Before 1932, the only full color cartoons anyone had ever seen were in the Sunday newspaper comics, so it was only natural that when the first animated cartoons appeared at the labs, the technicians tried to match their harsh and gaudy and brilliant colors. When the original art material was sent over to show the delicate gradations that had been so carefully painted, the reaction was still, "Why do you want that? This has more punch and sock to it!" Gradually their attitude changed, but somehow the film did not. For years Walt battled with Technicolor to get them to give him the exact colors his artists had painted, until everyone began to realize that it was the color system in the film itself that was too crude to control to such a fine degree.
It worked quite well for all the hues in a middle value, but once the colors started getting to the lighter shades they bleached out quickly. Teeth that were supposed to be merely clean became so chalky they fairly leaped out of the mouths, whites of eyes glared like headlights, soft foam on water looked like piles of popcorn. And on the other side of the scale, anything slightly dark went almost black.
To get a cream-colored dress or a soft bluebird was not easy, and a black dog. like the Scotty in Lady and the Tramp, was almost impossible. If he were painted darker than a medium value, he went too dark to see any detail or facial expression. Careful shades of grey had to be selected, and the feeling of a black dog came from painting the backgrounds very light behind him.
Every color system on film has its own strengths and weaknesses that somehow must be mastered by the craftsman who wants to put his color theories on the screen. It is often an annoying and frustrating gamble but it is worth the effort if one is at all concerned with the appearance of the product. T. Hee, brilliant caricaturist, stylist, and director, claims that, "Color is equally important to the drawing itself." It supports the whole idea being presented, certainly, and it controls the mood completely, leading the audience as surely as the music track from one feeling to the next. More than that, colors have their own vitality, making characters as well as situations exciting, restful, happy., or even funny.
The delineation of any personality almost starts with color. Costuming has been an essential part of the theater from the beginning, but slightly less understood by many is the impact and potential of the colors themselves. T. Hee is more sensitive than most when he claims. "On some of the caricatures ... I would make the guy's face green, because of his character ... he didn't look good in any other color. . . . And other people, I would make their faces completely red, and their faces were not red. . . . Red is vibrations and green is vibrations and all of it is electric and it's alive and if you're around a person for a little while ... he takes on a color!"
A color sense is like any other talent; an artist either has it or he does not. Relative values can be learned, but the primary approach always will remain, making that artist orthodox or sensational, dark and mystic or sparkling, realistic or abstract, no matter how well he ever leams to put colors together. This is a constant concern to the producer who wants a special feel to his film. Even if he has a dozen color stylists and background painters, seldom will any be exactly right for the proposed subject. There must be conferences, criticisms. suggestions, and expert guidance to obtain a result that has the full compatibility of idea and graphic representation.
The man selected will have the responsibility for creating not only a color key for the whole picture, but the basic appearance of the characters in the various sequences. The director always may have visualized his heroine in a pink gown, but if pink does not fit the color scheme being suggested, he had better be prepared to change his concept, perhaps radically. The ephemeral world of a "Nutcracker Suite" or the quaint realism of Geppetto's house only can evolve as the colors work together perfectly. The background man seldom will have complete authority in this area, since no film is fully successful when one function has dominated. To see that a balance is maintained, the director and his layout man work closely with the painter while the producer watches the results carefully.
Further help comes from the Color Model supervisor. who must have considerable ability to qualify for her job. She knows the Ink and Paint Department well, knows what is easy to do and what is difficult and time consuming, approximately how much any process will cost, what colors are available, and even which ones are stable or cause problems. In addition, she is a fine artist and has a good color sense. She knows how much the thickness of a eel will darken a color and what to mix to compensate for the loss. To the uninitiated, the list seems endless.
As one of the women put it. "You had to know every other aspect of the business to do your own work, and be creative about it. . . . We're like a liaison between all the departments."7
Finding a set of colors that will work with the general scheme, the specific background, and the needs of the character is only the beginning of the problems the Color Model expert faces. All of the earlier work has been done on paper with a variety of techniques, and now a way must be found to achieve an equivalent effect in flat shades of tempera paint within outlines on a cel. Handsome, appealing characters like Jiminy Cricket or Thumper look so right that the average person has great difficulty in imagining their being any other way, but they all took imagination, dedication, and persistence.
One small example is the expense that will be incurred in putting any character on the screen. To begin with, each color represents an expense in itself by the time it is mixed, put in small jars, dispensed to the painter, put in the exact area on the eel, and then allowed to dry. Each use of color adds an additional expense, so the Color Model advisor speaks up early when she sees a bit of questionable detail on the animator's drawings. That item will have to be drawn many times, have a color selected, be painted on hundreds of eels, and, finally, checked carefully. We were told. "Each button costs ten thousand dollars!" and we became very selective in our decorative additions to the characters. The question is constantly asked. "Is it worth it?" "Do we really need that extra button?" "How about the buckle on the belt—does it really need three colors?"
Jiminy Cricket had 27 colors in Pinocchio, but when he appeared later in the Mickey Mouse Club films that number was cut to nine. Almost any character will have that many colors, no matter how simple he is. There are always lots of little places to paint, such as inside the mouth, the eyelids, the bottom of the feet; a person docs not ordinarily think of these as having a
different color, yet it is needed for definition.
Everyone knows if the character is a drab little guy, a flamboyant extrovert, a deceitful villain, a sweet motherly type, but the selection of the exact colors that go together to create this appearance is a matter of personal preference. The better the taste and judgment of the color model experts, the more handsome the character will be. These challenges are compounded by ihe fact that colors that appear right in a daylight setting become garish against a nighttime background. Often a different set of colors will have to be chosen for the night scenes or for some other unusual sequence with a special lighting or mood. And the problem does not stop there.
It is not enough to choose colors for one character that will work throughout the whole film. His colors also must be related to those of all the other characters appearing with him in all the sequences; and. inevitably. the shades and hues that seem perfect for one figure clash and tight with the perfect selections for the character beside him. Then when that annoyance is solved, the next sequence introduces new figures who upset everything that has been decided up to this point.
There is still more. Often there will be more than one character representing a general type of person in the story. There might be two bad guys working as a team, or three fairies who are always together. The ultimate, of course, was seven dwarfs. Setting the color models is a difficult and time-consuming procedure. It takes more than one nice sketch to find the answers.
If the picture is designed to be realistic, bright colors on the characters will be a problem, causing the background painter constant headaches as he endeavors to fit the figures back into his painting or maintain a successful color scheme for mood. Snow White running through the woods in terror is a good example of colors that adapted as well to the threatening forest as they had previously to the sunny glade where she had been picking flowers. Muted colors and a moderate range of hues give the painter far more latitude in creating exciting pictures on the screen. A character that is all one color w ill limit the backgrounds to about two sets of colors for the whole picture; any other combinations will be muddy, too light, too colorful, too dark, or just bilious.
Black is a complete absence of light on the screen and thus becomes a hole rather than a color. While it may add accent and sparkle to a still drawing, it has a tendency to suck the life out of the object when it is projected. In Sleeping Beauty, the bodice of Merry-weather's peasant costume was black; and while it made a brisk pattern in the overall design, there was an amazing loss of vitality in the scenes in the color print compared to the rough pencil animation.
Black details also tend to blend into the darker areas of the backgrounds, causing them to lose their identity. The marcelled waves of Captain Hook's hair in Peter Pan caused much consternation in the Inbetween Department because the contour could not be a straight inbetween of the lines, but had to be a complete drawing of the hair in a new position. However, his hair caused even more consternation in the final film as it faded into the dark shapes in the background in scene after scene. We could have saved ourselves a lot of work and money if we had known that the colors behind him were going to be that dark.
As a film, Pinocchio is undoubtedly the most gorgeously intricate that ever will be done. Fantasia had more impressive scenes and visual surprises, but for richness of handcrafted detail. Pinocchio will never be surpassed. Walt knew that he wanted a picture with a great feeling of atmosphere, with dimension and space in the backgrounds. He wanted dimension in his characters too, with an emphasis on depth and roundness in the actions. To aid in this, the Color Model advisors. working with the background painters, the color experts, and a special group of effects animators had developed several techniques that changed a fiat area of paint into a rounded form. They used a blend that was rubbed on, dry brush that was stroked, and airbrush that was sprayed on.
Gradually one department after another was created to control these special processes. The airbrush department alone had over twenty women in it. all adroit at controlling the delicate spray that softened harsh areas of color. The kitten Figaro had both airbrush and drybrush on his face to give him the soft, furry look so typical of a kitten. Since there was no way of making these particular effects exactly the same way twice in a row, there was bound to be a flicker and a crawling when it was finished, but it helped the appearance so
<3 mist Bill Tytla—Fantasia much that the decision was made to use both techniques.
It was imperative that this work be started early so there would be time to experiment. This had the added advantage of keeping the whole crew excited as they saw new effects being created for the picture even though their own part of the production at that time might have been minimal or routine. It also gave the animators a chance to make their own suggestions and even to incorporate emerging ideas into their handling of the characters. When Walt started Fantasia, many of the pictorial suggestions were so different from the standard appearance of cartoon material that a special crew of color experts was combined with the technicians and cameramen to see what could be done in this new direction before committing the whole studio to the project.
Typical of the new men were established painters such as Lee Blair, Elmer Plummer, John Hench, and painter-teacher Phil Dike, who was put in chargc of all color. Everyone was encouraged to experiment in techniques, design, and effects. As John Hench said, "That was one thing; if you wanted to do something Walt would let you do it." John got into backgrounds, which soon led to a curiosity about what happened in camera. He had done some photography, so he tried different tests to see what effects he could gel. This led to three years in the fabled Special Effects Department doing everything. At one time he even did some effects animation. His sense of design led to work at WED, the "Imagineering" subsidiary company that created Disneyland and Walt Disney World. He later became one of WED's chief executives.
Walt tried these men here and he tried them there, as he found out what they could do best; and with his incessant drive to place an individual for maximum creative output, he started them developing his radical ideas for a concert feature film. Like the stylists, they were unhampered by past experiences on cartoons, and were free to express an idea in the medium that best suited them, without regard for how it eventually could be duplicated on eels.
At one meeting, Walt's eye was captivated by a series of soft pastel sketches on black paper showing a tiny fairy spreading dewdrops on the plants at night. Walt particularly liked the delicate handling and the glow that seemed to surround the figures, and he wanted both of those features kept in the final form, no matter how it was done. To the assembled artists, some old and some new. he said, "I say there are possibilities in those backgrounds down there . . . and with our dew-drop fairy there's a chance for a different treatment. Get away from the vivid colors and get a night color for her. . . . Our backgrounds should be done in a fantastic way when rendering them; so I say, let's open up and give us something that hits us, BOOM!"
When the meeting was over the puzzled technicians asked each other, "How the dickens are we going to get this thing on the screen?" The new artists wondered, too. Obviously, more painting was not the answer. They would have to explore all the technical devices and processes that might help them, as well as think up some new things to try in every area. Studying the sketches, they gradually found certain elements that could be drawn, and others that would have to rely on what the camera could do: the lenses, the filters, the double and triple exposures. Still others might be handled with special work on top of the eels: airbrush, oils, smudges, blends.
They tried a first test and looked at it long and hard. "Gee—it doesn't look anything like the sketch Walt liked; what do we do now?" All the experts sat in on these showings, offering suggestions from their own limited knowledge, and the materials were prepared for a second try. Finally a way was found—it might have taken as many as twenty separate exposures under the camera, or a mask to block out light from underneath, or a soft multiplane effect with slightly out of focus edges; each scene was different, each took imaginative exploration, but each eventually surpassed the original sketch in every way. Those dewdrop fairies glowed and shimmered, were feminine and delicate, and worked in backgrounds of pure magic.
The white ballerina blossom that floated so gracefully down onto the placid, black water was inked in a white outline that matched the color of the petals. But she still looked too harsh, too chalky. The scene was shot again with a slight diffusion that helped, but it was not until separate exposures intensified the light that she seemed to glow with a pristine beauty, filmy and radiant. Elmer Plummer had designed the scene, knew what he wanted in values, and worked with the
men in Special Effects until they got it; but he still painted the background himself to be sure that it would look just the way he wanted it.
Elmer explained his position this way: "I was a bona fide artist and had pictures hanging all over this country, watercolors and oils, and all of a sudden I found myself doing story sketch in pastel, but done in such a way that it was hard for a guy who was not a pro—who did not know the technique—to put it down the same way." Walt relied on this uncompromising insistence on exact values and relationships to get the new effects he was seeking on the screen. The commercial artist who might say, "That's good enough," would never have the persistence or the judgment to know the difference. It often took great persistence.
One of the most impressive scenes in that sequence is the pride of the harem in the Arabian Dance, the delicate, white fish with the long flowing tail, surrounded by her bevy of maids. As their black, semi-transparent tails enshroud her at the start, there is a
filmy light provocatively gleaming behind this host of veils. Never has an object on celluloid looked so diaphanous and delicate. When this effect finally had been perfected, it presented an enormously complicated job for the cameraman, but that was nothing to the shock he received when the completed scene was brought to him.
The stack of drawings was far more than one man could carry—the scene was over 100 feet long—and it looked like a small mountain, for it included not only separate drawings for the fish but for all of the sparkles, the effects, the shading on the tails and the fins. Each level added another group of drawings. In fact, the scene had been so unusually large that the animator. Don Lusk, and his assistants had been the subject of several gag drawings showing them dwarfed by the scene or buried under layers of paper. The action eventually was broken into three scenes, which made it easier to carry, but it still took just as long to shoot. !
The success of these glorious scenes was due in large measure to Phil Dike, the studio's color coordinator. He had an ingenious solution to the problem of getting a satisfactory result from the elusive capabilities of the film being used. He asked Technicolor to; print a scene as far to the red side as they could (what they called "out of line"); then, gradually, on succes-1 sivc prints, he had them come back, one stop at a time, to normal. Then he ordered the same thing with the blue. This way he knew what he could expect, j what hues were on his palette, and could work to their limitations.
'These experimenting artists had further difficulties with the slightly more organized departments thil surrounded them. Walt had a way of telling one person to go ahead and get what was needed, to do whatever was necessary to complete the job—without telling any of the other people who would be involved in such a project. When these new men went to another department and announced that they had to have a certain thing, or something had to be done a certain way.or they needed six inkers right away to do some work directly for them, there were all sorts of departmental jealousies and wounded egos. Supervisors were trying to solve new, unheard of problems, run their departments efficiently, and still give Walt what he wanted; so, when some outsider came in with an idea of taking over for a while, there naturally was some conflict. No one could ever run to Walt and ask him to straightenil out or define lines of authority, so each man had to be his own diplomat and do what he could to get others to , cooperate.
That was the worst part of Phil Dike's assignment He was respected and he was liked, but he had to work entirely through other people and their departments, with words as his only tools. He could not paint it for them, or shoot it for them, or change a lens for them, and since he worked primarily with other artists there was no end of opinions on what the color should be and how it could be obtained. But Phil was very diplomatic. always took the blame, and somehow saw that the most beautiful scenes ever done in animation 1 were captured forever on film.
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