Something I’ve been reading up on recently in my quest to provide backgrounds for my drawings is Disney’s focus on pools of light in backgrounds, the idea being that backgrounds, while important and containing valuable information, are set pieces. A background on its own isn’t really complete - it’s a stage without actors. The pool of light refers to the area that is supposed to catch the viewer’s attention, it’s where most of the action in the scene will take place and where the majority of the important information for the viewer is located. Essentially, to continue the theater stage metaphor, it’s the spotlight of your composition.
Cinderella has some really, really excellent examples of this in its background paintings:
These are some more blatant examples, but will work for what I wish to talk about, in that this theory comes down to two things: color and shape.
The pool of light deals not just with making an area in the scene brighter or lighter than another, it focuses on contrasts. While dark/light is part of this, there’s also the contrasts of tone, hue, and saturation. In Cinderella’s palette, this is consistently different warm grays used as the light, while dark blues are used as the shadow. When viewed on a color wheel, the colors are often near-complementary, but not exactly:
What’s important to take away from this is that these colors blend into every object, which allows the whole composition to appear consistent.
Of course, the shadows/hilights don’t have to be the traditional warm light/cool shadows. This is just what the example uses.
Secondly, and just as important, is the shape of the light itself - because it shows exactly where the character will be moving, and what we should be focusing on. Even when not in animation, this is surprisingly effective. For example, look at the two screenshots of the stairs - would you expect Cinderella to go down the stairs, or across towards the rafters? Would she bring the breakfast up the stairs, or across the hall?
What’s fascinating is that this is absolutely everywhere in old Disney movies and shorts. Literally every background uses this concept. It’s not something you really think about while viewing the film, but as an artist, the ideas employed by these movies are incredibly useful.
(All screencaps used in this post are from disneyscreencaps, which is also a great place to research this further.)
We had exercises in school where they would just play movies like these, pause them every time the scene changed, and give us 15 seconds to draw the basic composition of the layout.
101 Dalmatians is really good for this kind of composition study, because the backgrounds are super busy, but they’re busy in just the right way to perfectly frame everything.