The American Society of Cinematographers

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The X-Files
Greetings From
Green Porno
Page 2
DVD Playback
ASC Close-Up
Cinematographer Sam Levy teams with Isabella Rossellini to create a series of whimsical short films for the small screen.


Photos by Stephen Kunken, Jody Shapiro and Kevin Tachman.
Isabella Rossellini stares blankly into the camera, her hair pulled back from her face by a thick headband. “If I were a male bee,” she says, “I wouldn’t have a father and I would be called a drone.” An instant later, her head is covered by a black hood and topped with two black pipe cleaners; plastic, grapefruit-sized semi-circles lined with dozens of almond-shaped paper cutouts rest on her eyes. Her entire body is covered in black Spandex, and her torso has several thick yellow stripes across it. She is standing against a powder-blue backdrop with white paper clouds, which makes her look a bit like the star of an elementary-school play. Rossellini, now a bee, sees something and glances up. “A female, ready to mate!” she shouts eagerly as the pipe cleaners lurch back and her bug eyes jerk upwards. “Sex!”

“Bee,” a two-minute film about the sex lives of bees, is one of eight short films in a series titled Green Porno. Created by Rossellini for the Sundance Channel, each short outlines the mating habits of a particular bug: the dragonfly, firefly, spider, bee, earthworm, fly, snail and praying mantis. Rossellini, who wrote and directed all eight films, plays each bug and re-enacts their couplings as she narrates the whimsically kinky action, sometimes using a cardboard prop as a sexual partner.

In designing the shorts, Rossellini mandated a very modest production design. The project’s budget didn’t give her much leeway, but more importantly, Green Porno was never meant to look like a conventional film; the point of the project was to create visual content for distribution via cellphones (the “third screen”) and the Internet. “I thought it was very smart from the get-go,” says cinematographer Sam Levy, who shot five of the eight shorts (“Bee,” “Fly,” “Earthworm,” “Praying Mantis” and “Snail.”) “Isabella always wanted it to look sophisticated,” he continues, “but she said that if it looked hand-made, like it was made in her kitchen, that was okay.” (Cinematographer Brian Jackson shot the other three shorts.)

Levy first met with Rossellini after reviewing the storyboards, which Rossellini had drawn and assembled the old-fashioned way, with scissors and glue. Together, the two broke down the technical elements of the shots she wanted. Levy recalls, “At the end of that first meeting, I asked whether I should plan for a larger or a smaller format, knowing the films would also be projected very big at the Sundance Film Festival. She told me to design it for the smallest because it would always look good bigger.”

Rossellini had viewed a number of other films on a mobile-phone-sized screen, and that experience helped her pin down a formula for the visuals. “We looked at a Western, and there were beautiful shots of a sunset with cavalry running across a field, but [because the screen was so small] it only looked like you were watching a beautiful sunset. So we knew we couldn’t do any panoramic shots or busy street shots because they would look too muddled.” She determined that animation, with its simple lines and bold colors, looked best.

Levy knew that in order to achieve that look, he would need to use as much light as possible to drown out the little details that are often accentuated by small shadows. “We couldn’t afford space lights, so I ordered as many tungsten lights as I could,” he says. “I got a bunch of open-face 2K lights and my gaffer, Andrew D’Aurora, suggested we hang them everywhere and connect them all to a dimmer board.”

This strategy made transitioning between shorts very simple, which was necessary because the entire series was filmed in back-to-back, one-day shoots, all on a soundstage in Brooklyn, N.Y. Each shoot was lit from above by six 2K open-face lights and from the front by 10 Source 4 Lekos and six additional 2Ks. Levy also used one 10K Senior that hit Rossellini straight on.

Because the lights remained stationary, the biggest variation between each shoot was color. For example, colored gels were used to tint several floor lights on “Snail” and “Praying Mantis.” On “Snail,” Levy added Lee Fern Green #122 gels to the open-face 2Ks so the lights would tint the white background green and set it off from Rossellini’s cream-colored costume.

“Praying Mantis” was a bit more involved because it utilized several colors. When Rossellini explains that the insects can camouflage their skin, her face is hit with three different colored lights that fade in and out, gradually changing the color of her skin in relation to the color of the background. “I was able to shoot some tests before the actual shoot because I wanted to see how light would react to her face,” Levy said.  “I went to her apartment with one tungsten light to test 30 colors.”

This light test was also important for set decorator/makeup artist Karen Cinorre, who had to match Rossellini’s green face makeup to production designer Andy Byers’ green color palette. After the tests, Levy and D’Aurora chose Lee Flame Red #164, Lee Old Steel Blue #725 and Lee Moss Green #089. Using six Source 4 Lekos, they aimed the colors at Rossellini and the cyc wall behind her, using the dimmer board to transition between colors.

To keep the production simple, Levy refrained from using too many other tools or gadgets, but he did employ Tiffen SoftFX  filters throughout the shoot. “We did that mainly because we were shooting with a Sony VIU mini-HDV camera, which shoots at a compressed 1080i signal,” he says. “It’s very vivid and very sharp, so I always had at least a #1 SoftFX filter on the lens to take the digital bite out of the image.” These filters played an especially significant role during the introductions to each film. “When you first see Isabella, you’re supposed to know it’s her,” Levy notes.  Seeing Rossellini before her transformations allows the viewer to see a human figure and a bug-like figure one after the other, heightening the contrast and tension between the two images.

After the introductions, each film segues to a medium close-up of Rossellini before the camera pulls back to show her in full bug garb. To maintain a smooth image during these close-ups, Levy shot with a Tiffen SoftFX 1, or even 1 1/4 or 1 1/2. He explains that the 10K Senior emitted a strong frontal light, “like a classic beauty light,” which gave Rossellini a soft glow.

During production, Levy had access to a Technocrane, which he used for “Bee” and “Earthworm.” He had a hi-def monitor on set but wound up relying heavily on a small Sony Watchman FDL-242T. “I brought the tiny monitor, which is the size of a cellphone screen, to use as a reference so we could always have something very small on set,” he says. The Watchman allowed the filmmakers to be certain that what they were shooting would translate onscreen and reflect Rossellini’s original vision. The director found the screen useful for her acting as well: “I even checked that I wasn’t making a small expression with my face that no one was seeing. I think you can see Green Porno on a small screen and everything will be very clear.”

Levy is excited that Green Porno has the potential to highlight the new showcases that are emerging for all kinds of films. “I’ve done shorts, commercials, music videos, feature films and documentaries, as well as installation projects for artists, but this project defies genre,” he observes. “I see projects like this as a rebirth of experimental cinema, and I support it wholeheartedly.”

 

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