The greatest compositions may not always be marred by the likes of Fibonacci; most often it is the simplicity of a composition, in conjunction with lighting, framing and focus weaved together in a semiotic union that defines a memorable, significant shot. The subtle intracies of these elements and the visual and psychological language behind them must be examined to fully execute a successful World-Builders cinematic, and, in due fashion, is what I’ll be doing below, using Jim Henson’s masterpiece, The Dark Crystal, a film that has resonated with me for upwards of a decade.
The Dark Crystal
Henson’s twisted fantasy vision, the Dark Crystal, was released in 1982, drawing on the conceptual work executed by distinctive illustrator Brian Froud. Despite its obvious disconnection from the creator’s previous material, the underrated film was put forth as a family film, praised for its abnormal, high-concept material and its ground-breaking visual effects. The plot follows Jen, an elf-like being traversing the world of Thra to restore the vitality of a world-altering crystal through a shard procured from the visionary Aughra.
The following sequence occurs at the later stages of the narrative. At the culmination of the film, in the heart of the Skeksis’ domain, Jen replenishes the quartz at the climax of the great Conjunction, restoring the fractured urSkeks; two parts made whole.
The dichotomy between the Skeksis and the Mystics is pivotal to the thematic core of the film; first avowed by the narrator during the prologue, and furthermore at the culmination of the film. This is mirrored by shots, monologues and even the essence of the creatures themselves; when the emperor dies, so does the wisest of the Mystics: they are bound. Whilst at first it seems to be a clear parallel drawn to the tropes of good and evil that are rife within the fantasy, it is later revealed (and reasserted explicitly in the spin-off comic The Power of the Dark Crystal) that the Mystics are marred by neglect; yearning for a time since past, “numbly rehearsing the anicent ways in a blur of forgetfulness,” (Llewellyn, J. J., 1982). This sets apart the uRu (Mystics) from proactive force of good, and portrays them as passive, indifferent group who places their faith in Jen, the sole hero (until he meets the likes of Kira). This subtle, but notable subversion of typical fantasy archetypes is an element I have been drawn to throughout many fantasy films.
The fragmented bond between the Mystics and Skeksis only heightens towards the tail-end of the film, where the two races conjoin in a spectacular heavenly light. The destruction of the old world, the old ways, gives birth to a new world.
Although it will be hard to match the hypnotic aura of mystery that the Dark Crystal provides, its overt dramatization of death and rebirth is an instrumental theme of my World-Builders project, Larvatus (after all, what is a narrative about a dying god good for if it doesn’t include a little ressurection?), and would serve as a pivotal example in influencing the semiotics of my piece (lighting, composition, symbolism, codes). Far from being a bastardized version of the union between the Mystics and Skeksis, Larvatus draws on the view of a human psyche fractured between healing a world already tarnished by corruption, and the potential cost of starting anew.
Composition & Balance
The rule of thirds; possibly the most effortless compositional structure: separate thirds of a shot on a horizontal and vertical axis, taking note of directional lines and junction points to place key points of interest. Sometimes, simplicity is where the money is. The ceremony sequence of the Dark Crystal entangles focal elements with intersectional points, both with singular and multiple iterations depending on the context and execution of the scene. Having a singular focal point in a composition dominated by a sole figure serves as an effective method of highlighting, introducing and suggesting the importance of a character, such as in the following:
Unlikely the previous example, this shot has multiple focal points (seen below). Blender Guru recounts that, often when using this compositional rule, that focal points can be “countered” by an opposing point of interest, placed on the opposite junction line (2014). This imbalance draws attention to the dominant focal point, with less priority for an equal division of thirds, and moreso on the disparity between the focal point and the space that surrounds it.
The rule of thirds suits perfectly well with some of the preliminary ideas I had regarding potentially scene composition, with an emphasis on character and environment. The use of a single focal point accompanied by sub-focal elements, or, alternatively, two opposing focal elements, offset along the vertical axis, balanced by their weight, is a direct execution of effective composition structure. Whilst balance does not necessarily require symmetry, these two elements are “…the two wings of a composition are equal is a most elementary manner of creating equilibrium…often the artist works with some kind of inequality,” (Arnheim, 1974, pg. 21-22).
Tone: Lighting, Colour
Lighting, in union with colour, can either make or break a composition, even in the clear presence of a strong composition structure and focal points. One particular shot from the sequence stood out to me as an instance that encapsulates an effectual merger of both these elements.
Although Jen’s face is turned away from the camera, the light from the Conjunction can be seen illuminating it; drawing attention to both the focal points; his face and the window above. This emphasis is highlighted evermoreso by the negative space surrounding them. Whilst Henson could be forgiven for a singular lighting source to draw attention to the character, his use of backlighting ensures that Jen’s figure is not obscured by the darkness of the Skeksis’ castle, whilst still maintaining the appearance that he is contoured against the light of the three suns; his silhouette pulled out from the equally dark values of the background.
This particular method of forcing a character out of a background that is equally dark as the foreground would be useful to apply to my shot; as I aim to preserve the atmosphere with a heavy, rolling background whilst having a major focus on the character. Singular character focal points in conjunction with a placid background and a potential sub-focal point (such as the crystal shard, or the crystal itself in the shot below) aligns with my projected ideas.
The sheer volume of the negative space in this shot, indicated by the darker values puts both focal points in perspective with relation to each other. The use of shadow eliminates much of the elaborate detail carved into the ceiling, which is an effective method of removing the potential for a muddy composition (Feghali, 2017), drawing the eyes directly to Jen and the Conjunction scene above. With the addition of too much detail, the contrast around the focal point may distract the viewer, losing direction within the composition. That being said, this shot still manages to balance darkness with smaller pockets of light that highlight the intraciacies of the castle to the keen-eyed viewer. This particular method of preserving detail but muting it with lighting as to keep the composition clean is one to take away and apply to my own concept.
Colour also plays a part in enhancing the lighting of this shot. With saturation used sparingly in most areas of the picture, the disparity created by the use of purple and red in the suns above and additionally, their reflection on Jen, aids in drawing the eye. The rest of the environment, imbued with dull warm browns, offers little variation, and thus relies on the subtle detailing to generate visual interest.
Particularly of note is the split complementary colour scheme (in essence, a complementary colour scheme, e.g. purple and orange, but with one end extended). As noted by Blender Guru (2014), this colour scheme allows for more freedom with regards to tone and multi-coloured elements.
Despite the warmer colours present here, the castle itself manifests as a morbid culmination of the Skeksis’ essence; their twisted souls and cores, particularly when contrasted against the UrSek’s pinnacle of light towards the tail end of the movie:
Rikard notes that whilst the typical association with yellow, with its high visibility and energy, is usually happiness: an enthusiatic challenge; and when lessened by a drop in saturation or value, its ties turn to that of “caution, decay, [and] sickness,” (2015). Furthermore, the atmospheric cold of the crystal, in combination with the sanctity of the suns above, both represent different elements of the colour purple. By typical linkage, the cool, dark purple of the crystal draws parallels to darkness, mystery; the lure of the unknown, (Rikard, 2015) the power of an artifact, whilst the sun’s hues may suggest power, “amplication of other energies” (Rikard, 2015) (perhaps an allusion to the conjunction itself) or spiritual protection. The Dark Crystal’s subtle but effective use of colour associations & meanings adds another layer to a film already embued with compositional stability, environmental grandeur and a subversion of expectations within the puppeted fantasy genre.
These colour associations would be a valuable addition to any shot for the keen-eyed viewer, and particularly becomes relevant in fantasy projects, such as my own. Although my original plans consisted of a grittier, duller take on the world in conjunction with a monochromatic palette that may have suited the likes of the end of the Lord of the Rings: Return of the King or Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, (seen in some of my early colour keys) the realism may potentially take away from the area that sets apart my grimdark tale from the aforementioned examples: it’s 2D animated. Animation is a staple genre of film & game that is utterly saturated with creative freedom, and why should I out on that?
Arnheim, R. (1974) Art and Visual Perception: A Psychology of the Creative Eye (The New Version) 2 Ed. London: University of California Press
Blender Guru (2014) Understanding Composition [Video]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O8i7OKbWmRM
Blender Guru (2014) Understanding Colour [Video]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qj1FK8n7WgY
Feghali, W. (2017) The Keys to Great Compositions in Digital Painting: Understanding & Improving Your Compositions. Retrieved from http://www.evenant.com/design/the-keys-to-great-compositions/
Henson, J. (Producer), & Henson, J. (Director). (1982). The Dark Crystal [Motion Picture]. United States: Universal Pictures.
Llewellyn, J. J. (1982) The World of the Dark Crystal. Alfred A Knopf, Inc.
Loomis, A. (2012) Creative Illustration. London: Titan Books Ltd.
Rikard (2015, Feb 28) The Psychology of Colour: A Designer’s Guide to Colour Association & Meaning. Retrieved from https://zevendesign.com/color-association/