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On Shoestrings and Phones: Rossellini and Contemporary Film

On Shoestrings and Phones: Rosselini and Contemporary Film

Roberto Rossellini's Neo-Realist Rome, Open City provides some fascinating technical parallels to Tangerine, an equally revolutionary Independent movie made exactly seventy years later. Both pictures share a gritty vigorous spirit that should encourage novice filmmakers everywhere.

By 1944, the Italian film industry had been decimated. Rossellini knew a wealthy woman who was prepared to finance two short documentaries - one about a Catholic priest who had been shot by the Germans, the other about Roman street kids who had fought for the Resistance. Rossellini wanted Aldo Fabrizi to play the priest in reenactments and asked Federico Fellini to contact him. Fellini suggested Rossellini make a single feature film combining both ideas and co-write the screenplay (which won them an Academy Award).

Roma, citta' aperta was crudely shot not for stylistic reasons, but due to the circumstances of production. With the exception of established stars like Fabrizi and Anna Magnani, Rossellini hired mostly non-professional actors in order to portray the hardship and poverty of the occupation more authentically. He also relied largely on improvisation. "The situation of the moment guided by my own and the actors' moods and perspectives" determined what was filmed. The facilities at Cinecitta were unusable due to unreliable electrical supply and poor quality film stock, so only four interior sets were constructed for the most indispensable locations. Despite these cost-cutting measures, the movie soon went over budget.

Roma, citta' aperta, 1945

For many years, it was assumed that the movie's grainy, newsreel style was deliberate. However, Rossellini was caught tapping into the power grid to a GI dancehall by Rod Geiger, a US soldier in the Signal Corps, who had access to short-ends and rolls of film that were fogged, scratched and considered unfit for use. Geiger was able to obtain enough discarded stock to complete the picture. When the print was restored by the Cineteca Nazionale in 1995, it was discovered that the original negative consisted of three different types - Ferrania C6 for outdoor scenes and the more sensitive Agfa Super Pan and Agfa Ultra Rapid for interiors. The discrepancies in image brightness and consistency are now put down to poor processing - variable development times, inadequate agitation in the developing bath, and insufficient fixing.

The same serendipitous quality of guerilla film-making transpired when producer Mark Duplass asked Sean Baker if he had any ideas for new film projects. Inspired by some local characters who hung out at a local Hollywood donut store, Baker met co-stars May Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez at a nearby LGBT community center (neither had any major acting experience). Made on the proverbial shoestring, Baker describes how Tangerine was shot on three iPhone 5s Smartphones - "Even with a DSLR, we would have ended up having extra crew members, and I would have had to find certain lenses, which I just didn't have the budget for. So what we did is just start looking at iPhone experiments on Vimeo … We realized that, instead of spending money on the equipment, we could put the money on screen on things like locations and having extras."

Tangerine, 2015

Instead of dollies, Baker rode around on his bike to capture traveling shots of the neighborhood. In order to avoid costume changes, he decided the story had to take place over one day (Christmas Eve). Cinematographer Radium Cheung used the $8 FiLMIC Pro app (a video app to control focus, aperture and color temperature, which captures video clips at higher bit-rates) and an anamorphic adapter from Moondog Labs to create a widescreen look. A Tiffen's Steadicam Smoothee was employed for smooth-moving shots. Baker used Final Cut Pro for the first cut and Da Vinci Resolve software to correct contrast and amplify colour saturation. The result is an orange-red granularity that intensifies the essence of his street-savvy subject matter.

Tangerine was nominated for Best Film at the London and Sydney Film Festivals. At its Sundance premiere, the audience gasped audibly when the credits revealed the film-makers' technical audacity. To date, it's grossed $675,000. Baker's reaction? "I’m not going to say I’m an iPhone guy now because next time I want to shoot on 35mm and I want a budget way in the millions."

There is a free screening and panel discussion of 'Rome, Open City' on Tuesday 22/10 at City Gallery at 7pm. 'Tangerine' was a big hit at the 2015 NZ Film Festival and is now in general release.

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