Radio show, comic book, TV series: The Green Hornet is back! 

Michel Gondry and John Schwartzman, ASC, fire up the iconic superhero for the big screen. 

The combination of personalities behind The Green Hornet seems unlikely at first. Actor-writer Seth Rogen is best known for broad comedy. Director Michel Gondry is known for imaginative imagery in music videos and commercials, and for the quirky sensibility at work in indie films like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Cinematographer John Schwartzman, ASC, is known for his Oscar®-nominated photography of Seabiscuit, and for effects-heavy action blockbusters like Pearl Harbor and Armageddon. But on The Green Hornet, the oddball teaming worked, because, as Schwartzman relates, all the players were professionals who understand collaboration.

“The studio was looking for somebody with an offbeat, international sensibility,” the cinematographer describes. “I was thrilled with the choice of Michel Gondry because he is a different kind of director from what I’m used to. My goal was to give him the freedom to do anything he wanted to.”

In turn, Gondry appreciated Schwartzman’s sensitivity to the needs of the actors. Schwartzman’s stepmother is Talia Shire and his brother, Jason, is an actor, so he grew up around actors on sets. Something as prosaic as getting from the wide shot into coverage quickly can be helpful for an actor trying to stay in the groove. “I’m always trying to be as invisible as possible. Sometimes that means a lot of rigging and work that you don’t see. At the end of the day the reason we are there is to capture a good story,” Schwartzman says.

Mr. Big

Gondry reimagines The Green Hornet as an action-comedy, which dictated a more spontaneous approach. “Michel wants to prepare to a point, but after that he is hoping to capture the happy accident,” says Schwartzman. “My job was to provide lighting and camerawork that facilitated the freedom necessary to capturing those moments.”

In early conversations, the director referenced films like Freebie and the Bean, photographed by László Kovács, ASC; Bullitt, photographed by William A. Fraker, ASC, BSC; and All the President’s Men, photographed by Gordon Willis, ASC.

“He wanted it to look like a 1970s film,” Schwartzman continues. “So we shot anamorphic, which was fantastic because it is still the gold standard. There’s something about ‘Scope[[‘scope’?]] that causes, in me at least, this sense of reverie. Because this was Michel’s first big Hollywood studio film, I think he wanted to go whole hog and shoot anamorphic. He loved the way the lenses worked [in anamorphic].”

Schwartzman used Panavision® cameras with the new G-series anamorphic prime lenses, along with two G-series zooms, the 40-80mm and the 70-200mm, all of which, he says made it a “joy to look through the camera every day.” Sony Pictures Entertainment (SPE) also got onboard with the wide-screen film format. “Instead of saying how a different approach would make the DVD extraction easier,” Schwartzman recounts, “they said, ‘Oh, thank god! We love anamorphic and how it looks.’ Sony has mandated that their films will be finished in 4K. So I believe the studio is trying very hard to be a good steward of image quality. They understand that anamorphic is close to twice the image area, which in addition to being more future-proof, looks a lot better.”

Chop, Chop

To depict the lightning-quick fighting instincts of Britt Reid’s driver/manservant, Kato (played by Taiwanese actor Jay Chou), Gondry wanted to make extensive use of nonstandard frame rates, his manipulation of time now recently dubbed “Kato-vision.” According to visual effects supervisor Jamie Dixon, Kato-vision is actually two separate effects. One, which involves some graphic retina overlays and red lines that outline the imminent threats, help depict Kato’s superhuman ability to plan a fight. The other, more elaborate effect, involves slowing down one fighter while the other stays at normal speed.

“Michel came to us with a rough test that showed his idea,” Dixon recalls. “We talked about what we liked about it, and decided that it was the use of time to focus and highlight the energy transfer during a fight, making it seem more powerful. So sometimes you see Kato working at normal speed but all his opponents are in slow motion. And sometime Kato’s fist swings in slow motion, then hits a guy in normal speed, and then the guy reacts very quickly but then floats back in slow motion. All this is happening within the same shot. We shot these scenes with a Phantom that can shoot up to 1000 frames per second. It required a lot of light, but the footage looks amazing.”

Gondry wanted to be able to shoot Kato-vision scenes at a moment’s notice. Providing him the freedom to shoot in any direction, at any frame rate, was a big part of Schwartzman’s challenge. “He told me that he wanted to be able to shoot 24 frames per second, or 500 frames per second, at night, without having to wait,” says Schwartzman. “And he didn’t want it to look like we’d suddenly cut from a normal-speed shot to a high-speed shot where the street goes dark. We lit the night exteriors so that we could flip a switch and go from 42 foot-candles to 3000 foot-candles, while keeping it all balanced.”

News Room

Roughly half of the 70-day shoot was done on locations, and half was done on stages. One key set is Reid’s workplace (where he is publisher of The Daily Sentinel), which was a replica of the 10th floor of the Creative Artists Agency building in Century City, Calif., constructed on stage 15 on Sony’s Culver City lot. The Translite outside the windows was reportedly the second largest ever made, about 300 feet long and 40 feet high.

“The set was a classic 21st-century version of the Washington Post offices,” Schwartzman explains. “It had that symmetry and rows of cubicles. The Translite was stunningly beautiful.”

Windows stretched from the ceiling down to a few feet above the floor. The set floor was 8 feet above the stage to make below-level views possible.

To facilitate easy switching from normal speeds to higher frame rates, Schwartzman built flexibility into the lighting. In the standard T-bar drop ceiling, he asked the crew to mount Kino Flo Image 80s rather than regular fluorescents. The amount of light could be increased from the dimmer board by switching from two to four to eight bulbs.

A track was hung around the set with Maxi-coops consisting of six PAR globes in a fixture. “Those lights are normally hung straight down, but a gaffer [Drew Davidson] had pointed out to me how nicely horizontal they are,” says Schwartzman. “Hung in a line around the set, they essentially form a single continuous light source. If Michel wanted a cloudy day, we’d leave them off. We also had the option of dragging a 300-foot white Bobinette to diffuse the light. It was very well rigged.”

Schwartzman says that the producers agreed to the extensive rigging in part because he promised they’d be able to move fast once shooting began. “We shot 20 pages in the first five days,” he says. “We were given the time and resources to do things right. As extensive – and expensive – as some of our rigging was, it ultimately vetted itself out by saving us time and money in the long run. It was the right thing to do.”

The DP worked closely with production designer Owen Paterson, who came up with custom-made lighting fixtures built into the set that helped the lighting and camera crews to work with very little augmentation. “If you walked on our set, you would see very little movie equipment aside from the camera and a sound person,” says Schwartzman. “Sometimes we’d have a handheld China ball. But I treated the sets like practical locations, even though they were built. It was in tune with the freedom Michel had requested.”

Night exteriors were designed to be slightly cool, and Schwartzman worked closely with costume designer Kym Barrett, who made different versions of the Green Hornet’s wardrobe to work in different color temperatures. “There’s one jacket he wears during the day, another he wears under bluish moonlight, and yet another he wears in sodium vapor light,” Schwartzman recalls. “This was all designed to preserve the green tinge of his suit no matter what type of light he was in. We were very conscious of the color palette. The headlights of Black Beauty, the Green Hornet’s car, are a very bright primary or fern green. Those colors infect the images throughout the movie.”

Schwartzman tested KODAK VISION3 500T 5219 and KODAK VISION2 Expression 500T films and found that the Green Hornet’s wardrobe looked better on the slightly lower-contrast and less-saturated 5229. Daylight scenes were filmed in KODAK VISION2 200T 5217.

A Guy and his Car

As it has throughout the many incarnations of The Green Hornet (see below), Reid’s ultra-high tech vehicle, Black Beauty, plays a major role. Sony’s product-placement team had considered a custom-built BMW, but purists preferred the black 1965 Chrysler Crown Imperial seen in the television show. It is a huge vehicle that is 23 feet long. Schwartzman ran the choices by his teenage son and the Chrysler emerged victorious, and Gondry agreed. Thirty of the vehicles were located and gathered for the shoot, adapted for a variety of scenes and effects. Some were adapted with a NASCAR engine and roll cage for stunts. Some were dismantled to facilitate shooting. In the story, the car undergoes an evolution, which meant more versions were needed.

“Michel and I tested rear projection for the extensive car scenes,” remembers Schwartzman. “We didn’t want it to look like we pulled them around at night, or like a composite. The kiss of death is towing cars at night and trying to do dialogue. We also tried rear projection with big LED screens, and with video projection. But it was impossible to get the background material shot in time. So we ended up doing blue screen work. We put the cars on air bearings and moved them around. What would have taken three weeks of nights, took us about three or four days on stage. With Seth, there is a certain amount of improvisation. You want to have multiple cameras because you want to capture lightning in a bottle.”

Dixon and Schwartzman sometimes had to convince Gondry (who wanted to maintain realism wherever possible) of the efficacy of using blue screen. One example was the windshields on the many car scenes. Dixon told Gondry he could add the windshields in later, making the shoot easier and offering more control over the placement of bullet holes and reflections. “We did it both ways because we had the time,” says Schwartzman. “Much later we were looking at some visual effects shots, and Michel turned to Dixon and told him he was right. The shots with the added windshield looked better, and gave us more control.”

“Michel has a lot of unusual ideas about how he wants to do things,” says Dixon, who says The Green Hornet ended up using roughly 600 VFX shots. “It was interesting working with him because it always seemed to be more about the process than the product. In the end, he let us do the basic effects, and paid a lot of attention to the signature Michel Gondry moments, like Kato-vision, or when the screen splits into eight smaller screens, each one part of a sequence that transitions from one to another.

“From my perspective, there are three critical relationships that the visual effects supervisor has in a movie,” Dixon continues. “In preproduction, it’s with the producer. During production, it’s with the cinematographer. And during post, it’s with the editor. Of course these relationships are all overseen by the relationship with the director. Production works best when the cinematographer and I have a kind of shorthand. He or she can recognize something that might be a problem for me, and vice versa. On The Green Hornet, I was so lucky to work with John. We had the camaraderie and team spirit. It was more efficient and a lot of fun, and it made the product much better.”

Color grading at press time for The Green Hornet is via a digital intermediate at Company 3 with Stefan Sonnenfeld. A 3D conversion is also expected.

“We had a lot of fun on this project,” Schwartzman says, smiling. “I think we ended up filming a 160-page script. I was glad to be able to give Michel lots of options. For me, it was a different style of working. Michel signed up for a big Hollywood studio movie, and I signed up to work with an experimental independent French director! He wanted to see what it was like to jump into the big machine of studio filmmaking. But I think there is still an independent director’s mind at the helm. It’s got his flavor all over it.”

The long and tangled history of The Green Hornet feature-film project starts with the 1930s radio program created by George W. Trendle and Fran Striker, the former of whom also created The Lone Ranger. The Green Hornet’s similarities to The Lone Ranger are obvious – a masked crime fighter with an ethnic sidekick – but less well known is the fact that The Green Hornet/Britt Reid is actually the Lone Ranger’s great-nephew, according to scripts from this early period. The radio show ran from 1936 to 1952 and spawned comic book versions. Green Hornet comics have been produced intermittently ever since.

As with The Lone Ranger, the success of The Green Hornet radio plays led to film serials, first at Republic Pictures and eventually at Universal. Cinematographers who worked on the serials include William Sickner and Jerome Ash. More than two-dozen episodes were made, with some episodes later re-edited into feature-length stories.

The Green Hornet television show is known to the boomer generation for introducing Bruce Lee (who played Kato) to North America. It ran for only one season, 1966-67. The current feature version chose the Green Hornet’s vehicle, Black Beauty, based on the sleek Chrysler Crown Imperial driven by Kato in this iteration.

A feature film of The Green Hornet had been talked about as early as 1990, with George Clooney mentioned in the title role. Michel Gondry reportedly collaborated on a script in the late 1990s. In 2004, Kevin Smith was rumored to be writing a screenplay, and at one point Jet Li and Jake Gyllenhaal were said to be on board for the leads.

Sony Pictures announced a new feature version in 2008. The film, which would be adapted as an action story with a strong comedic flavor, was to star Seth Rogen with writing by Rogen and Evan Goldberg. It was to be directed by Hong Kong action/comedy star Stephen Chow, who would also play Kato. John Schwartzman, ASC, was hired as director of photography. Chow eventually left the project due to creative differences. Finally, Michel Gondry was brought onboard to direct, with Jay Chou (who idolized Bruce Lee as a boy) as Kato. Cameron Diaz, Christoph Waltz, Edward James Olmos and Edward Furlong appear in secondary roles.

 By David Heuring / photos by Jaimie Trueblood