Writer in Residence · 01/06/2014

Chroma Key

Did you ever feel you were smaller than your life? Quite ridiculously small. And yet at the same time too big? Did you ever feel that the fit, at any rate, was wrong?

I am too small for how big I’ve become. Talk about diet: that’s a laugh when I’m fifty feet top to toe. They said I’d be big one day, but they all say I’m smaller in real life, having seen each of my pores, that mole by my left nipple the size of someone’s head. I never know which to believe as I’m not quite sure myself. It’s difficult to stay on top of me: I’ve tried magic knickers, protein diets, the lot, but it’s not only size, it’s proliferation. I have often met myself unexpectedly down the shops, staring out of a plate-glass window, my feet hovering inches off the ground. There I am, life size this time at least, but strangely flat. Now give me a diet for that.

It’s not all fat. My mother said I was big-boned, and there has to be something to hold it all up, some structure, like the scaffold at the back of the Hollywood sign. HOLLYWOODLAND it used to say but (I’m sure you know that pedant’s pointerout) the LAND was lost, and with it, location. We don’t do setting any more – clumsy constructions of hardboard, cardboard, flesh and bone – and no colour is local, not since Chroma Key.

It used to be called Bluescreen, and what they key in most often is the sky, that place we never go, except in our mechanical shells. As early as 1930, two hundred chorus girls flew down to Rio, playing at planes all the while strapped to boxes in Beverley Hills, before a new invention, the traveling matte, won The Thief of Bagdad’s flying carpet an Oscar in ’41. I saw it first aged six, on the Universal Studios tour, not in the 40s but the 80s: YOU’LL BELIEVE A MAN CAN FLY! But that was hardly the point. The wonder was the trick exposed, the magic your belief, not HE CAN FLY but THEY CAN MAKE HIM.

This is how it works: you pick your colour — it’s usually still blue, or green because green is nothing like skin and bone. Bright green, especially, is like nothing human, even if you’re green-eyed, and blue is nothing like flesh and blood unless, like me, your eyes are blue. The human eye’s more sensitive to green, and they build cameras now that see like people.

Today, in the studio, I am blue, which means, in a blue bodysuit, with my blue, blue eyes, I disappear, can be overrun by anything. Nip and tuck: it’s good to lose some extra flesh.

It used to be our faces they wanted: now it’s our impossible bodies. Inaction heroes, action is what we don’t, and we are super at it. Today I sit in a blue chair, against a blue screen. I spread my legs, one curled — a Christmas reindeer — circle my sword-hand thrice, keep a straight face. I’ve landed in front of you.

A long distance relationship is never easy, but I’ll let you in on the trick.
On separate sides of the world, we are filmed on green, or blue.
Don’t worry, they say, as usual. Just act as though he’s there.

Not that I need advice. I’m not inexperienced, have had many invisible lovers, butterfly kisses the air imagined. It’s mostly love, when it’s not fighting. I’ve been killed fifty times by murderers I never saw, I’ve made love with the quick and the dead, with Bogart, with Cagney, and, not limited by species, with animals, with monsters.

This is how they do it.

The female matte is the film with the hole. That’s just a name: what fills it can be, doesn’t have to be, a man. The overlay, the positive, is male. If there’s no hole, no female matte, what fills it is a ghost. Without the minus, the plus layer sheds extra light. If the matte’s match is imperfect, shadows are one problem, overexposure another.

(I’m used to overexposure: my naked arm stretches toward a perfume bottle, sometimes six feet, sometimes six inches distant, in every duty free across the world.)

The ‘female’ matte is then re-shot through blue, the ‘male’ through red and green. I am invisible on sky, on sea, you in flames, on grass: we are preserved, eternal opposites: earth, fire, water, air. Then a beam splitter splices us one frame at a time. Remote enough sex for you? Our movements, wedded by computer-synchronised cameras, segue across continents.

But, back to that worry. I need to ask you:

Did you ever disguise a cookie in a coffee shop because the cookie did not come from the coffee shop? And did that make you too big or too small? I used to do that, before I got big, sneak in a cheap supermarket donut, put it down on a coffee shop paper napkin hoping to key it in. The cameras were on me even then, though only I knew it. I was already a different scale. If I were to do something, everyone would notice.

But now I’ve swelled too big for the small parts of life. The anaphylactic shock of ingesting the lives of others — queenslawyersreporterswaitresses — means everything happens to me as it does in the movies where things are always out of proportion: people suffer greatly for things that are not really very bad, and when they win small things, their joy is unalloyed. But, always, when things are really very bad, people never fail to suffer too. I leave the bluescreen studio, a latte in my hand, and step into my own unimportant sun.

Having lived under the radar, on food from the reduced-for-quick-sale shelf, I continue, even if I no longer need to. I sneak through the city, my own ghost, no need for dark glasses. I’m haunted, I contain multitudes, always room for one more, so long as she’s me too. Amongst all of me I’m never spotted. I have begun to look less like myself.

So I have come to a decision: I will shrink. After removing my bones it will be easy to have my skin taken in, but what shall I do with the excess? Should it be folded and stored in case I ever feel expansive? I have room in in the airing cupboard, in between the towels. It looks so similar, the housekeeper won’t notice. Or should it be pleated in, tight to my frame? I could discard it, step out of my skin (my bones and I together) leaving all three of us — frame, material, soul — bereft.

Why did the skeleton miss the Oscars?
Because she had no body to go with.
But I didn’t get an Oscar for being a skellington!

I’ll take the bus there. No one will notice. They’ll be looking for the limo. You will find, if you take a bus ride through any city, each passenger has shaped himself according to his desires, but I am shaped according to the desires of all the people on the bus. The jostle’s killing me.

On the red carpet the background’s real enough, though it looks like fantasy, and here we are: unexpectedly human, incongruously normal. The stars are voices now, and here, their useless bodies: gnarled ladies from Arizona, squat men in tux and caps, manufactured as any Hedda Hopper romance when the screen was silver-grey. The movies are no longer beautiful, but you’ll believe that’s the way they can make them.

And you?

You appear and you are small, Korean, badger-quiffed, shorter than your photos, your face whorled with acne scars. Once you were an action star and now (two many legs, two many arms, all those un-needed limbs) your legsarmswings are often someone else’s. That’s OK: we’re neither of us getting any younger, except on screen, and we could all of us do with a helping hand. If you like I’ll lend you one of mine. I have a million, each of them fingering a stopper at a beauty counter somewhere else.

Will the crowds overlook us for it, or will they love us more?

Thermo Key, the latest development in Chroma, uses infra-red, the invisible colour. If I wear red on the red carpet, I will disappear. Not just a dress, not lipstick or shoes but all over: bodypaint, hairspray, contact lenses. Internally as well, dye spreading through bones and organs. Red right see-thru through. Stuff Weightwatchers — I’m lighter than I’ve ever been!

But nobody’s looking.

When Bluescreen was imperfect, everything was better. I’ll take the shudder between back and foreground, the body’s black line against the blue. I’ll take the not quite believing A MAN CAN FLY. Now, it’s all too easy to, and even I can’t tell the difference.

You are the only one to see me. The others do not notice as, above them, I soar down larger-than-life, 3d, whirl my sword three times around my head, and land at your feet.


Joanna Walsh’s writing has recently been published by Granta, Tate, The London Review of Books, The European Short Story Network, and Narrative Magazine amongst others. Her story collection, Fractals, is published by 3:AM Press and her work has been selected for Best British Short Stories 2014. She is also an illustrator. Besides working for clients worldwide ranging from The Economist to The New York Times, she has created large scale drawings for The Wellcome Institute and The Tate Modern.


posted by Nicholas Rombes