Reference: StudentFilmmakers Magazine, April 2007. Shooting an HD Horror Movie in 15 Days: A Look into Lens Choice, Scouting, Lighting, and More… by Adam Biddle. Pages 6 – 8.
At the end of last year, I ventured for the first time into the genre I’ve long been most wary of shooting – Low Budget Horror! (The production’s budget was at least $300,000, approximately.) This to me has always seemed one of the most over saturated of markets with numerous projects generally underachieving. The main cause of this is scripts that rely far too heavily on post effects and bad blood gags. To do either of these to a believable audience standard is usually totally unrealistic in the low budget world. A knock on effect is sequences having to be lit way too dark or framed awkwardly to hide the cheese factor. Totally unrewarding.
So when I was given the script ‘Marked’ to read I was full of skepticism. About 112 pages later my mind had changed. This was a project that relied heavily on a visual mood to build tension and that challenge excited me. Next to meet the director, Dustin Voigt. He had also written the script and had a definite idea of what style of movie he wanted to finish with. I could tell from the very outset we were on the same page with both our expectations and concerns. We were in this together!
The production company Night Light Films had only recently been formed, and this was only their second feature. Their whole set up is based around shooting HD, so shooting any other format was never an option – and it had to be a Sony F900. Our only choice was lens type. Zoom or DigiPrimes – not both. Instinctively at first both Dustin and I wanted the primes, which are optically superb. But then when we started to get realistic about our shooting schedule of 15 days we realized compromises had to be made. A zoom is so much faster to work with. Constant recalibration checks when changing a Prime lens is a must by the 1st AC. That time spent would very quickly add up and cause us to start missing shots, something we didn’t want to do. The other problem with Primes is that to do a move you obviously need to track. Taking the time to block and lay a track properly in the low budget world is a luxury. But by having the zoom always on, I could at least add some movement to ‘quick’ cutaways then and there. We could therefore save our big tracking shots to key moments in the script and plan our days accordingly.
The next step was scouting. Dustin had decided early on to shoot nine tenths of the movie on location in Lake Arrowhead, and this was a good call. The visual palette is so amazingly different considering you are only 70 miles from Los Angeles. This also gave our Production Designer far more chance to get the most out of her very meager budget. Despite improvements, HD photography in its present form still carries far too much depth of focus. This puts increased emphasis on production design, as it is far harder to ‘get away’ with background dressing, bad props or small sets.
Starting principal photography, my first task was to assess crew members – their strengths and weaknesses. I wasn’t able to bring any of my normal crew onto the production, and I really was starting fresh. In this situation I try to avoid doing anything too complicated straight off. In just one or two shooting days crews normally get comfortable with my style, and then we can start attempting more intricate shots with confidence rather than apprehension. I was particularly impressed with my 1st AC and dolly grip. Both were a little green but had excellent work ethic and willingness to learn. I would much rather be surrounded by this type of crew member than someone more experienced who moans a lot. Another factor to assess when working at this level is cast performance. The vast majority will be ‘up and coming’ actors and very likely their first work of this standard. From a director’s standpoint sometimes you luck out and sometimes you bust. It is unlikely you will have the luxury of recasting but you can adjust your coverage and blocking of scenes to focus more on what an actor is doing well.
A great deal of ‘Marked’ takes place at night in low key interiors. One of my most invaluable items was my Panel Lite kit. They are so versatile to use and so quick to adapt color temperature. One day we had fallen behind, and we needed to make up time rather than drop the last scene of the day (a night exterior set in the town). To speed things up, I scouted a location that was nearby to a sodium security light and used this as the key. When we went in for coverage I needed some fill and in a matter of seconds was able to match color temperature on the Panel Lite to the sodium by playing with the gel combinations that came with the kit. That’s the sort of flexibility that I love.
Another piece of equipment that I always favor is the Chapman Peewee dolly. Often grips want to upgrade to a larger dolly but for me, I’d much rather have the options the Peewee gives you in tight spaces. We had one sequence that took place ‘off the beaten track’ and trying to get any other dolly to that location would have been a logistical nightmare.
So looking back I actually had fun shooting a movie in 15 days, but I wouldn’t recommend it! Any shooting time lost is just so magnified. At this stage I have only seen a rough cut of the movie, but all things considered I am very pleased with the outcome. What always gives me a particular personal satisfaction is to see what can be created with so little resources.
Adam Biddle was the Director of Photography for movies including The Gnostic (2007) and Crank (2006), and has worked on over 20 films including V for Vendetta (2005), An American Haunting (2005), Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason (2004), The World Is Not Enough (1999), The Mummy (1999), and other films.
Photos courtesy of Director of Photography Adam Biddle.