THE LOOK OF ‘TRACY’ : Comic Strip With Its Own Reality

There is a shot in the opening moments of “Dick Tracy” where the camera draws back from a live-action street scene, pans slowly left across a wide and gloriously unreal nighttime cityscape, then re-enters another live-action street scene on the other side of town.

Besides being a nifty optical trick that gives us a quick reference to the scope of Crime Stopper Dick Tracy’s urban beat, the shot is director Warren Beatty’s way of announcing that this comic strip world has its own reality and we’d better chuck our expectations before entering.

“Warren decided years ago that ‘Dick Tracy’ had to break all the rules, that we were going to have to throw away everything we knew to make it work,” said veteran art director Richard Sylbert. “He knew there was no way in the world you could take this man with a yellow hat and coat who’s followed by a guy with a flat head and walk him around Chicago. We had to create a parallel world.”

The high-profile cast of “Dick Tracy” includes Beatty, Madonna, Al Pacino and Dustin Hoffman, but the real star of the movie is The Look. Every scene in the film--whether it’s all live action or live action combined with a matte painting--feels like a composition of a moving Sunday funny. It does not look like the comic strip, but you leave with that impression.


“It’s impressionistic, but to use Warren’s phrase, it’s impressionistic apple pie, simple American values,” Sylbert said. “This is not ‘Metropolis.’ This is about a guy who has a girlfriend and hates lawbreakers.”

“I wanted to do something that I could have the same fun looking at that I had looking at the Sunday comics when I was a small kid reading Dick Tracy,” Beatty said. "(The comic strip) was really pleasing to my eye, like going to Times Square for the first time was pleasing to my eye.”

“Dick Tracy” is a funhouse of visual gimmicks, not the least of them being the assortment of characters whose names match their looks--Pruneface, Flattop, Lips, Little Face. But the original gimmick that became the only rule in the production was Beatty’s decision to limit the film’s designers to the seven colors cartoonist Chester Gould used in his original Dick Tracy drawings.

A single scene may include dozens of background objects, but every object is done up in one of the seven colors. The same is true for clothing, cars and buildings. Every square inch that appears on the screen was either freshly painted or freshly made.


So people like Sylbert, costume designer Milena Canonero and the visual effects team of Michael Lloyd and Harrison Ellenshaw found themselves doing the opposite of what they have done throughout their careers; instead of working to blend their work into the reality of scenes, they had to strut their stuff out front.

“All the realistic, specific, beautiful tonal detail we did for (pictures like) ‘Reds,’ we had to give up,” Sylbert said. “Doing work to be noticed goes against the grain of your work and it makes you very nervous.”

“Warren kept pushing us and pushing us,” said Lloyd. “One day he said to me, ‘This is either going to make your career or ruin you. Give me everything you’ve got.’ He wanted us to see how far we could take it.”

Beatty said he got the idea for shooting the film in basic colors from cartoonist-screenwriter Herbie Gardner who told him that when he was doing Schmo for the Rotogravure, the magazine assigned colors to objects by numbers. “Red is 1, so the hat, the flower and the car are 1s. Green is 2, so the plants and leaves are 2s. It’s a matter of matching them all up.”


Because the objects were three-dimensional that were being filmed, lighting and shadows create the illusion of more colors than the seven actually being used, but through most of the film the colors are so saturated, it’s startling. Cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, who (like Sylbert) worked with Beatty on “Reds,” shot the whole movie without using the prop smoke that is used in most films to mute colors and contrasts and create a more realistic atmosphere.

“There is no atmosphere in that kind of cartoon,” said Sylbert, “so Storaro didn’t put a drop of smoke in it.”

Each of the key visual designers were working with color keys, deciding how to mix and match, how to compose, how to create moods with the use of certain colors. The way Storaro chose to light scenes often affected the choices made by the rest of the conceptual team. When Big Boy and his gang appear for one street scene, the crew wet the street and Storaro shot it with a cadmium light that turned the pavement red. (Red is a 1, so sinister is a 1.) When he shot a scene with Dick Tracy and Tess Trueheart on the same street, the pavement was soaked again and Storaro bathed it in yellow light. (Yellow is 2, so warmth is a 2.)

But the original inspiration for them all was Gould. The cartoonist, trying to overcome the limitations of the comic strip medium, had to make his panels more interesting by the way he composed scenes with colors. Sylbert said he attempted to do the same thing in the art direction of the film. “When Dick Tracy walks into his office, there are other objects in the room the same color as his coat and hat,” he said. “We’d try to make the scene more interesting by bouncing those colors around.”


Subtlety was never an option, Sylbert said. “Years ago, Warren and I were looking at a movie ad for ‘The Untouchables’ with these FBI agents in tweed overcoats. Warren said, ‘We can’t have tweed in ‘Dick Tracy.’ ”

Nor, they decided, could they fill out the frames with the usual set decoration touches--no paintings on the walls, no textures, no fine detail. What did this mean? What did Beatty intend to fill the screen with?

According to the key creative people, this film’s list of “do’s” and “don’ts” only included “don’ts.”

Ellenshaw, who had worked on George Lucas’ “The Empire Strikes Back,” said it took him six weeks to even get a sense of what Beatty wanted. Like Lucas, he said, Beatty wanted to fill every frame with something interesting, but he could not anticipate what the director would find interesting.


“When you showed him something and he said it looked like ‘shoe leather,’ you knew you had more work to do. Shoe leather is his way of saying, ‘It’s not interesting to look at, why are we going to put that on the screen?’ ”

Ellenshaw said there are 60 matte shots in “Dick Tracy,” and each one was done to be interesting in itself and, in many cases, to draw attention to itself.

On a routine job, Ellenshaw said he would have one artist on one painting. For the early shot in “Dick Tracy” that unites two different live-action street scenes, there were seven artists working on the eight-foot by 12-foot matte. To get the shot on film required 16 elements--the matte painting, the two live action scenes and a variety of ambient effects that include smoke rising from high-rise chimneys and stars twinkling in the sky.

The movie’s most obvious matte scene is one where Tracy and Breathless Mahoney meet late at night on a wharf to discuss their interests in each other (he wants information; she wants recreation). In the background is a fleet of ships, painted with a perspective that could only be achieved with a wide-angle lens. But the moon that hangs above them could only be that large if it were shot through a Telephoto lens.


“The dock scene violates all sorts of rules,” Ellenshaw said. “It combines two things that are physically impossible. It’s also extremely stylized, and that’s what’s fun about it.”

It may be corny, but it definitely isn’t shoe leather.

Sylbert said that once Beatty decided on creating an artificial world for “Dick Tracy,” there was no choice but to shoot it with matte paintings and make it clear to the audience that that’s what they’re looking at. “You could go for it with miniatures (like they did with ‘Batman’),” Sylbert said. “But we couldn’t afford that. Whatever you think of ‘Batman,’ it’s a $60-million movie.”

Beatty wouldn’t discuss the budget on “Dick Tracy,” but other sources put its cost at $28 million, which would make it one of the least expensive of the summer spectacles.


One way that Walt Disney Pictures will not recover some of those costs is through product placement. There is not an identifiable brand of anything in the movie. The cars all look like 1946 somethings, but you can’t say what. Chili is chili, cereal is cereal and milk is milk. Even the money used is generic, with big dollar signs splashed on the bills.

“When I decided to do this, I said I’m going to have fun with it,” Beatty said. “I would say I had more fun making ‘Dick Tracy’ than any picture I’ve done and I have a tremendous amount of fun watching it. Those people, the colors, the music. I think of it as just this piece of cake.”

As for his own performance as the Yellow Knight: “I don’t know if I have fun watching myself, but I do enjoy watching my hat and coat.”