Today’s artwork may seem a bit odd compared to my normal posts, because I am featuring a type of art work I have never talked about before. This piece from The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a type of art called a colour key. It is one of the most important tools used by the background art department of an animated film. I have not been able to positively track down the artist for this particular piece, but it was most likely created by Lisa Keene, the Background Supervisor for the film, or one of the many background painters that worked on her team. I have been wanting to write a post discussing the importance of the background department and color keys for a long time, and I felt The Hunchback of Notre Dame was the perfect film to do so with because of its breathtaking backgrounds. This colour key in particular depicts one of the most stunning shots in the final film and had a huge role to play in making the final shot look as dramatic as it does.
The term background art department might seem a bit self-explanatory, its the department that creates the background paintings for hand drawn animated films, but actually. there are two departments that create the background. The first is the layout department, which is a complex entity in itself. For the context of this post, they’re sort of the set designers, they draw out all the backgrounds for an animated film. The background art department is a combination of set painters and lighting designers, they paint the fleshed out version of the background that the layout department draws. They choose what style each background is painted in, whether it be the medieval tapestry style of Eyvind Earle or the quirky modernist style of Mary Blair. This includes choosing what colour to use for each and every part of each background. This may be one of the most important parts of their job, because color creates the lighting, and by extension the mood of each shot. Background artists for animated films have more freedom than any lighting designer for a live-action film. They don’t have to rely on realism or nature, but can easily use their paints to give a sad scene all blue tones or a tense scene all red tones, thus heightening the mood of each sequence. It is this power that makes the background art departments one of the most subtly important departments in animation.
Colour keys are small concept paintings that help the background artists plan these colours and create the lighting and the mood. The background artists will make one colour key painting for ever sequence in the film, plus some extras for any strong changes in tone mid-sequence. Then they’ll pin all the paintings up next to each other so that the Background Supervisor and the Directors can get an overall picture of the colour scheme of the film and how the mood changes from scene to scene. You’ll notice from this particular colour key that people and objects are often just represented by simple shapes, and that details are vague or missing all together. That’s because the role of the colour key is focused on the bold, the colours and moods of a shot. This The Hunchback of Notre Dame colour key expresses this purpose incredibly well. Its focus is on the bright orange lighting coming from the blazing fires within the scene as well as the deep shadows surrounding Quasimodo and Esmeralda. Later on in the production process this colour key was used by the background artists to create the dramatic background paintings of Notre Dame in the final version of this climatic scene.
So now you know a little more about the Background Art Department and how they used colour keys like this one to set the mood of this thrilling scene in The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
Image Credit: http://livlily.blogspot.com/2012/07/hunchback-of-notre-dame-1996-character_08.html