ch, the online platform of GSFA (Groupement Suisse du Film d’Animation, the Swiss section of ASIFA) has recently made animated shorts available through vimeo. Their VoD concept is very simple and practical: you can rent a film for CHF 1.00 (48h streaming) or buy it permanently for CHF 15.00.

ERLKÖNIG (Georges Schwizgebel)
Currently ten films are already available including Georges Schwizgebel's latest animated tone poem ERLKÖNIG (winner of two awards at Fantoche and the Swiss Film Award for best animation). Since many film makers wait until their films have completed their initial festival circuit, more shorts are to be made available over time.

MESSAGES DANS L'AIR (Isabelle Favez)
Apart from Schwizgebel and maybe Isabelle Favez whose film MESSAGES DANS L'AIR also appears on the list, Swiss animators are not as well-known abroad. But as the steadily increasing output of shorts and student films from Lausanne and Lucerne (and now even animated features) proves, the scene is very much alive and ready to face international exposure beyond film and animation festivals.

Here is a selection of some successful recent films worth checking out (no dialogue, so no language barrier). You can rent or buy the films by clicking on the trailers:

L'ILE NOIRE by Nino Christen


THE KIOSK by Anete Melece



TIMBER by Nils Hedinger

Note: Not all films are available in every country, as territorial rights contracts with distributors may apply to VoD as well.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Sumptuous Costume Colors: Saturation and Temperature (Part 3/5)

After looking at how the Disney color stylists always adhered to the same basic concepts even when experimenting with expressionist techniques, in this third installment I will focus on analogous colors within their own brand of naturalism/realism.

The individual cartoons of Disney's South American package features cover a lot of different color concepts. In THE THREE CABALLEROS (1944), there are natural rural animals that are based on very narrow analogous colors. The earthly colored flying donkey feels decidedly more down-to-earth than his mythological counterparts in FANTASIA simply because its earthly brown-gray feels more natural.
Left: THE TREE CABALLEROS, right: FANTASIA (Beethoven sequence).
Likewise, the brown country bird in the same story looks a lot less exciting than the exotic birds, although they are equally detailed. If so, the lavish impression does not only stem from analogous colors and level of detail but also from the hue itself.
left: brown bird on brown branch; right: blue bird on bluish branch.
These two frames above highlight the extent to which characters and backgrounds were unified by analogous colors. There is less conflict between dimensional backgrounds and flatly painted characters if their colors bridge the stylistic gap. We can clearly see the connection between the bird and the branch it sits (or sat) on: brown for brown bird, bluish violet for blue-violet bird. In both cases "realistic", i.e. yellow, beaks and feet contrast the respective colors. The same applies to the screenshots below:
Analogous color schemes with added spot color, backgrounds with soft versions of bird colors.

From Feathers...
As you can see on each of these birds, the basic analogous scheme is balanced by a highly saturated additional color. But there are also heavily anthropomorphized cartoon birds like the Aracuan or Donald's new Mexican friend Panchito.
Red, purple, orange: clearly distinguished (left) vs closely related (right).


This is probably one of the most difficult analogous color scheme. Making orange, red and purple work together is quite a task. But Mary Blair seemed to be an expert at this, as you can see from this "Penelope" painting (below right) that was allegedly made during her South American trip with Walt and El Grupo.
right: "Penelope" painting by Mary Blair.

Since Blair is not the only "art supervisor" credited on THE THREE CABALLEROS (Does anyone have exact information who worked on which segments?), I have always assumed that she had something to do with the wildly stylized Mexican fiesta in which Panchito appears. This hot color palette is prominent throughout the Donald segments and strongly defines the style of the pastels under the credits. The impact of purple and red is often increased by patches of complementary green.
Top row of color patches: actual colors as they occur in the frame; bottom row: corresponding hues, i.e. actual color with brightness and saturation adjusted to 100%.
All analogous colors except the green waggon.
...To Costume Colors
The same concept can already be found in SALUDOS AMIGOS (1942) in a less stylized environment which brings us back to costume colors. Here, we have no expressionist or hot background colors, just the soft unobtrusiveness reminiscent of a Tom & Jerry cartoon. Gently muted grays, browns and greens in bright summer light.

According to Technicolor realism and lighting conditions, skin tones (and I continue to identify Donald's white plumage as his skin tone) remain constantly "natural". This way, the saturated costume colors stand out quite strongly. Again the combination of deep orange and dark red/purple is balanced by green and teal.
Right: untypical in nature, therefore more exotic: colors arranged in rainbow order (red, orange, yellow)
Again green balances orange and red.
In this final image (above, bottom), the segment's full color palette with soft pastel colors against saturated warmer hues is nicely displayed.

Warm vs Cold
Even before BAMBI with its beautifully executed brown vs gray concept was released, the new 1940s concept of analogous costume colors to clearly contrast characters was implemented in the Technicolor segment about the titular character in THE RELUCTANT DRAGON (1941). Here, the character color palette is heavily restricted to two opposing hues: cold teal (bluish gray, if muted) and warm orange (brown, if muted).

While this extends to the whole composition in modern films that rely on the orange-teal color grading clich‚, here these character colors are balanced by natural skin tones and generic backgrounds (green grass, blue sky etc.). The young protagonist is completely wearing brown, i.e. warm colors, the extras with their rather detailed bluish costumes blend in with the scenery if we do not see their hair.
The boy vs the crowd: warm vs cold colors.
For MICKEY AND THE BEANSTALK in FUN AND FANCY FREE (1946), Mickey, Donald and Goofy received new costumes. While Mickey and Donald wear fancier versions of their respective trademark red and blue, Goofy's clothes feel considerably different. Yet, they are based on the same basic hues as his 1930s outfit: blue and orange. Mickey's yellow shoes have been replaced by a yellow hat. As a group, they represent the three primary colors red, yellow and blue (with secondaries green and violet reserved for the villain).
More variety within costumes, but with more closely related colors.

The primary triad as the basis of 1930s good guys: red, yellow, blue.
But why do these costumes look so much more unified and lavish when hardly anything in their design was changed? Looking at Donald (above), the lavishness certainly arises from the higher saturation (at least as we perceive it). Plus, Mickey and Goofy feel a lot warmer because they wear more red, orange and yellow. But to me, the key aspect is the close proximity of the colors. Goofy basically wears the same outfit as the boy from THE RELUCTANT DRAGON (below). The cloth colors are arranged so that they get successively darker the closer they are to the ground.
The boy vs Goofy: similar color schemes.
Apart from the blue hat, Goofy's costume looks like a more saturated version of the one worn by the boy.

In the case of Mickey, proximity of colors is so close that the three red pieces of clothing look like one. If we apply his colors to our Anna template, we get a rich looking gown that reminds me of Scarlett O'Hara's lush red dress from GONE WITH THE WIND (1939).
Left: Scarlett O'Hara; right: "Anna" wearing Mickey's costume colors.
To illuminate this comparison, let me approach it from the opposite angle: How would you translate the lushness of Scarlett's red dress into a practical cel animation costume? If I deduce correctly, there are basically two shades of red for two overall pieces of cloth. With only two different colors painted flatly, the dress looks rather lackluster despite the many additional lines. In reality, much of its tactile texture (creases, fabric quality) is communicated via light reflections and shadows. So what if we add basic shade and glow layers?
Left: Scarlett's colors look rather plain; right: the expensive 1930s solution: add shades and glow.

The second version certainly comes closer. Animating such an elaborate design would exceed most budgets (and nerves), though. So again, like with the harp (in Part II), it seems to be more reasonable to lay the burden on the ink and paint department and divide the dress into more different shades of red to simulate a more detailed texture. Although I have picked the different reds randomly, they look very similar to those of Mickey's beanstalk costume.
Scarlett's costume divided into many different colors (all picked from the photograph) looks more sumptuous than the plain version above without additional animation layers. Now it looks very similar to Mickey's.
There is another reason, the colors in FUN AND FANCY FREE look deeper and more sumptuous than in the shorts made a decade earlier. In the 1940s, Disney artists dared painting backgrounds more monochromatically. Just compare the following two screenshots of penguins in the natural habitat:
PECULIAR PENGUINS vs THE THREE CABALLEROS.

In the 1934 Silly Symphony PECULIAR PENGUINS (above left), the slightly blue ice is carefully balanced by gray rocks, green water and a sky that bleeds into yellow on the horizon whenever it is visible. Technicolor films were still a novelty exclusive to Disney (the first live-action Technicolor film premiered the following year) and "natural" colors were carefully balanced but seldom omitted. PECULIAR PENGUINS certainly could not be mistaken for a black and white film print tinted in blue.

By the time of THE THREE CABALLEROS (above right), the whole background - sky, water and ice - was painted almost monochromatically in shades of blue with only props in different colors. Similar to this monochromatically cold landscape, the droughty country in FUN AND FANCY FREE is almost monochromatically painted in shades of warm but dry orange.

Since the features were thought of as more serious than cartoons, the lighter gouache of 1930s backgrounds was replaced by more theatrical lighting which resulted in many darker areas that were particularly well-represented because of Technicolor's potential for dense blacks. In fact, Technicolor prints are usually a lot darker than what we are used to today. Thanks to the imbibition process, it was possible to recreate sculpting lighting effects like in a Rembrandt painting where the surrounding darkness makes colors appear deeper and more saturated.

Rembrandt: Portret van een paar als Oud-Testamentische figuren, genaamd 'Het Joodse bruidje'
Rembrandt lighting: Mickey in FANTASIA (left) and FUN AND FANCY FREE.
These two Mickey shots (above) may have the same basic lighting scheme. But in FANTASIA (1938-40) the lighting on the costume was achieved by the "realistic" and more expensive way of additional shadow animation whereas in 1946 Mickey's red costume was broken into three segments with hardly any shadow animation in the film.

The fourth installment deals with how the concept of analogous costumes is used in CINDERELLA (1950), PETER PAN (1953).