Our guest blogger, Michael Kurinsky, worked at Walt Disney Feature Animation for nine years as a background painter until 2004, when he joined Sony Pictures Animation as a Visual Development Artist on the 2006 release, Open Season. Michael art directed Sony’s 2009 release, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, as well as helping out with color scripts for the 2011 Sony/Aardman release, Arthur Christmas, and this year’s Hotel Transylvania. On his own time, Michael continues to work at becoming a screenplay writer.
NOTE: There is a 6-page pdf of illustrations to this blog. They’re cool — and really helpful. They’re referred to throughout the blog. So please download the .pdf now and use it to follow along with this brilliant piece:
FADE IN. A young boy explores a cluttered basement at his Grandfather’s house. He opens up an old steamer trunk and sifts through the moth-eaten clothes. At the bottom of the trunk is a large rolled-up piece of parchment. Spreading it out reveals an ancient treasure map. With great excitement, the boy throws on a baseball cap and dashes outside with shovel in hand. The map leads him through the woods behind his Grandfather’s house. He spends the entire day seeking out all of its clues. The sun begins to set as he steps into a clearing. At the center of the clearing is a letter X made of stones. The boy digs furiously until he hits something solid. He pulls out a tarnished metal safety deposit box. His hands tremble as he reaches to open it.
Now I know at this point, you’re all asking the same question that I am… What color is the boy’s baseball cap? No? Well, as an animation art director, that’s the kind of question I ask myself when reading scripts for the movies I work on. Coming up with appropriate color is a big part of my job. From choosing a little boy’s cap color to deciding the entire lighting scheme for the climactic third act is my way of contributing to the telling of the story. Thus, the better I understand the elements of story, the more informed my color choices will be. I can personally thank Save the Cat! for helping me with that.
Like I said, my day job is that of an art director, but by night I am an aspiring writer tapping out screenplays on my laptop. Whenever possible, I try to bring what I’ve been learning about story back to my day job. Animation is a genre generally geared towards the family, meaning the appeal is broad. I have to connect with an audience that ranges somewhere from 4 to 104, so keeping the story points clear is a must. Color can be a powerful tool for telling story. Before a note of music is heard or a line of dialogue is spoken, the tone of a scene can first be felt by the colors that are chosen. Sometimes that means going with what is familiar, i.e., warm colors are safe and cool colors suggest danger. If you open a scene with blue skies and budding pink flowers, there’s little chance that (spoiler alert) Simba’s dad is going to meet his demise in that sequence. Reversely, if you flood a scene with sinister red light and long contrasting black shadows, don’t have your hero singing about how they “have a dream”.
In the movie Hotel Transylvania (in theatres NOW! — shameless plug), I was asked to help out Art Director Ron Lukas with his lighting/color script. A lighting/color script is just what it sounds like, a series of small paintings done to show how color and lighting evolve during the course of a movie. It helps the director keep track of where their movie is going visually. The prologue for Hotel Transylvania sets up the entire relationship between Count Dracula and his daughter Mavis, as well as his attitude towards humans. To make this clear I went against the normal conventions with the color. (See Fig. 1, Page 1 of the downloadable pdf.)
The movie opens with the type of familiar lighting and color that we normally associate with Dracula, cold with harsh shadows. But for this film, it’s a total misdirect. We find out that Drac is actually “stalking’ his baby daughter in her crib and immediately the light becomes more warm and inviting. This lets our younger audience know that our monsters are nothing to fear. The intent of the cool blue light is now used to reinforce Drac’s belief about “those humans” in the outside world. At one point, the cool light (see Fig. 1 bottom row center) “reaches” in to Dracula’s safe warm haven, foreshadowing story points that will be revealed later. It is crucial that the story points in this prologue are clear. The whole premise of Dracula building a hotel as a safe haven for monsters depends on it. The right color/lighting helps to reinforce it all.
As the Art Director of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (available on DVD and Blue Ray… again, shameless plug), I had to figure out how the lighting/color unfolds for the entire movie. This meant deciding what lighting was appropriate for every major beat. What works better with the Catalyst? Warm or cool? A dab of blue for the Break into Two? How dark should Dark Night of the Soul be? You get the picture. (See Fig.2a (ACT 1), Fig. 2b (ACT 2), and Fig. 2c (ACT 3) of the downloadable pdf.)
One of the biggest contrasts I wanted to show was of how our hero Flint Lockwood’s world changes from ACT 1 to ACT 3. When we meet Flint in ACT 1, he, as well as the entire town of Chewandswallow, is in stasis. They are all stuck in a rut. Flint wants to prove himself a great inventor while the town longs to return to their glory days when sardines weren’t “really, really gross.” They are both looking for a miracle. I chose to light most of ACT 1 with grey overcast skies. The grey desaturates the color from the town to support the story point that all the “color” and joy has gone from everybody’s lives. (See Fig. 3.)
So when Flint “unveils” his new invention that will reinvigorate the town in ACT 2 and almost destroy it in ACT3, I used it to telegraph things to come, color-wise. The vapor trail that emanates from the machine is a rainbow hue, hinting at what the world will look like when the machine completely takes over.
In ACT 3, the environment is created entirely by the machine, which has a multi-colored disco ball for a brain. It stands to reason that it would light its environment in rainbow colors, so that’s exactly what I did. (See Fig. 4.) In the end, all these color choices were driven by and supportive of the story. Like you’ve heard a hundred times before, the number one thing about movie making is story, story, story. This even applies to the art direction. Now get out there and paint! … I mean write… or both.