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Color Palette

The color palette of a film is the canvas on which the look of the film is drawn. Color, next to music, is probably the thing that affects the audience the most, and the choices of dark, light, bright, or pastel color schemes create an indelible feeling in them. It is important, therefore, that we as filmmakers be in control of how that feeling is created.

There is a temptation to think of the design of a film as fixed, but that is far from the truth. We may have been inside a character’s room early in a film, for instance, but the look and feel of the room doesn’t need to stay the same when we return at the end. The overall feel at the start of a movie, as a character struggles towards a goal, should feel much different than at the end, when he or she achieves the goal.

Robert Richardson, who was the director of photography on The Aviator, and who worked with production designer Dante Ferretti, talks about director Martin Scorsese’s approach to the color of that film in this way:

  • "Prior to my involvement, Marty designed a color timeline that influenced every creative department. He wanted the progression from a two-color palette to a three-strip palette to approximate the technological advances of the film industry at that time, but more importantly, he felt it would mirror the characters' emotional evolution."8

In other words, it is important to have the color palette evolve over the course of the film.

Every film is rich in production design, but the designers for animated films, such as Finding Nemo, have a particularly broad canvas to work on. Like the design for fantastical films, such as 300, The Lord of the Rings, or Sin City, the design for animated movies doesn’t require as much grounding in reality.

Finding Nemo is a film about a father’s quest to find his son, and how he meets a series of characters along the way who help him overcome his fears. A logline for the film might be:

What we learn from this logline is that we are going to be concerned with the father’s arc in this film. The movie isn’t about the son, Nemo, but about the act of finding him. This sets up the overall shape of the film: The ocean is presented as a beautiful, enchanted place that evolves, during the horrifying prologue, into a scary, ominous place for Marlin. It is only his fears that prevent him from seeing the beauty of the reef where he lives with Nemo. In fact, it is the outside world of humans who present the real danger to his way of life.

With this analysis, it was essential to create a world in which the reef is a beautiful, brightly colored environment, in contrast to the world that is going to take Nemo away from Marlin. By showing this change, the filmmakers can help the audience to feel the conflict that Marlin is feeling.

This contrast is perfectly illustrated in the scene in which Nemo, at his first day of school, is captured by a scuba diver collecting fish for pets. Marlin is forced to chase the escaping boat, hopping in and out of the water, until he ventures farther from the reef than he has ever allowed himself to go.

The analysis for this scene is:

In order to move forward, let’s ask the same questions that we always ask in our search for LEAN FORWARD MOMENTS.

  • Whose scene is this?
  • How does this character feel at the start of the scene?
  • How does he/she feel at the end of the scene?
  • Where does that change occur?

It is clear, despite the scene beginning with Nemo on his new adventure, that the scene is about Marlin: He is, after all, the focus of our logline and the sequence ends with his dilemma.

Marlin begins the scene watching his son go off on his first day of school. He has a lot of misgivings and fear about Nemo’s new adventure, even though they are surrounded by their vibrant and happy home on the reef. Marlin ends the scene determined to find his lost son, despite the fact that it will take him away from the reef and into unknown territory. He has moved from safety, even with his fear, into a much scarier world, and the focus on his mission allows him to ignore what should be a far more frightening world. In other words, Marlin has moved from safety into danger, but he has also begun his journey from fear to self-assurance.

That first LEAN FORWARD MOMENT happens when Marlin forbids Nemo from going out to the boat and participating in school. Nemo tells his father that he hates him, shocking his father, and swims out to the boat anyway, directly challenging him. The second LEAN FORWARD MOMENT happens after the chase, when Marlin eventually loses sight of the boat (and Nemo) and finds himself in the deep waters.

How does the production design, along with the other facets of the production, help the audience to feel those LEAN FORWARD MOMENTS?

Pixar Animation, which produced Finding Nemo, has a very specific process for the development of both the script and its animation. They develop a series of color scripts, which are essentially colored drawings that encapsulate the feeling of each scene—the varying color palettes that will help to tell the story.

Production designer William Eggleston explains how the team approached defining the fanciful nature of the reef (DVD Extras in Finding Nemo): “The coral reef is so beautiful but there’s so much there, and we had to find a way of organizing it, or paring it down, and choosing” (FIGURE 4.2).

Figure 4.2

Figure 4.2 The color script for the scene depicts the reef area as colorful and joyous.

The color scripts give the enormous production team a sense of the spirit of the film in this reef location. It shows how the colors of the film will help the audience to see how Marlin’s fears are based on something very personal and are somewhat overblown (FIGURE 4.3). This is a beautiful, inviting world, the production design is saying. Marlin’s fears must be irrational.

Figure 4.3

Figure 4.3 This color script, as Mr. Ray takes Nemo and the class on a field trip, gives a sense of the beauty of the reef area and the bright blue of the water.

In the documentary accompanying the film’s DVD release, there is a video of the crew videotaping a scuba dive for research. It is interesting to see that, as the camera jumps off the side of a boat and submerges, the color palette of the underwater world gets darker and dimmer with fewer colorful details. Yet that was clearly against the feeling that the collaborators needed in order to tell the story—they wanted it to look more detailed and more inviting, as you can see in a frame from the final film (FIGURE 4.4). Notice that, although there is an increased amount of detail and brightness in the final image, the spirit of the color script is still there—the world is a bright and beautiful place. The color scripts, which had been created some two years before this final frame, clearly gave the filmmakers a great visual description of what the film really needed at its start.

Figure 4.4

Figure 4.4 The world that Nemo experiences, as he rides off on his field trip, is vibrant and exciting.

Eggleston describes how the crew needed to choose a variety of color palettes for the water alone. You can see how the team used a very clear and light blue for the water in this part of the film. And, despite this happy treatment of the water and its surrounding colors, there is the contrasting point being made in that Marlin is still fearful of it. As production designer William Eggleston says:

  • "What we decided to do was to establish a range of underwater color to track the characters through the film. So with the reef, we start with crystal clear, very light greenish-turquoise, and as the film progresses it gets darker and turquoise, and then black and then blue. And then as we get closer to Sydney Harbor, it becomes greener."9

This means that the color palette needed to change in order to accentuate the LEAN FORWARD MOMENTS of the scene.

The first moment occurs at the Dropoff area, after Nemo and his new friends see a boat floating on the top of the water. At that moment, Marlin shows up and wrongly accuses his son of wanting to swim out to the boat. In front of Nemo’s new friends, Marlin orders his son to return home and to give up school for that year. Nemo, for the first time, stands up to his father and tells him “I hate you.” He then swims out to the boat and is quickly captured by the scuba diver. This begins a chase sequence, as Marlin tries to catch up to the boat and rescue Nemo, jumping in and out of the water.

The color palette of the ocean begins to change at this point. Instead of Marlin being a bright orange color in the midst of a large number of other bright colors in the frame, he becomes surrounded by much darker hues. At times he is the only brightness in the frame (FIGURE 4.5). Also, the colors that surround him when Marlin is above the water line are always much more muted than the ones back on the reef. So, as the scared little fish ventures out into the waters, preparing to face his fears, the colors around him will have to change (FIGURE 4.6).

Figure 4.5

Figure 4.5 As we pass the first Lean Forward Moment, Marlin becomes the only bright color in the middle of the forbidding ocean. Notice the change in the color of the water.

Figure 4.6

Figure 4.6 As Marlin ventures out into the darker unknown ocean, the color palette (as shown in this color script) changes so that he is the brightest spot in the frame.

The color palette changes again later in the film, as Marlin arrives in Sydney and is much closer to saving Nemo. But at this point in the film, when he has just lost his son, the world that he is forced to move into is much more dangerous than the one he has left behind. It is no coincidence that the collaborative team’s choice of color palette here, as Marlin begins his journey towards overcoming his fears, is very different than the one before this LEAN FORWARD MOMENT, when he lived on the reef, consumed by his fears.

The way in which the color palette of the frame changes around Marlin helps to give the audience an underlying emotional sense that things are changing with him. And that happens right around the scene’s LEAN FORWARD MOMENTS.

This attention to detail in color doesn’t apply just to animated films. You’ll see more about using colors to add to those moments in live action later in this chapter when we look at The Godfather.

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