The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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Return to Table of Contents February 2011 Return to Table of Contents
Green Hornet
Page 2
Hornet 3D
John Seale, ASC, ACS
A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop
Presidents Desk
DVD Playback
ASC Close-Up
John Schwartzman, ASC teams with director Michel Gondry to create an eye-popping look for the vigilante adventure The Green Hornet.

Unit photography by Jaimie Trueblood, SMPSP; courtesy of Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc.
The Green Hornet focuses on Britt Reid (Seth Rogen), a ne’er-do-well who becomes a masked vigilante after his wealthy father is murdered by gangsters. French filmmaker Michel Gondry, whose credits include Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (AC April ’04) and The Science of Sleep (AC Oct. ’06), might seem an odd choice to direct the comic-book adaptation, but cinematographer John Schwartzman, ASC believes that the director’s signature handmade style brought something truly unique to the genre. “There were 15 other directors you could have plugged into this movie, and they all would have delivered the same thing, but Michel brought a sense of authorship,” says Schwartzman. “Green Hornet is different from anything he’s ever done, but it’s still him.” 

Gondry found something of a kindred spirit in Schwartzman, whose collaborations with Michael Bay, dating back to their commercials at Propaganda Films, were filled with eye-popping visuals that were often accomplished practically or in-camera. “In our early years, Michael Bay and I had to create more for less because we didn’t have a lot of money,” Schwartzman recalls. “We played around with forced perspectives and used miniatures quite a bit.”  

Asked what he looks for in a cinematographer, Gondry replies, “It’s important that they trust me and that they’re fast. It’s also very important that the look of the film doesn’t infringe on the actors’ performances. Some cinematographers do amazing work but require so much waiting that you lose the precious time you could be using to make a better performance.” 

Gondry and Schwartzman approached Green Hornet with the intent of doing as many effects as possible in-camera. Computer-generated effects were used only if it wasn’t safe to accomplish the effect live, or if the effect was impossible to achieve without digital technology. 

Schwartzman shot the picture in the 2.40:1 anamorphic format, mostly with Panavision’s G-Series lenses. “I think anamorphic is the best way to shoot because the lenses have so much character,” he says. “Michel loved their streaky, horizontal flares, and we used them as a dramatic tool.”  

The filmmakers had a whole playbook of classic cinematic tricks. Something as simple as an optical dissolve was performed on set with all the actors present. For the scene in which Reid flashes back to his childhood, a piece of glass was placed in front of the lens at a vertical 45-degree angle. Starting with a shot of Rogen positioned behind the pane of glass and the actor playing the young Reid positioned perpendicular to the camera’s field of view, Schwartzman could cross-fade the lights on both actors, revealing the younger actor’s reflection in the glass. “It’s a very simple trick — it’s how the early pioneers did things — and doing things this way played to Michel’s interests and strengths,” the cinematographer says. 

Schwartzman accentuated Reid’s alter ego with complex lighting cues. In a scene at a Chinese restaurant that’s filled with background extras and waiters buzzing between the tables, the camera dollies in on Reid as the ambient lights dim and a spotlight appears overhead. As he launches into a soliloquy, everyone else on the set freezes. At the end of his monologue, the camera dollies back, the lighting returns to normal, and all the players resume their actions. 

As Reid mentally reconstructs his father’s murder, Gondry illustrates it in his inimitable style: We see a cardboard cutout of the Reid mansion engulfed in flames, only the flames are the strands of hair in a blonde wig that’s backlit with red-gelled light and blown about with leaf blowers. “We were laughing on set because it was the craziest thing we’d ever seen, but when it’s cut into the movie, it makes total sense,” says Schwartzman. 

Another simple trick involved polarizing gels and filters. The Green Hornet’s car, the Black Beauty, is a souped-up, armor-plated 1965 Chrysler Crown Imperial equipped with a safe room in the trunk and Gatling guns in the hood, and it has windows that can go from clear to opaque, blocking the view inside. Schwartzman had the car windows skinned with RoscoView polarizing gel and used a pola filter on the camera. “If you have a polarizing gel on a window and one in the camera, you can rotate them 90 degrees to each other and the gel goes black,” he explains. “If Michel wanted the windows to go black at the end of a dialogue scene, we’d just turn the filter.” 

Whenever the Green Hornet corners a gang of bad guys against a wall, Schwartzman replaced the car’s headlights with Barco HD projectors, which produced disorienting green and black patterns Gondry designed. “Michel would draw up and animate the artwork on his Mac, and we’d feed the QuickTime file into the projectors right there,” says Schwartzman. “The whole thing took five minutes to set up.” 

When Reid isn’t out fighting crime, he’s running his late father’s newspaper, The Sentinel. Some of these office scenes were shot in the visually striking Creative Artists Agency building in Los Angeles, but production designer Owen Paterson and his crew built the newsroom set onstage at Sony Studios. “It looks kind of like the bullpen in All the President’s Men, with windows all around and two glass elevators at the very end of it,” Schwartzman explains. Gondry wanted the space to have a flat fluorescent look and asked for fluorescent practicals to be built into the ceiling. (Schwartzman augmented these with Kino Flo Image 80s.) Two 240'x28' TransLites of Los Angeles, custom-designed by J.C. Backings, were hung outside the windows — one for day and one for night. 

Schwartzman preferred the TransLites to bluescreen because having something tangible on set allowed him greater control over the effect. “Michel wanted to have the ability to see different types of weather conditions outside, but we didn’t have photo backings with different color temperatures or different looks, so we’d just light part of the backing with a spotlight to achieve a different effect,” he recalls. “During daytime scenes, I’d sometimes put a 1-inch mirror tile outside the window in front of the backing and throw it out of focus to make it look like a really hot reflection off a building. I tried to replicate some of the things you can’t control when you’re on location.” 

The sunny daytime look for the newsroom set was supplied by approximately 100 6-Light Maxi coops running above and along the length of the photo backing, pointing back through the set windows. “It was a lot of lighting,” says Schwartzman. “The top three globes were Medium Par 64s and the bottom three were VNSP Par 64s, so we could have hard light or softer light.” All of the lights were on dimmers, and white bobbinet was used outside the windows to diffuse the backing and keep “exterior” light from entering the set when an overcast look was desired. 

One of the limitations of using a photo backing is the lack of a perspective change when the camera moves. So when Schwartzman moved the camera, he had a team of grips shift the photo backing in small increments to create the illusion of parallax. “I don’t know if you’ll notice it,” he says, “but we moved it as much as we could until we almost pulled the rivets out!” 

An interesting quirk of the newsroom set is that only one of the two main elevators is functional — the production couldn’t afford to build two working elevators. Gondry realized that from a certain angle and position, the bullpen was perfectly symmetrical. A mirror version of the set was created, including all of the signage and TV graphics, and the actors’ hair and wardrobe was designed to be perfectly reversible when they were in the mirror set. The same elevator was always used, and the image was flipped in post to make it look as if both elevators were operational.

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