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Love Machina Taps into the Lofty Idealism of the 1960s”: DP Peter Sillen on Love Machina

BINA48, a humanoid AI consisting of shoulders and head with dark skin and gray hair, is sitting on a table.A still from Love Machina. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | Photo by Peter Sillen.

Martine Rothblatt and Bina Rothblatt are two futurists attempting to preserve their love forever with BINA48, a robotic face with chatbot capabilities to which the couple hopes to upload Bina’s consciousness. Their story is chronicled in director Peter Sillen’s Love Machina, a 2024 Sundance premiere.

For this project, Sillen served as his own cinematographer. Below, he explains why he made that choice for the film and explains the film’s relationship to 1960s America.

See all responses to our annual Sundance cinematographer interviews here.

Filmmaker: How and why did you wind up being the cinematographer of your film? What were the factors and attributes that led to your being hired for this job?

Sillen: I often work as a director, but cinematography is my first love, so I often jump in as a director-DP on the right projects. For Love Machina, production faced a number of logistical challenges from the start. On our first shoot day, Bruce and Bina48 were meeting the other students and participating in the first “Philosophy of Love” class remotely from Vermont. We had a small team in the California classroom with John Baker on camera, and I had a small crew in Vermont. I wanted to make the most of our limited time with Bina48 and Bruce, and it made sense to have a camera in my hands.

Our producer Brendan Doyle and I have been working together at C41 Media for many years. When projects come across our desk, we usually evaluate what or who is best suited for the project. Sometimes I’m the right fit, and this was one of those times.

Filmmaker: What were your artistic goals on this film, and how did you realize them?

Sillen: As a cinematographer, I try to ask, “what are the needs of the film?” Every film is different. Love Machina taps into the lofty idealism of the 1960s. Back then, there was a sense that if we collectively decide as a society, we want to accomplish something—no matter how big—we can do it. Martine and Bina grew up in the ’60s and became adults in the ’70s; this was a turbulent but hopeful time. The culture and aesthetics of those decades were low-fi and analog. Because we were using a large amount of archival footage, still photographs, and Mindfile interviews, I knew we would be able to create a tactile collage sensibility. It felt equally as important that our original footage ground the film and give the viewer a sense of trust. Keeping this in mind, I wanted our scenes to feel a sense of connection while staying grounded in a documentary reality.

Filmmaker: How did you want your cinematography to enhance the film’s storytelling and treatment of its characters?

Sillen: Martine and Bina have been in front of plenty of cameras, so there is a built-in comfort level there. Much of their on-camera time has been news and press tours, some of which we use in the film. We wanted our original footage to contrast with the press tour aesthetic. Our time with them (although limited) needed to feel more intimate and connected.

Filmmaker: Were there any specific influences on your cinematography, whether they be other films, or visual art, of photography, or something else?

Sillen: I’m a big fan of cinematographers like John Davey and Bob Richman who are masters at making films seem so fluid and natural. When shooting a film like Love Machina, my focus is split. 80% of the time I’m focused on capturing the story that’s right in front of us; the other 20% of the time, I am looking for the subtext in the details. Because it’s rare to be in a pure cinema vérité situation, it can be hard to capture everything you want. I find I usually have to work in pieces, which makes you focus more on the edit. When trying to find those lyrical moments, I’m usually drawing from still photographers. Right now, I’ve been looking a lot at Sabiha Çimen, Jeff Mermelstein and Rinko
Kawauchi. They’re all so good at finding small moments in the world around them.

Filmmaker: What were the biggest challenges posed by production to those goals?

Sillen: Honestly, the biggest challenge to creating a sense of lyricism was the sheer amount of information we were trying to get into the cut. Martine and Bina have lived such extraordinary lives and accomplished so much; it was almost impossible to get it all in there. As we started to hone the themes and find the tone of the film, we started realizing covering every one of them in the cut was not necessary. We began losing what we considered secondary story lines. This process—playing out over a long stretch of time—started to open up room for slower more reflective moments to develop.

Filmmaker: What camera did you shoot on? Why did you choose the camera that you did? What lenses did you use?

Sillen: I used the Arri Alexa with Cooke S4i Prime lenses. This is a combination I love to work with, especially when filming real people. The Alexa Mini does an amazing job with skin tone and Cookes really just love people. It’s not always easy to shoot doc-style with prime lenses, but sometimes it’s worth it. There’s a subtle softness/bloom to the Cooke lenses that feels connected to the documentary tradition. They’re incredibly beautiful lenses that don’t feel overly technical. We did occasionally use the Optimo 28-76 Zoom as well.

Filmmaker: Describe your approach to lighting.

Sillen: When I’m shooting a doc, my approach is to stay with simple, motivated lighting. I want it to look good, but the lighting should never take you out of the film.

Filmmaker: What was the most difficult scene to realize and why? And how did you do it?

Sillen: The scene in Martine’s roadster was a tough one technically. We had been filming outside all morning. At some point, Martine had run to the airport to drop a friend. We weren’t sure she was coming back. Eventually we decided to pack up all the gear to wrap when we got a text that she would be back in five minutes. As we almost had camera built, Martine flies into the driveway and says, “come on, get in.” I grabbed the camera, and we threw the sound bag at my feet. The next thing I know, I’m driving down an old dirt road in a tiny Tesla Roadster—handheld—with no back-up battery or back-up card. I’m on the Optimo Zoom and seriously worried I’m inside of critical focus. Martine and I start to have an incredible conversation. She pops in a Dharma Singh Khalsa CD and begins singing, all the while half my brain can’t stop trying to calculate how much media I have left before I roll out, whether or not Martine in focus, and if the batteries in her lav are working.

Filmmaker: Finally, describe the finishing of the film. How much of your look was “baked in” versus realized in the DI?

Sillen: Postproduction for Love Machina was definitely tricky. We cut in Adobe Premiere and onlined in Resolve. There are many very different types of archival footage in the cut. It includes everything from 1960s drugstore snapshots, mini-DV footage to Mindfile recording sessions. Our additional editor and AE Ben Mercer really got us through a very difficult conform. Because we had a lack of control on archival footage quality, we made sure we controlled our original material. We shot everything in 4K LogC format, and our footage was graded in Resolve with Jason Crump at Metropolis Post.


Film Title: Love Machina

Camera: Arri Alexa

Lenses: Cooke S4i Primes + Optimo 28-76mm Zoom

Lighting: K5600 Kurve/800 joker

Processing: All digital

Color Grading: Metropolis Post/Resolve

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