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‘Orange Is the New Black’s Great Green-Screen Mystery

'Orange Is the New Black's Great Green-Screen Mystery

While recappingOrange Is the New Black” for the A.V. Club, critic Myles McNutt thought he noticed something awry in the third episode, “Empathy Is a Boner Killer,” directed by Michael Trim. (Minor spoilers for the episode follow.) During the scene when Taystee and Poussey are holding a memorial service for the library books that have been burned in an attempt to stamp out Litchfield Correctional’s bedbug infestation, the shots of the two characters standing by a tree on the prison ground looked faked. And not just a little fake, but really fake, like, “Mad Men” driving scene fake. So he did some close reading and concluded three 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.

Fast-forward a couple of days. McNutt hears from a post-production supervisor on OITNB who tells him that no, nothing in the scene was shot in the studio and faked for outside using background plates — and McNutt, to his credit, amends the post with a lengthy mea culpa. (This image actually has the words “mea culpa” in its file name.)

He, and we, are, however still left with a mystery of a different sort: Why does the scene look fake, even if it isn’t? 

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?

The post supervisor’s comment — that there was “no visual effects work” on the scene — leaves plenty of wiggle room for other kinds of meddling, including (my guess) tinkering with the lighting and color correction in the digital intermediate stage, which could account for some shots’ indisputably fakey lighting. The close shots of of Taystee and Poussey appear to have been shot with a long lens which pushes them up against the razor-wire fence in the background, further making the backdrop look two-dimensional. There have been rear-projection scenes for almost as long as there have been movies, so it’s a stretch to call this kind of wild good chase an artifact of the digital age. But as effects get better, we’re more and more accustomed to being on the alert for the places they don’t quite work, the shots in Cersei’s walk of shame on “Game of Thrones” where Lena Headey’s face isn’t quite firmly stitched onto her body double’s head, or the parts of “Jurassic World” where the dinosaurs movie in ways that look “cool” but not realistic. Take a look at these side-by-side shots from Cracked’s “6 Reasons Modern Movie CGI Looks Surprisingly Crappy.” The ones on the left are as they appear in the movie (or its trailers),; the ones on the right have had their digital color grading removed, or rather they’ve been digitally un-re-graded to approximate what they might originally have looked like.

You can see how the ones on the left look “better,” at least in the context of a blockbuster fantasy, but less real. Now imagine that process applied to a mostly realistic show in a women’s prison. Teal and Orange Is the New Black and White.

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