American Cinematographer ·· 02.2000 ·· 'Amorous Androids' ·· Christopher Probst
For Icelandic pop-vocalist Bjork's latest single, All Is Full of Love," British music video director Chris Cunningham envisioned an antiseptically surreal medical/industrial assembly line that gives "birth" to an eerily realistic android version of the singer as the pulsing, almost languid techno-based track develops.
"As a teenager I had quite an obsession with industrial robotics and electronic music," says Cunningham. "I always thought it would be nice to mix that aesthetic of robotic fetishism with something completely conflicting. 'All Is Full of Love' is so much about romance and sexuality that I thought it might be interesting to push those ideas together with a sort of cold technology, and see if we could make it work.."
Set within pristine white, medical-lab environment, the video begins from black with a shot tracking along serpentine cables on the floor as fluorescent lighting in the room flickers on. As the camera tilts up, two fluid mechanical assembly arms swing in from either side of the frame and set to work on a solitary figure laying on a slab in the center of the room. The figure is soon to be revealed to be a partially assembled robotic version of Bjork. Lights beneath her "bed" flicker to life as the vocals in the track begin. With large parts of her synthetic body still missing, the Bjork android begins to sing the words of the song as the assembly robots attach panels to her limbs and solder connections in the back of her head.
During the song's second verse, a second identical Bjork figure stands before the slab observing the android construction. The video finishes with a somewhat disturbing and yet strangely beautiful image of two beings embracing and kissing each other in movements that appear surprisingly human. As the track begins to fade, the lighting once again flickers to black and the camera pulls away, tilting back down the slithering forms of the cables on the floor.
Director of photography John Lynch was chosen to photograph Cunningham's carefully planned techno fantasy. The two had collaborated on a prior commercial project.
Prior to his career as a director, Cunningham worked in prosthetics, animatronics and art department, and production illustration, experiences that enabled him to design each element of the visuals to his exact liking. "I did technical drawings for the designs of the robots and the Bjork androids," he explains, "and then had a model maker friend of mine build every thing as static props. 'All Is Full of Love' was a relatively low budget video, and is probably the best instance where have an effects background and knowing how to be resourceful with low-budget effects has come in handy for me. I'm an obsesive storyboarder, but the Bjork video is the most pre-planned I've ever been. I did a timeline that was like a metronome with the track, and each cut point mapped out on it.
"There are actually no functioning robots in the video at all," Cunningham continues. "Anything that moves is a computer graphic. The robotic arms that come in from the sides were two props on steel rods that we had two men push into frame. The actual moving part on the robots was a tilting mechanism that was crudely cable-controlled. All of the additional moving parts were tiny little CG elements that we added in post at Glassworks in London. I don't think computer graphics are anywhere near photo-realistic yet. The only way to fool someone is to increase the percentage of 'reality' in each shot and minimize the amount of CG."
A similar method was employed to convincingly create the performance and movements of the Bjork androids. "All of the actual movements of the figures were based on Bjork's real performance," states Cunningham, "Once again, though, that was done with CGI, which basically involved only moving the arms and the head occasionally, as well as inserting her lip-synched performance. If you see a shot were the head is not moving, then what you are seeing is a prop Bjork head that was taken from a life cast; her eyes, nostrils and mouth were the only elements we added. For shots in which her head was moving, we used a 3-D model of the prop head that was tracked frame by frame to match Bjork's performance. The last two shots of the robots kissing are probably the best examples of how we were creating their movements. We took the arms off the prop figures and the head of one of them and shot them for about 20 seconds. We'd then put Bjork in to do a pass for an arm. We had her (dressed) in blue with some white panels on her arms, so the effects people could have a performance guide.
"Every single shot in the video has about four layers," he expands. "The first element is the shot of the set and the robot prop doing nothing, which we'd film for about 21 seconds. We'd then remove the prop Bjork robot and put (the real) Bjork in with her face painted white and wearing a blue suit. Using a mix of the (master shot and a live feed of Bjork in frame) on the video monitor, we'd then try to match up as much as possible. It was a pretty crude and fairly terrifying method of shooting the video. For the Avid editing, I basically had a series of stills of a robot on a set and some crude shots of Bjork wearing a blue suit with her face painted white. There was a definite feeling of insecurity all the way until the first couple of shots were finished in post, when I could finally tell whether it was working or not."
Filmed with slow, methodical locked-off shots, the clip's imagery has almost a black and white starkness, but Cunningham sought to skew the look more towards a colder cyan-blue white to help to create a more "medical" feel. The only true sense of color in the video comes from the use of elegantly controlled lens flares to add a specifically adjusted glow of electric purple-blue to portions of the frame.
"There were two photographic elements I absolutely had to get across," Cunningham states. "First, I wanted to have haze over all the lights, and we tried to keep actual prop lights in the shot to get haze from them. Second, the color of the flares had to be a purple-blue. When I've shot recently with anamorphic lenses, I haven't been as interested in the ratio as much as the quality of the lenses, which in these cases were quite old. Lenses seem to be getting more and more crystal clear with each year. It's actually getting pretty hard to re-create those subtle textures, because the lenses are almost too good."
Cinematographer Lynch submits, "Chris has a lot of technical ability, and he knows exactly what he wants from a cinematographer. He likes pushing every tool - the lenses, the film stock, the lights - to try and to get results that people haven't seen before. The use of flares, for example, was absolutely premeditated. He wanted to use the lensesí imperfections to give the film something unique. We tested quite a lot of different lenses - from Panavision Primo and the older Cooke crystal Express anamorphics, to a number of different spherical lenses - to find the ones that had the nicest colored flares. We also tested different light sources that we could use to create the flares: direct lights like Dedos or fluorescents and various bounced lights. To produce the precise purple-blue flares Chris wanted, we eventually settled on some older Panavision (Normal Speed) PS lenses used in combination with Kodak Vision 250D 5246."
To physically execute the visual mandate of forced imperfection, Lynch began dealing with the lighting of the set itself. "Almost all of the light in the set was from underneath, and it sort of bounced around the walls of the white set, although we did have a few 'practical' bulbs built into the wall behind the figures. The fluorescent lights presented their own problems, because we couldnít dim them; we had about eight different people on the switches turning them on and off. Chris pays a great deal of attention to the photographic choreography, mapping out the visuals almost like music. In that regard, we really had to work out the sequence and duration of the fluorescents' flicker throughout the course of the song. We had to establish whether they would flicker all of the time, how long they would stay on, where they'd flicker, when they went off, and so on."
Next, Lynch added additional "imperfect" lighting to the given setup. "We used various lights aimed directly into the lens for each effect," he states. "On every shot, we went through a sequence of deciding were we'd put the flare and whether or not we needed one. We could have possibly added the flares in post, but it was much more organic and exciting to do in-camera. To work out the size, shape, color, and position of the flares, we would use a Maglight with a Dedo or other instrument. Then, for the more milky-flared look Chris wanted, we'd use either a soft bounced light or a fluorescent light very near the lens. We also played with depth of field to isolate what we wanted to see. It was quite shallow most of the time."
Cunningham concludes, "Looking back at the project now, I wish there was even less depth of field. I didn't want to use slant focus or other kinds of lens tricks to make things look more romantic, but I wish the background was more out of focus. I can remember telling the art department to bring the back walls closer to save money. But then no matter how far back I went in the studio (using longer lenses), I couldn't get the background out of focus. The robots were too close to the back wall and we couldn't get that drop in focus. That was my biggest regret of the whole job, because if the back wall had been further from the subject, I think the video would have looked more lush. It's interesting how much a major element in the photographic style of the video can be made or broken by one small decision about the set."