Many new people who find my work today, think my lighting is simply inspired by me watching a couple of modern films. Either that or I get asked which photographer inspires me the most. The truth behind my lighting and colour inspiration is routed far further back than that though, and not even by cinematographers or photographers at all.
Although I’ve never consciously tried to be inspired by this, my best guess assessment of what inspired me and my work all those years ago was in fact not a photographer at all, but rather a comic.
And no, not one of the cookie-cutter Marvel comics, but Japanese Manga like that of the infamous Katsuhiro Otomo and his now legendary Manga, Akira.
I fully appreciate that not everybody is aware of Manga, but before you turn away and write this off as a simple comic book review, I’d urge you to take another look. My aim here today is not to impress the genius of story telling and design from this genre, but to analyse something that has ultimately been very unique to them; Abstract Colour.
I appreciate that the word ‘abstract’ means different things to different people, but for the sake of this article and discussion, I’ll be referencing the idea that abstract in relation to colour is about a skewed version of reality. Colour that is used in a non-realistic, yet highly effective and suggestive way.
Why the hell are The Simpsons bright yellow?!
Comics, Manga and moving versions of their characters like cartoons and anime, all ask their viewers to put their expectations of reality on hold for a moment. All cartoons we watch are quite clearly not something that is real. It’s this suspension of reality that enables these genres to do several things that other disciplines cannot, and one of those things is mess with colour….. in a BIG way!
Nobody questions why the Simpsons are bright yellow and nobody questions why the cats in Top Cat are bright pink and blue…
It’s because it’s a cartoon, that’s why!
This is a very clear-cut and easy to understand example of abstract colour, the only difference here is that it’s done in such a way that you don’t question it, because of the bizarre nature of the characters surrounding it.
In short; cartoons do all sorts of hella crazy things with colour, simply because it’s a cartoon that is not based in reality.
So what happens if we try to use abstract colour with more ‘realistic’ characters?
It’s at this stage where Japanese comics, or as they’re better known, ‘Manga’ come in. Eastern comics mainly directed their stories to younger audiences, but in the 70’s and 80’s Manga saw a rise in comics being targeted at a more mature audience, specifically the late teens. Although there are many, many great artists from this period, for the sake of this article I will be focusing on one, the now infamous Japanese Manga artist Katsuhiro Otomo.
Katsuhiro Otomo’s arguably most famous work is the Manga Akira, which he began work on in the early 80’s. To give you an idea of scale, Akira was ultimately made up of 6 volumes, each of which contained a staggering 300-400 pages each! It’s no wonder Otomo is so praised for his work on it toady, as it was a staggeringly colossal project to undertake.
So let’s look at Katsuhiro Otomo’s vision of colour back in the 80’s…
No, do not adjust your sets, the Manga was indeed originally in black and white and apart from a few pages of colour at the start. The ordinal Manga was indeed ALL black and white.
The West Wanted Colour
Thankfully though, Akira was receiving so much success in Japan that Marvel’s EPIC imprint wanted it brought to the Western market as well and in 1998 the western world got their wish.
In an Anime News Network interview with Yasumasa Shimizu (Senior Vice President and Board Member, Kodansha*) said this:
“Otomo-sensei didn’t want AKIRA to be perceived as some ‘strange thing from Japan,’ so we put a lot of work into making it accessible to American audiences. It’s unimaginable to put in that kind of effort now, but at the time, they worked on making it all color, and flipping the artwork (to be in left-to-right western style pages).”
*Kodansha was one of the companies that made up the Akira Committee in the late 80’s. The Akira Committee was formed of several large companies in order to fund the colossal ¥1,100,000,000, Akira anime. More on that in a sec.
This really was the first time this process of bringing Manga to the West had happened and although the colouring of Akira was done by American colourist Steve Oliff, every single colour was checked and approved by Katsuhiro Otomo himself before production.
Take a look at some of the original coloured pages from Steve Oliff’s archives below…
I think the above pages are an excellent example of abstract colour, but did you even notice it? Look again.
The first page up there is explains it perfectly. Bright green motor bikes, red roads, cyan sky and the panel with one bright pink cop inside the car and one bright blue cop outside of it.
Can you see now what I mean by abstract colour? These are ridiculous colours, yet because it’s a comic, you don’t question it. Can you imagine that same scene in real-life? Can you imagine seeing those same colours in real-life and not be pulled out of the action due to the colours looking weird? Hard to pull-off right? But not impossible, as we gel-shooters well know.
The Anime Akira
One of the core reasons American colourist Steve Oliff was drafted in to colour the western adaption of the Akira Manga, was simply due to the fact that Katsuhiro Otomo was somewhat busy on other things… namely the film of Akira.
Back in the late 80’s Katsuhiro Otomo was approached to make his Manga into a feature length film. Katsuhiro agreed, but on the proviso that he could maintain complete creative control over the project and even direct it. I mentioned this earlier in the article, but the Akira film was budgeted out to cost ¥1,100,000,000 if it was to do Katsuhiro’s Manga justice (remember that’s 1980’s money).
To give you some idea of the sheer size of this project, the Akira movie was made up of 160,000 individually hand-drawn and hand-painted cells!!!
Can you really imagine someone with no directing experience being given that sort of budget today. To give you some perspective in todays money (2020). That’s like giving $12,145,258 to someone with no directing experience to make a movie!
As it turns out, that was the right call and Katsuhiro Otomo ultimately directed one of the most famous anime’s ever made. In fact it was so well made, that it still holds up to this day… and its over 30 years old now! Sadly, there aren’t too many films from the 80’s that can say the same (un-ironically) .
Abstract Colour in Akira
So here we are, you finally made it to the meat of the article, let’s look at how Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira uses abstract colour and what that means today. Below are some stills from the final movie.
So I ask you; ‘can you see the abstract colour now?’
What I find fascinating about this, is simply how ridiculous and over the top some of the colours are here, yet how we actually never notice it when we are watching the film. This is extremely hard to do, yet Otomo is an absolute master of it.
To further cement this fact about just how colourful this film is, if you’re not familiar with the story, Akira is set in a post-apocalyptic dystopia! How many other post-apocalyptic films can say the same.
In the examples above we have blue concrete, green concrete, red concrete, orange concrete and yellow concrete. And that’s not to mention the red helicopter interior with the purple seats.
Like I said, it seems utterly ridiculous when you spell these colours out, but when seen in context with what’s onscreen, we simply don’t notice it and this is what makes this a masterclass in colour theory too. Otomo is using colours that simply just work well together and if this part is done well, a visual balance is struck and the image is assimilated by us without question.
Abstract colour is not about displaying a series of random colours together, it’s about using colours as a major feature of the scene, without allowing them to dominate it. This is what is truly impactful, but the best part of all, you never notice it happening!
So although we specifically focused on Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira and explored abstract colour within it, there are of course a huge multitude of live-action examples out there too. We won’t go to deeply into them here today, but here are a couple of examples that spring to mind…
I appreciate that you may not have thought I’d use these two movies as an example, but remember, we’re looking at abstract colour, this is colour that is not designed to be a feature or character in its own right, but compliment and develop a scene without you noticing it.
Take a film like Neon Demon as a counter to that. This movie forces colour down your throat every damn second you’re watching it. Don’t get me wrong, I get and respect the technical excellence of this film, but the colour is so dominating it’s actually hard to watch. Compare that to the film Drive, this was directed by the same guy a few years prior to Neon Demon, but try and see what I mean by powerful, yet less dominating colour. The director Nicolas Winding Refn does a far better job here in using abstract colour to compliment and propel the film over simply dominating it.
Don’t get me wrong, there is a time and a place for this extremely dominating colour and there are films that do it well. Films like the original John Wick have scores of exquisitely lit neon coloured scenes or the Shanghai fight in James Bond Skyfall. These are highly crafted and complimentary scenes to the action and story as a whole. But these are not abstract colour pieces and the colour and design in these scenes are characters in their own right.
Sadly, as a result of the successes of earlier film using extremes in colour, many modern films are now quite literally shoehorning in neon and gelled lighting in a ‘tick list’ approach to lighting in their films.
“Okay we’re making a modern action movie, we gotta have someone fighting with a household appliance and lit by coloured lights in a futuristic apartment!”
The very recent (2019) Fast and Furious spin-off ‘Hobbs and Shaw’ saw some hilariously bad gelled lighting with both the main characters getting their own ‘gelled’ scene. The obligatory neon-lit tattoo parlour and the modern apartment with a single neon light flashing outside!!! I swear I’m not making this up. Remember, this is a modern film that had a staggering $200 MILLION BUDGET! This wasn’t a student film, yet the coloured lighting was tacked on to seemingly fill some secret coloured light quota so many modern films have. Watch these gelled-lighting scenes in isolation and they’re hilarious. Jason Statham even fights with a shiny toaster to reflect the light too! They really thought of everything.
….but we’re getting off topic here and I hope that clears up what I mean by this type of colour-use in modern cinema. Sure films like Neon Demon have a lot of great coloured light, but it makes for a better art installation than it does a movie unless it’s done with purpose.
What can we as photographers learn from all this?
In todays world of photography, I can share a gelled lighting shot of a bright blue model with a bright pink background and nobody thinks that’s weird. When I was doing this 10 or even 20 years ago, people would actively say to me,
“Why have you ruined that photo with those awful colours?”
Times have changed and nobody looks twice at a gelled lighting photo today and more and more films are shoehorning ridiculously out of place gel-lit scenes into their films, simply because they can.
Gels are common place today sure, but that can be a good thing if we use this theory of abstract colour to our advantage. Think about where you can add colour to your scene to enhance the drama and engagement, but not to dominate and distract.
The core point I want you to take from all this is this;
Abstract colour exists all around us and if it’s done well, we shouldn’t even notice it.
Taking charge of this and applying it into your own shots is now more acceptable to do than ever before. Just look at all the random colour ‘toning’ we see on Instagram. Our audience is primed and willing to be fooled by it, we just need to be open to experiment with it.
Start off slow if you like. On your next shoot, throw a cool blue colour on the wall behind the model. Add a subtle yellow or orange light to the hair. These are subtle abstract colours, but they are about creating visually engaging colours in our scenes without them dominating it.
As I’ve mentioned throughout, although this article was specifically looking at the masterful abstract colour work of Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira, take the time to explore more of not only his work, but other Manga artists from that period too.
The reason I mention this period specifically is because they were excellent at this subtle colour that didn’t dominate or try to fight for attention, instead their colour was bold but more importantly, complimentary.
We are in an age where crazy, bold and saturated colours are filling our media and screens. Sadly, with films like ‘Hobbs & Shaw’ overusing it in horrendous ways like this, the audience will turn away and grow tired of it very quickly. If we want to use colour in a dynamic way in the future, we’ll have to be far cleverer and far more subtle than many are doing now. Go back and re-watch films like ‘Amelie’ or ‘Grand Budapest Hotel’ to see the difference compared to some more modern films today. I promise, all this will immediately make a lot more sense.
Thanks for checking out this article and spending a little bit of your day with me here. I know this was a long one, but I hope you found it useful and that you left here a little wiser to colour than when you arrived. If you did, then this was worth it. As always, if you have any questions, then by all means fire-away in the comments below and I’ll do my best to answer what I can. Thanks again and I’ll see you in the next one.
Reference articles and further reading:
- Akira Manag Wiki https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Akira_(manga)
- Akira Anime Wiki https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Akira_(1988_film)#Legacy
- Steve Oliff Akira pages http://www.felixcomicart.com/ArtistGalleryTitles.asp?ArtistId=582
- Steve Oliff Interview https://www.animenewsnetwork.com/interview/2016-03-17/akira-in-color-with-steve-oliff/.99830
- Kodansha Interview https://www.animenewsnetwork.com/feature/2015-11-05/bridging-the-gap-between-us-comics-and-manga-with-kodansha-usa/.95039
About the Author
Jake Hicks is an editorial and fashion photographer who specializes in keeping the skill in the camera, not just on the screen. Jake currently has a workshop available on colour and exposure. For more of his work and tutorials, check out his website. Don’t forget to like his Facebook page and follow him on Instagram, too.
You can also sign up to the Jake Hicks Photography newsletter to receive Jake’s free Top Ten Studio Lighting Tips and Techniques PDF, and be sure to download his brand new, free 50 page studio lighting book. This article was also published here and shared with permission.