Nobuhiko Ôbayashi’s House (1977) is showing in the United Kingdom.
“What a strange landscape” “It feels like we’re lost in another world”
As they walk on the path approaching the titular House, the protagonists of Nobuhiko Ôbayashi’s cult classic self-reflectively acknowledge the strangeness of the scenery they inhabit: suspiciously idyllic painted backdrops, beautifully nightmarish skies, and bidimensional sets that look like they’ve come out of a pop-up book. Above all, a strange blue halo that seems to be tracing the outlines of their bodies and of the objects surrounding them, making them look like ghosts. House is an explosive showcase of filmic techniques and practical effects: in the space of its 88 minute runtime, Ôbayashi experiments with virtually every means at his disposal to create what is perhaps one of the most formally daring, visually interesting horror films ever made. And yet if there’s one feature that stands out and defines it, it’s the outlandish use of chroma key—specifically, using a blue screen.
Chroma key is a technique which uses color hues to layer two images, achieved through the removal of the original background (usually a blue or green screen) and its replacement with different footage. The essence of this practice relies on the most immediate childhood fantasy: changing the background and pretending to be someplace else, and believing something to be real just because you decide it is. In a film like House, whose imagery is so deliberately artificial and, according to Ôbayashi himself, influenced by children’s logic, not only is this medium particularly fitting, but its possibilities can be explored and pushed to new degrees of artificiality. Specifically, Ôbayashi subverts the traditional purpose of the blue screen, and instead of using it to simply alter the background of a scene, he shifts his focus onto the bodies of the girls and uses them as a canvas, investigating their creative possibilities and the ways in which they become part of the strange world around them.
House’s seven teenage protagonists, despite their seemingly shallow characterization (they’re all named after their most prominent character trait), are the heart of the film, the linchpin that holds this pandemonium together. Similarly, their bodies are not there to be looked at, but as (mostly) living elements of this creative chaos. As such, they gain total freedom: their phantom fingers continue to play the piano after death, their severed limbs float in the air terrorizing their friends, their perfect skin collapses to reveal hellfire underneath it. One of the scenes in which the use of blue screen is more visible, and at its most fun, is the one in which Fantasy goes to retrieve a watermelon left to chill at the bottom of a well, and pulls up Mac’s disembodied head instead, which proceeds to jump out and attack her horrified friend—by biting her bottom. Not only does this scene clearly reveal the use of blue screen by showing the blue contours around the characters’ bodies, it also exemplifies the playfulness, mixed with the absurdist horror, at the core of it all. The gore is only secondary to the creation of an image that is in equal parts oddly disturbing and deeply silly, where the characters are in on the joke.
Throughout the film, Ôbayashi adapts his filming technique to the state of mind and personalities of the characters, virtually making them the narrators of their own story: for instance, Angel’s scenes are shot like a melodrama, with their soft lighting and gentle score, while Kung-Fu’s scenes are closer to, well, a kung fu film. This formal closeness to the characters is one of the elements that keeps House from ever becoming voyeuristic, despite the presence of nudity and double entendres, and gives the impression that the girls are in control of the film, because it’s shot as if they’d made it. Their bodies, instead of being sexualized objects, become something for them to play with, and find in the blue screen an instrument to explore their limits and possibilities. In fact, much of the effects were achieved by physically painting the girls’ bodies blue, and immersing their isolated body parts in fantastical landscapes and parallel worlds, achieving an effect that is both essentially childish and experimental.
Ôbayashi continued to use chroma key, and test its possibilities, throughout his career: from the early psychedelic fantasies of The Aimed School (1981) and The Girl Who Conquered Time (1983), which maintain visual and technical links to House, to his last films, Hanagatami (2017) and Labyrinth of Cinema (2019), in which he works with a more refined technology but preserves the artifice of the medium, and self-reflectively uses it to blur the lines between reality and fiction. Simultaneously, the technique grew more and more commonplace in mainstream cinema, and continues to achieve new heights in realism. The norm, in film production, is to hide the use of green screen, and make it as seamless as possible: from sci-fi blockbusters that create entire fantasy worlds that seem tangible and lived in, to stories set in the “real” world in which green screen goes completely undetected as a surrogate for filming on location, or a way to slightly enhance reality. Some filmmakers, however, challenge the very notion of “real”, and revel in the artifice of chroma key like Ôbayashi: among them, David Lynch with the opening dance sequence of Mulholland Dr. and Takashi Miike in The Happiness of the Katakuris, who prefer a distinctively artificial look to achieve a surreal, jarring effect. While this “transparent” use of chroma key is rare in mainstream cinema, and instead is often associated with experimentation, one popular medium which has used this technique more freely has been the music video. Especially since lockdown, when artists were often left to improvise and experiment only with their bodies and a green screen, the rudimental chroma key aesthetic seen in House has seen a new resurgence, and proved the timeless charm of Ôbayashi’s playful visions. Specifically, it is being used more and more as the visual representation of a fantasy, highlighting the make-believe effect achieved in House, and existing in a more introspective sphere. Charli XCX’s video for “claws,” for instance, is a digital fantasy which features her dancing in a home-built set, later transformed into a collection of surreal landscapes complete with glitches and unedited footage of her in a green suit. The final product is as odd as it is compelling––the simplicity of the concept and the transparency in its execution are complemented by the endless possibilities offered by the green screen, which implicitly asks the question: “if you could live in a fantasy world, what would it look like?” The result is a strange virtual intimacy between the viewer and the artist, essentially dancing in their daydreams.
Phoebe Bridgers’ video for “Kyoto” uses a similar effect, with added irony: in it, Bridgers sings her emotional lyrics against a pseudo-karaoke video made out of stock footage and images of Kyoto, pretending to fly over the sea and surf on train tracks while singing about loneliness and heartbreak. Here, rather than projecting her internal world through images, Bridgers is acting out a fictionalized version of the landscape described in her song, adding a layer of distance that makes the video look like an imagined memory of the original story. Again, the use of green screen is made clearly visible, as well as the “special effects” achieved with a home fan which blows the wind in Bridgers’ hair and which briefly shows up in the frame.
In both cases, House’s legacy is more than simply aesthetic. Ôbayashi used blue screen as an expressionistic tool, a way to materialize the inner worlds of teenage girls and let them find their place in them. Similarly, pop stars in music videos can make the green screen an extension of themselves. But more importantly, House relies on the creative value of pure fantasy, and in the means that make it seem almost tangible, but not quite. The choice to use lo-fi, unrefined green screen effects, even now that technology can seamlessly blend fabrication and reality, only draws more attention to the fantasy, and that is exactly the point—creating an in-between state in which daydreams can take shape, and are expressed through their own visual language.