It's almost impossible to pin down legendary director Hayao Miyazaki's most famous film. Is it My Neighbor Totoro, whose larger-than-life creature became the iconic face of Studio Ghibli? Or Spirited Away, which set box office records in Japan and helped build an audience for Ghibli's films in the west? Maybe it's Nausicaa or Princess Mononoke. Whichever film you pick, it's probably not Laputa: Castle in the Sky, which Studio Ghibli released in 1986. Nevertheless, it's a wonderful film, and the subject of a fascinating visual breakdown in a blog at Colorful Animation Expressions.
Almost all of Miyazaki's films touch on familiar elements--young, strong female characters, the relationship between modernity and nature, the struggle between pacifism and necessary conflict--but a couple of his early movies, like Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro and Laputa have a different focus: Fun. The two films are pure adventures, mostly progressing at a breakneck pace from one imaginative, funny, lavishly animated action scene to another.
Color Animation Expressions' blogger Oswald Iten compares Laputa's color palette to an early Technicolor adventure film, and thematically the comparison couldn't be more perfect. According to the film's color designer, Laputa was deliberately made with more colors than 1984's Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, and Miyazaki had specific colors in mind for his late 19th century alternate history.
Lighting and Technicolor gave filmmakers the means to present natural skin tones even when, say, a night scene would realistically darken skin's appearance. As Iten explains, naturally colorful skin helped other saturated colors in Technicolor films really pop, and animation can heighten that effect even further. For example, Laputa uses blue colors to signify the darkness of nighttime, but also uses blue to depict poorly-lit indoor settings. The two settings are easily distinguishable thanks to the changing colors of background objects and clothes, which take on more of a tint in night scenes and appear regularly unaffected by regular indoor darkness.
Another post on the blog further breaks down the use of warm and cool colors and degrees of lighting in different scenes. Skin tone again remains mostly unchanged, highlighting the changes in background color and especially clothing.
Laputa's female protagonist Sheeta possesses a crystal that glows a brilliant blue-green when it activates. In a cave scene early in the film, the lighting goes through several degrees of brightness, first as stones in the cave give off a faint bluish light, and then as the crystal gives off a much more dramatic green tint. Only when the crystal glows its brightest does it wash out skin color, reinforcing its visual significance.
The contrast between warm and cool colors is actually a huge part of Laputa, as a third post details; the film's raucous pirates are presented mostly in flamboyant reds and pinks, while the military antagonists are garbed in familiar green. The two colors fall on opposite sides of the color wheel and tie back to the usage of color in classic adventure films.
Laputa is hardly the only Miyazaki film (or film in general) that could withstand endless color analysis. His later films have only grown more colorful and lush, but that's part of Laputa's charm. It's impressive how relatively few shades of color can clearly distinguish characters and lighting conditions, and effectively connect the high-flying adventure to its time period and adventure films of old.