How Charlie Toqué explores Retinex colour theory in a psychedelic animation for Polaroid
In a new film, Polaroid sheds light on its heritage with the groundbreaking theory that defines our perception of colour.
In the 1970s, prominent American scientist and inventor Edwin Land developed Retinex Theory, a concept that attempted to explain how human vision perceives colours and brightness. At the core of the concept is the idea that the brain doesn't simply rely on the wavelengths of light that hit the retinas in our eyes to determine these elements, but also takes into account contextual information such as the lighting and other colours surrounding the object that we are focusing on. In doing so, the brain can provide more accurate judgements about the object, showing its true colour even in different lighting conditions – which, historically, would been important for humans when identifying safe food to eat or predators lurking in the darkness. This also means that the brain can show colours even when, technically, they aren’t there.
“The aim of the film was to echo the weirdness of this theory and to situate the film's identity in the era in which Edwin Land theorised his discovery.”Charlie Toqué
Along with being the inventor of the first instant camera, Land was also the founder of the Polaroid Corporation – which became Polaroid Originals in 2017 and then eventually Polaroid in 2020 – and it was his Retinex Theory that provided the inspiration for the brand’s latest release: i-Type Retinex Edition Film. This new collection of film frames offers various colour combinations that sit alongside the central image and warp our perception of it. “With Polaroid Round Frame Retinex Film, colour gets weird,” writes Polaroid. “This colour conundrum makes your eyes and brain begin to groove in some seriously strange ways, as you interpret the red dot differently depending on surrounding colours.”
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Copyright © Ghislain Mirat, 2023
To illustrate how this works, and explain briefly the thinking behind Retinex Theory, Polaroid commissioned French illustrator and animation director Charlie Toqué to create a short video on the subject. Fittingly titled Color is Weird, the video provides a vibrant demonstration of how our perception of a colour can shift depending on the colours that surround it. An anthropomorphised red circle travels through a bold, bright universe, with the colour of its body appearing to change as it encounters other shades and hues, including rays of bright light.
Speaking on the brief he was given, Charlie says: “The aim of the film was to demonstrate the Retinex effect through offbeat storytelling, rooted in the psychedelic and experimental aesthetics of the 70s; to both echo the weirdness of this theory and to situate the film's identity in the era in which Edwin Land theorised his discovery.” In response, Charlie began by watching several iconic films from the decade, taking notes on the animation style, staging and image texture. Among them was the animated short Quasi at the Quackadero by American artist Sally Cruikshank, which Charlie calls “pure genius”.
He then worked on merging this aesthetic with his own personal style, which involved “deconstructing certain habits present in my practice, such as my quest for clear lines, form and balance, in order to find something more instinctive, raw and spontaneous.” Like many of his contemporaries, Charlie’s academic background draws on the principles of animation popularised by Disney’s pioneers in the 1930s, but this brief, and the era it was attempting to evoke, required a departure from these principles. “In some of the works from the 70s, it seems clear that there was a desire to break away from this heritage, to free oneself from some of these principles, or to divert them intelligently to experiment and propose other ways to create movement,” he explains. “This led me to rethink my process, and I was able to count on the help of other talented animators while doing so.”
GalleryCopyright © Ghislain Mirat, 2023
“I was very interested in the randomness of the colour combinations on the film, and how they would interact with the tones of the shot... There's a kind of letting go that opens the door to happy accidents.”Charlie Toqué
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Copyright © Ghislain Mirat, 2023
Though working with new methods for this project, the incorporation of colour theory into Charlie’s work was certainly nothing new for him. Having attended masterclasses in art school, and learned about such theories from influential speakers like Jeremy Vickery, former lighting technical director at Pixar, his current practice continues to draw on these concepts. “Nowadays, I play with colour perception in my work,” he says. “I usually work around a fairly small range of colours – between 8 and 12 – and each of them results from an elaborate choice, and is selected according to the way it coexists with the surrounding colours. As a result, we sometimes find ourselves looking for associations that alter our perception of these colours.”
In the video, there are two specific shots in which the Retinex Theory is at work – both involving lines that overlap with the red body of the protagonist to change our perception of the colour – and Charlie says these shots required “a lot of experimentation” to get right, because we don’t comprehend a still image and a moving image in the same way. “We worked closely with Polaroid’s creative team on different scenarios, varying the rhythm of the animation, and the thickness or spacing of the overlay lines that create the illusion, to try and find the most compelling formula possible,” he recalls. The result is a simple yet effective simulation of how the colourful lines on the frames of the i-Type Retinex Edition Film play with the hues of the photograph.
Key to recreating this experience was Charlie’s own experimentations with the new film, which he says is “designed to be used very instinctively”. Along with changing his approach to composition, he was also struck by the way the Retinex colours enhanced the overall look of his photos. “I was very interested in the randomness of the colour combinations on the film, and how they would interact with the tones of the shot,” he notes. “There's a kind of letting go that opens the door to happy accidents.” Thinking back to his time spent as an art director in the gaming industry, he explains that the process is not dissimilar to how creation takes place during the production of video games. “[It’s] always very abstract: we create graphic elements individually, and very often, the way in which the final rendering is composed depends on events beyond our control, such as the player's free will and the way in which he or she evolves his or her gaming experience.”
For readers interested in trying out the The i-Type Retinex Edition Film for themselves, it is out now and available to purchase through the Polaroid website.
Edwin Land, a scientist, artist, and businessman founded Polaroid in 1937. He used art and science to design the groundbreaking SX-70 instant camera. Decades later, artists like Andy Warhol and Keith Haring used Polaroid cameras and photography to express themselves, question labels, and challenge the status quo. Over the last decade, a group of passionate people set out to rescue analog instant film with The Impossible Project, and unsurprisingly evolved into the modern Polaroid.
Charlie Toqué: Color is Weird (Copyright © Charlie Toqué, 2023)