Anatomy of a [Not] Green Screen Scene: Orange is the New Black [UPDATED]

OrangeMeaCulpa

UPDATE (06/16): So I wrote this post in an attempt to understand why this particular set of shots from Orange is the New Black‘s third season looked so weird, presuming that the culprit was to do with a form of composite imaging. It was the most logical explanation, and one that seemed to be supported when breaking down some of the other differences between this shot and the others.

Here’s the thing, though: I had the chance to chat briefly with the show’s post-production producer, who let me know that there is no visual effects work in this sequence. There was no green screen. This shot, like the others in the scene, was shot entirely on location. And so my presumption was wrong, and so I must give thanks for the clarification, and apologies for the erroneous claim (which was based solely on textual evidence).

Unfortunately, there is no further light on why the scene looks so weird despite this, which has turned this into a much larger mystery (if you’re me and in way too deep at this point). Did those who also identified it as green screen—myself included—respond to something particular about the way it was lit or colored? Were those who saw the image I posted on Twitter and agreed that it looked like a case of composite work simply suffering from false confirmation bias from my initial identification, and would they have reached the same conclusion on their own? Were the show’s other uses of green screen—the Afghanistan sequence, the driving plates, etc.—pushing us to see green screen where there was none? Were the other issues with the scene—lighting continuity, blocking continuity—pushing us to look for a reason where no reason exists?

We may never know. In the meantime, let the below remain for posterity as evidence of the time I got so deep into understanding why something looked weird that the rabbit hole nearly swallowed me whole. Apologies again for the error, and for dragging you into what is now a larger question of visual perception that we may never solve—if anyone has any suggestions on what happened here, please let me know.

UPDATE 2: A few Twitter suggestions as to why the shot might look off, diving into more technical details of filming. My thanks to them, and keep ’em coming.

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Spoiler Alert: There are going to be some very light, barely meaningful spoilers for the third season of Orange is the New Black in this post, so if you really want to know absolutely nothing, you should probably come back and read this after you’ve watched at least the first two episodes.

When I was watching the opening episodes of Orange is the New Black‘s third season ahead of their release in preparation for writing daily reviews for The A.V. Club, I had a very strong reaction to one scene in particular in the season’s third episode, “Empathy is a Boner Killer.” This wasn’t a scene that depicted a particularly problematic character development or one that was meant to provoke such a reaction—it was, on paper, a perfectly charming scene of Taystee and Poussey eulogizing the ashes of the library books burned in the previous episode.

But it stood out because it appeared to feature some incredibly conspicuous green—or blue—screen compositing work, and is part of a larger trend of more of this work being casually integrated into television production. In some cases, as I’ve discussed in my academic research, this has been used to create virtual locations around the world to expand the geography of a given series, but this is different. Here is a location that we know they have access to, and which we actually see in parts of the scene, but which they for some reason lost access to in shooting portions of it. While I can think of a few similar examples—The Office has a particularly terrible instance in its eighth season where the show clearly had something change unexpectedly, and thought that a composite of the location was good enough for a talking head. It wasn’t.

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The reasons why this happens can vary, based on what we know about television production. It’s possible they lost access to the location suddenly, and couldn’t go back to it for one reason or another, and decided—since they would never be going back to it, being set in Florida—to avoid reshooting the entire scene. Maybe they had a last-minute rewrite that was worth the joke—nothing is worth this—but not worth the money to return to the location. Maybe it started to rain, and they were already running behind on the episode and weren’t able to wait it out or return to that location. Maybe there was a mistake in post-production that erased the footage of this particular scene, and they were too enamored of the talking head—again, nothing is worth this—to give it up.

Regardless, there are reasons why these things happen. I feel pretty strongly that no one would consciously choose to use a green screen in a show that otherwise makes minimal use of it. In the case of Orange is the New Black, there is admittedly something of a history of poor composite work in its driving sequences—while no show necessarily has great green screen work during driving sequences, the show’s has never been a great example of the form. This was particularly evident in the premiere, when the season opened on a driving scene that really had no way of matching inserts of the van in its surrounding and the driving “plates” chosen by the visual effects team. But eventually you grow used to the fact that driving scenes on the show will always be kind of unattractive, and that you should just avoid looking out the window.

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But the Book Funeral creates no expectation for this, and seems like a case where you would avoid this at all costs. Accordingly, I wanted to break down the way the scene works in an attempt to understand why anyone would willfully create an image this distracting.

The Book Funeral opens with a wide shot, establishing its relationship to the rest of the prison yard, which is where the confusion starts.

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This shot tells us a few things. First, it establishes the expectation of this scene being shot entirely on location, and is something of a rare establishing shot for a show that doesn’t always go this wide. Second, it previews some lighting issues caused by the partially cloudy sky that could be a root cause of some of the scene’s problems during the initial filming.

Screen Shot 2015-06-13 at 12.29.48 AMHowever, we immediately shift to the distracting shot, which in this case is a close two-shot. This prepares us for the material using the green screen—whatever the reason it was used—being prominent in the final version of the scene, despite the establishing shot.

We then switch to a range of different shots that are more clearly shot on location, establishing who is in the audience, and focusing in on one character (Blanca) who will eventually have a conversation in the midst of the funeral.

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However, we then return to the composite two-shot, this time pulled back further to establish the wheelbarrow (first spotted in the wide shot, and then reestablished in the shot of the audience).

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Here we start to see at least one of the consequences of choosing to reshoot this material—you will note that there is a significant gap between the two inmates watching on, allowing the viewer to see both of the subjects and the wheelbarrow in the same shot. But if you return to the shot of the audience watching (as the scene does later), you’ll see this angle couldn’t have existed, meaning the way the scene was initially blocked prohibited this shot from taking place.

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Shooting it this way creates a continuity error, which will recur as the scene moves forward. It also describes a possible reason they reshot some of this material, as they were unhappy with how the other angle captured the characters collecting and spreading the ashes.

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However, after this sequence (which has one more return to this shot), the scene shifts away from the composite image—we never see it again. We shift to what would appear to be the angle captured on location, which first appears earlier in the scene but returns here as the dominant view of the characters. Here, we see a closer view of this angle, which brings the sun into the equation—the lighting has dramatically shifted here, which is the peril of shooting on a partly cloudy day (especially a long dialogue sequence like this which involves multiple characters and has an entirely separate conversation intersecting with it).

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And here we see, again, the wide angle of Poussey and Taystee (who is leaning down) shot under these conditions.

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And then another closeup of the two characters reacting to the other characters’ conversation.

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Follow Blanca and Daya’s conversation, we get one last establishing shot, although the lighting has changed—note how Daya’s presence is now established in the foreground.

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And then, finally, we have the final shots, with Taystee interacting with the environment as Poussey continues to read off books they felt were worth memorializing (with the sun having returned a bit here, noticeable on the inmate in the right foreground).

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What did we learn in breaking down this scene beyond that I’ve descended into madness? A few things.

1) It is clear that there was coverage of Taystee and Poussey done on location on the day of production, where weather might have been an issue.

2) The composite work that was done is blocked in a way that contradicts the way the scene was blocked when it would appear it was originally shot.

3) The composite backdrop is not static, and at times matches what is featured what is established in other elements of the scene.

This is difficult to capture in photos, but his is not a generic backdrop—in particular, there is an effort made to match the wind in the backdrop with the wheelbarrow ashes (which are blown around), which is then picked up in the crowd in the shot that immediately follows. The wind doesn’t exactly match (and there’s never another gust like it, which is weird), but it points to weather as another anomaly. It also points to the production working to overcome the need to use compositing, searching for ways to add depth despite the challenge of depth created through compositing.

There is nothing in the dialogue that would suggest a significant rewrite, and the coverage is consistent enough later in the scene to suggest that it’s likely the scene was filmed in its entirety without using composite imaging. And so whatever reason they chose to shoot elements of the scene using a green screen is caught up in one or more of the issues that could create a logistical concern that—whether later that day or in post-production weeks later—they discover they don’t have the footage they need to make the scene work, and can’t go through the logistics or financials of returning to that location.

I don’t want to overstate the impact this has on the episode or the series: at the end of the day, it’s one part of one scene. But the way people—myself especially, I’ll admit, but others on Twitter—have responded to it offers a stark reminder of the gap between what television production thinks that they can get away with in terms of composite imaging and what the audience is willing to accept within a series that largely avoids it, extending the conversation from The Good Wife‘s Alicia and Kalinda controversy and into any other series that overreaches with technology for one reason or another.

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4 Comments

Filed under Orange is the New Black

4 responses to “Anatomy of a [Not] Green Screen Scene: Orange is the New Black [UPDATED]

  1. Dan

    I totally didn’t notice any of this. I did, however, notice the green screen at the beginning of Bennett’s flashback in Afghanistan. Just hideous.

  2. Pingback: Game of Thrones Finale: Is He Really Dead? | Scandal Sheet

  3. frank

    It’s likely that the appearance of green screen was caused in part by the way darker skin responds to light — it tends to reflect the colors and brightness of its environment more than light skin. As you said, the lighting shifted throughout the scene, and since we can see that it is partly cloudy, it’s obvious that production would’ve had some trouble dealing with the shifting quality of light throughout the day.

    The shot that looked like a composite appears to have softer lighting, meaning the actresses were in shade. The sun could have been shining, however, on some off-screen greenery, thus bouncing green light all over the place. It was likely also the case that the crew put up diffusion, which would’ve likely only shaded the talent, increasing this effect — this can be seen in how bright the grass is, as well as the leaves framed between the two actress’s heads.

    Since darker skin reflects its environment more, Taystee and Poussey’s faces are showing greenish highlights around the edges of their faces from their brightly-lit, green environment — particularly the left side of Taystee’s face. Since this green spill is a common artifact of poor green screen work, this could’ve made it look composited. Also, lighting a dark-skinned actor with green light tends to make them look lifeless, which would add to the fake-looking quality of the shot.

  4. Light the foreground (in this case, artificial and directional) differently than the background (in this case, ambient and omnidirectional) and you get this look.
    You can do this at home in your backyard with a flash on your camera on an overcast day.
    Check out the strobist group on flickr for thousands of examples.

    No mystery here, just some slightly clumsy cinematography…

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