Going Around: Colorful Descriptions

Hey all, I (Nagi) am in charge of this week’s Going Around feature. I wanted to stick with the theme of fall, but we already did spooky last week. But the autumnal times are also periods of wonderful color, at least if you’re living in certain climate zones. So I want to ask:

Why is color important in creative media? What are your favorite examples of color in a piece of art or a narrative?

Nagi: Color interests me most when it’s used as a narrative device. Setting tone and invoking emotion is pretty commonly found, but I’m talking more mechanical. I’ve seen stories that effectively add another layer of meaning through judicious application and association of color with character, setting and animation.

Two relatively recent shows that made me think a lot about color in this way are Kill la Kill and Kiznaiver. Both are offerings from the laudable Studio Trigger, rising from the ashes of Gainax and saving anime one cour at a time. There is a lot to talk about in Kill la Kill, but I think it’s safe to say the implementation of color within the narrative is pretty striking. There’s nothing especially unique or game-changing about how the directors go about it. Rather, it’s like eating the cheesecake of a master pâtissier; its excellence doesn’t rely on complex decoration or rare ingredients. You can get blown away by the beautiful implementation of simplicity. Kill la Kill could be a textbook for teaching color theory in media, mostly due to how accessible the examples are.

Kiznaiver deserves this praise as well, though color is more of a central component to the visual storytelling than it is in KLK. The show throws seven major characters at you immediately, and assigns each of them a color that permeates their entire persona on-screen. During the first few weeks of airing, people on discussion forums would just call them by their colors, rather than their actual names; going further, once shipping inevitably started, the ship names were simply colors that were the combination of the pair being shipped. The directors were right to rely so heavily on color to keep the narrative engaging while viewers got into it, and continued their gambit all the way through to the end, though I won’t spoil that part.

Scrivener: I think the first time I ever really noticed color as a compositional element in a piece of art was when I watched Let The Right One In for the first time (the trailer has some potentially disturbing shots). As the relationship between the two main characters grows, slowly, color begins to creep into the desolate Swedish winter–until the film’s slowly-building tension reaches a peak. Then, suddenly, we’re back to gray and white and black and brown. It’s a beautifully executed through-line to the inner lives of characters in a film driven by that which is left unspoken.
If we’re going to talk about color, we have to talk about Mark Rothko. Rothko’s work is color unchained, color that takes our breath away by the simplicity of its presentation, and the starkness of its juxtaposition to other color, or to void. It challenges us to be honest with ourselves, to tap into our most fundamental emotional selves, to be taken in by the color. Few abstract painters–few artists in any medium–compare.
To be honest, in my own work, I’m a little terrified of color. It’s a result of this delusion that is inflicted on us as artists, that good art is the only art that matters or is worth making. Combine this delusion, and the resulting reticence to practice (for fear of making bad art) with the material necessities of painting or drawing, and you end up with a Scrivener who’s too anxious about spoiling good materials to allow themself to make anything visual. Digital art is easier, because there’s no paint or pencils to consume; all that I have to contend with in digital art is distraction and frustration, which are often enough to have me put down the tablet and fail to pick it back up for months at a time. Color is easier for me in writing, but in writing, you can only hope that your description is vivid enough to conjure the same shades and hues you’re imagining (unless you have an illustrator, or you’re Mark Danielewski). I’ve been dabbling in visual art for years and years now, but if I want to make any progress, I’m going to have to learn to work with color at some point.

Miki: Reading this prompt got me excited all over again about Emily Carroll’s “Through the Woods”, which I discussed in last week’s edition of  Going Around. As much as I’d lke to talk your ear off about the positively brilliant use of color in that collection of things that go bump in the night, I will resist temptation, and give us something new to chew on this week!

I received the first volume of  Kenya Suzuki’s “Please Tell Me! Galko-Chan” as a gift from my close friend/remarkable human being, Jenny McKeon. Jenny had just recently finished translating the book for Seven Seas Entertainment, and I was curious to read through her latest conquest. Based on the cover, it would be easy to see why someone might be skeptical of the series–cute girls and jokes concerning breast size don’t typically read well, do they? But fret not–the inside is full of pleasant surprises!

The story follows the everyday lives of three girls we only know as Galko, Otako, and Ojou, as they tackle classic high school stereotypes, archetypes, and a barrel full of  questions pertaining to their common enemy: puberty. This results in a series of crude curiosities, comedic misunderstandings, a string of playful teasing, and most importantly: unexpected friendship.

“Please Tell Me! Galko-Chan” is particularly noteworthy for a few reasons. First and foremost, “Galko-Chan” is a prime example of what a comedy driven by girls, for a largely female audience can look like. The absolutely ridiculous narrative takes us on a journey with a group of young people who are trying to uncover the mysteries of their growing and changing bodies. As an AFAB individual, it was equally refreshing and embarrassing to see the weird whisperings of my teenage years printed out in a comic book format. From period related woes to anime-induced sleep deprivation, I was more often than not guffawing at just how loudly these girls speak to my teenage experience. However, the reason I mention “Please Tell Me! Galko-Chan” for this particular edition of Going Around is not for the aforementioned substance, but for its bright, bubbly, visual appeal.

For anyone who regularly consumes manga, it’s pretty standard to assume you’ll be watching your story play out in black and white. Craving color outside of that gorgeous cover art? Dry your tears child–”Galko-Chan” has got you covered.  Kenya Suzuki abandons any and all use of black in the illustration process, opting instead to use navy blue and rich purples as a stand in. When this unusual color technique is used in combination with bright items like Galko’s yellow button up sweater, or Otako’s brilliant red glasses, the end result is a high contrast, sweet treat for your retinas.

An uncanny color palette also lends itself well to exploring the visual textures of “Galko-Chan”. This most notably happens within Suzuki’s character designs. My favorite example is the contrast between Otako and Ojou’s school uniforms. The same blue is used to color both the blazer Ojou wears, and the pilled sweater that Otako is often seen in. The quality of line provides different textures, and personality types to each character’s design. Ojou’s blazer is marked for its tidy, subtle texture, while Otako’s sweater has a much more frantic, unkempt texture, to match the character’s gruffness.

A fun-loving adventure starring three teenage girls as colorful as the pages they come from, “Please Tell Me! Galko-Chan” feels something akin to a jar of lollipops– visually flavourful, individually wrapped stories, with a lingering, goofy sense of nostalgia.

Snacko: I can’t think of any one monolithic way stories use color except for a few visual shorthands, ie sepia for flashbacks or more saturation to give otherwise normal looking places a certain harshness. Color palette can definitely dictate the tone of a scene or the feel of a place, but I don’t think enough about color to make any sort of cogent point about it’s use in media.

That’s why I’ll go with a weird one. Near the end of Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, two central characters, brilliant marine documentarian Steve Zissou (Bill Murray), and one of his crew members, the dopey, likable Ned (Owen Wilson) who wrongly believes Steve is his father decide to work off the stress of a pirate encounter by making a quick bi-plane pass of the area. They’re theoretically searching for the shark that killed Steve’s first mate, but both seem to have largely given up on the goal, and they spend the time talking. After Steve reveals he kept the letter Ned sent him as a child, the plane malfunctions and crashes.

The camera follows the plane as it lands in the water, alternating underwater shots with increasingly fast flashes of red and white, then begins tracking Steve. As he swims to Ned the tide picks up, occasionally wetting the camera lens, only calming once Steve swims to Ned’s side. They begin casually talking about the possible causes for the crash. After a few seconds (long enough for us to suspect that Ned is safe after all) a few waves reach the lens again, and one of the water droplets turn red. After the reveal, every time the camera dips underwater, the water is bright, unnatural red. The two continue to talk calmly until we cut to Ned’s funeral.

Wes Anderson tends to use impossible camera techniques and bright flashes of color in more violent moments. Something like Ned’s death in The Life Aquatic or Snoopy’s death in Moonrise Kingdom feel so sudden and so shocking that he has them physically break the reality of the film. As stylized and absurd as Anderson’s movies tend to be, they show us things that are actually possible. The bright colors used in these scenes look garish, even amateurish, completely at odds with Anderson’s carefully framed, orderly blocking and camerawork.

In a movie as sad, strange and funny as The Life Aquatic something like Ned’s death should come as a shock. It should be unpleasant to look at and should break the film’s reality. This is a world that enables Steve’s self-loathing, even rewards him for it. That it should have real consequences is something Steve can’t conceive of, and the world of the movie rewards him for believing so strongly in his own immunity. Any breach of that understanding could not be filmed in the same style as the rest of the movie, and must be striking and unpleasant in a way nothing but bright colors piercing a gorgeous, muted ocean can be.