Tag Archives: Horror Fiction

Making the Lovecraft Film – Eldritch Equipment

When it comes to making an independent film, equipment often gets the short stick.  Since budget is usually a big concern, and anything involving film making is expensive, it can be tough to get exactly the stuff you want.  I see a lot of aspiring filmmakers save up and spend all their money on a nice camera, but in my opinion that is a mistake.  While the latest in DSLR cameras will be replaced with a newer model frequently, a good set of lenses will last you for decades.  A good set of sticks and lighting gear could last you a lifetime.

In our case, my goal from the beginning had been to amass as much professional gear as possible through my day job of running a video/photo production company.  By working full time doing commercials, events, etc I was able to justify purchasing the best gear out there, and when it came time to work on our film, I already had much of what I needed.  Don’t get me wrong, I have a list of equipment I want that reads like a rough draft of the never-ending story, but I’ve got a good base to build from.

Camera gear – Most of the film is shot on the Canon 5d Mark III, with some scenes shot in RAW format using Magic Lantern, and the others shot in 1920×1080 at 24fps with a custom neutral picture setting.  I’ll talk more about this when I get to post production discussions, but basically you want to shoot neutral so you can color grade the scene later on, preserving the most dynamic range with the original image.  Shooting RAW is amazing and gives you not only insane dynamic range, but tons of information for color grading and an extremely sharp image.  RAW with Magic Lantern gives many Canon cameras a massive upgrade when it comes to video quality.  There’s also HDR for video and a bunch of other stuff like being able to use zebras to check exposure, being able to monitor your sound, etc.  If you have a Canon 5d Mark III, 5d Mark II, 7D, 6D, 60D, and probably others – definitely do a search for Magic Lantern and check it out.

Lenses – Before I get into what lenses we are using, let me give the budget conscious some money saving tips.  If you are shooting a Canon DSLR like me, you can pick up some of the older, high quality manual focus lenses and use adapters (available all over, check out ebay) to attach them to your camera.  Do your research to make sure the mount you are looking at works, but the best place to start is with the Takumar or old Nikon 50mm 1.4 lenses.  For modern photography these may have drawbacks since they don’t autofocus, but for film we are manual focusing anyway – and these come with big smooth metal focus rings!  They also have a lot of character, and were among the sharpest and best lenses in their day.  I still shoot with several of these because I love the look.  You can find a lot of older lenses for cheap on ebay that will give your film a unique look and won’t break the bank.

That said, since my day job is photography and videography, and we have a team that needs top end gear, we own a lot of lenses.  For this film, we used primarily 2 lenses for the close ups: Canon 70-200 mk II with image stabilization and the 85mm 1.2 mk II.  Both amazing lenses, and you can hand hold the 70-200 thanks to the great image stabilization, although we didn’t need that so far for our film.  The 85 1.2 allows incredible bokeh (blurred background) and can shoot in even the darkest conditions.  For wider shots, the Canon 24 1.4 and 35 1.4 were the main lenses used, and the above mentioned manual Takumar 50mm 1.4 was in the mix too.  Any shots where we used the stabilizer to track a shot, it was most likely the 24 1.4 sitting up there.

Stuff to attach the camera to – Yeah, there’s a lot of different things you can sit your camera on, and they all serve different purposes.  A Blackbird Stabilizer got our smooth steadicam style shots. We used several different fluid head tripods including a huge Manfrotto (fluid head is the key here, if you can get smooth pans on a cheaper tripod then get it for now, and upgrade later).  A slider was used with a fluid head attached to it for a couple of interesting shots.  Initially we used a rig to hold the camera, with follow focus, monitor, rails, matte box, and all kinds of adjustable goodies.  While this is an amazing setup when you have a crew, it was a bit much to work with for just me doing the camerawork and pulling focus myself, but I hope to use this setup more for the remaining shots in the film.  We have a bunch of ND and Polarizer filters for the matte box, but since this is a pretty dark film we didn’t really get to use them so far.

Lighting Gear – I won’t get too far into this, but suffice to say we have a ton of lighting and grip stuff.  C-stands, air-cushioned stands, gobos, diffusion of all kinds, open face lights, soft boxes, reflectors, white and black boards, clamps, all kinds of ways to attach small lights to ceilings and other random surfaces – basically a giant box of tricks.  I’d say the majority of that stuff didn’t get used just because there wasn’t time to play around with it, since I was also doing the lighting – getting the lighting set up just right can take forever, and when you are also getting the camera set up and directing the scene, well that’s a lot of time spread around.  Hopefully with some funding we can solve that problem by hiring some crew members so I can concentrate on the directing for future shots and films.  For the actual lights, we used everything – 1000w fresnel, 800w redhead, tons of smaller lights, even some LED goodies.  We’ve got so many lights that I won’t try to go through them specifically, but basically the 1000w was our biggest.  When we needed bigger and brighter, with stands that could go up 30 feet, I hit the rental place and picked up everything else.  I also had to rent a generator to go with those lights, so we could plug our equipment in when out in the forest, and I believe the model generator I got was a Honda 2000i.

Do you really need all this crap??  Surprisingly, we don’t even have all the stuff we need to finish the movie.  We need a dolly and dolly tracks, as well as a small jib. Not to mention more lighting gear, which I’ll probably have to rent.  There’s a million other things that every filmmaker would love to have.  Hopefully we can get enough support on Kickstarter to get what we need for the film, pay the crew members we need, rent what we can’t buy, and secure the locations necessary.  The good news is, any equipment we amass during this filming process we’ll already have when it’s time for the next film!


Lighting an Outdoor Night Scene – Adventures in the Dark

Another post about our short film based on Lovecraft and the Cthulhu Mythos.  To see what scene I’m talking about, please check out the previous post (which also has some photos to illustrate the lighting).  This was by far the hardest part of our production (so far) and we still need a little more filming done at this location.

Without giving away too much, we needed an outdoor setting in the woods far from civilization, and it needed to be dark.  I found a location while scouting around the Redwoods near the Santa Cruz mountains that was pretty much in the middle of a forest.  It fit the other criteria for the shoot as well, so now we were faced with a new choice – should we film day for night (film during day and try to make it look like night in post processing) or go ahead and film at night?  After reviewing both options I decided day to night was not going to work for us.

I got some recommendations from a lighting master named Edwin (he has lit Hollywood films before such as Zodiac) on how to approach the scene.  Since this was something we hadn’t done before, I had to rent the equipment we’d need.  In the end, we primarily used 2 large (I believe 2000w) fresnel lights sitting up about 20-30 feet in the air on heavy duty stands, angled down and acting as our light.  One of them was lighting our actors while the other was just barely lighting the background, giving a hint of the creepy location. By shooting with a really low aperture I was able to capture great light from the candles our cultists were holding, which acted as the fill lights for them in many scenes.  The big fresnels being up high gave me some nice shadows and looked like perhaps a moon was lighting the scene.  We also used an LED light shot through diffusion, and a reflector held by one of the cast to act as a fill (and even a key light in some scenes that were supposed to look very dark).  These two would be shifted around depending on the angle of the scene, since moving the big fresnel lights was just not going to happen.

Wait, how the heck are we powering this stuff?  It wasn’t through the power of Cthugha the Living Flame, I had rented a generator to plug in our lights and that thing was running the whole time.  I should also note that we had one other light plugged in, but that was to light the area off camera so we wouldn’t fall down and hurt ourselves in the darkness.  With the lights off, it was completely pitch black out there.

Doesn’t sound so bad, just a couple of lights!  The reality is that these massive lights were up so high and were so hard to move on uneven terrain (the rental place was out of the stands with the adjustable leg for this type of situation) that once they were set up, we just didn’t have the time or resources to move them.  One of the fresnel lights actually had the lens shatter suddenly, in the middle of our filming.  Most likely it had already been cracked before we got there, and the heat had eventually gotten to it (the rental place made me pay for the lens, which was expensive, ouch!).  We continued to use it without the lens but that made it even harder to adjust.  With most of the crew actually in the scene as actors, whoever was not on camera would have to do the reflector for me.  With a full crew this would have been a much easier shoot, but you won’t find anyone willing to do that for free like my cast and crew of friends was willing to do.

Other problems associated with the shoot involve the sound of the generator – that thing is loud.  There was no way we could get any audio with that running right next to us, so we had to record audio separately and sync it with the lips in post.  Stumbling around in the dark was a problem, and I ended up not being able to set up a lot of the stuff I wanted to do because we were running out of time (it was probably close to 1 or 2am by the time we finished).  In the end, the footage came out great though, and the scene took on a life of its own.  It’s hard not to shoot something creepy and scary when you’re in such a genuinely creepy and scary place.

I almost forgot to mention, the location was probably about half a mile or more from the closest place I could park – and uphill, on uneven terrain.  We all pushed and carried massive amounts of equipment up to the shooting location while it was still light, and it was a brutal and exhausting experience.  I felt terrible that I didn’t even end up using much of the equipment.  Such heavy items included lots of huge, unwieldy lighting stands, a massive generator, tons of lights, heavy tripods, sandbags (yeah, basically just heavy weight to be slung over the shoulder), camera rig, lots of lenses, and more.  If that wasn’t bad enough, when we finished our shoot we had to carry it all back down in complete darkness.  Using our phones and flashlights to light the path, we took down all but one light and the generator (so we could still see our gear) and had one person light the way.  The final trip was so physically exhausting that one of our cultists actually had to stop to throw up on the way, but he was such a trooper that he went right back to carrying equipment as soon as he finished.  I can’t thank these guys enough, they really went above and beyond!

Oh, and let’s not forget the giant spiders.  During the day we didn’t see much, but once it got dark these huge, spindly legged things came from everywhere.  They were mostly 3-4 inches across counting the legs, which is plenty big enough.  When I reached in to one of my bags in the darkness to find a lens cap, and instead found a huge spider sitting inside it, well that was pretty unpleasant.  After that I had everyone check each open container thoroughly with flashlight to make sure I wasn’t loading any more of these monsters into my vehicle.  We also passed through a bunch of loud croaking toads in the darkness, probably some relatives of Tsathoggua just showing us their support.  To top it all off, it was actually one of our actors birthdays that night.  I thought we would have finished much, much earlier and then went out to celebrate with him, but instead he got manual labor and darkness as his gift (I’ll make it up to you next time buddy!).  At least we had an adventure that none of us will soon forget.  Surrounded by trees and spiders in the dead of night, with nobody around for miles – just the all encompassing darkness.  I’m sure we’re all excited to go film a couple extra shots out there that we still need…


More Photos from our Lovecraft Short Film

He seems like a nice guy

He seems like a nice guy

Cultists in the middle of a ritual, no doubt summoning something Lovecraftian

Cultists in the middle of a ritual, no doubt summoning something Lovecraftian

Some cultists putting in work during a midnight ritual.  As you can see, they are out in some creepy looking forest in the middle of nowhere, lighting their ritual candles.  That wicked looking knife can only be for some nefarious purpose.  This scene was as intense to film as it will be to watch.  Our cast and crew will never forget the pitch black forest and the monstrous spiders that crawled into all our gear while we were filming.  More details on this shoot coming later, including lighting setup and the adventure we had making this scene.


Making a Short Film – Camera Work

When working on our short Lovecraft inspired film “The Crawling Chaos” I had a lot of ideas for how I wanted everything to look.  Storyboarding was important of course, and I made detailed storyboards for the whole film, many including shadows and lighting.  At the end of the day though, especially when producing a film without a huge budget, you are going to be making changes on the fly.  Sets might not be laid out the way you pictured, weather and schedule may not be what you hoped, and some shots may not be practical without the proper equipment.

The basic idea behind our cinematography was to keep it engrossing and non distracting.  If it were an action flick or something with epic sweeping fantasy, stylish camera work could lend a lot to the overall experience.  For comedy, the camera work isn’t going to matter as much and can be more static, since the situation and the dialogue are going to be creating the laughs.  For horror the goals are different, and often what is not on camera will be creating the fear.  We wanted to find the best shots to create tension and convey the proper mood, but keep the camera work from being distracting so that the viewer stays in the scene and gets absorbed in the mystery.

I utilized a combination of camera techniques to try and achieve this, from tight shots on a wide angle (handheld and stabilizer shots, bring you close to feel the emotion but slight distortion from wide angle is unsettling) to longer lenses on a tripod or shoulder mounted rig with wide apertures that separate the subject from the background, creating that bokeh (blurry background) that we commonly associate with film.  We used a slider and a tripod for many of our shots to add that cinematic quality, while keeping the pace tense right up until the action starts.  With strange angles and extreme close ups thrown in to help with the unsettling mood, most of what we set out to do has been accomplished.

Some of the shots, such as an establishing shot of a forest, definitely need some more polished movement to make them look cinematic and professional.  For this reason, one of the things we are hoping to purchase with Kickstarter funds is a jib or small crane (or if we don’t meet stretch goals, we can just rent them with the crowdfunded money.  Buying would be better for future films though!).  This will allow us to do several shots that are in the storyboards but that we haven’t been able to shoot yet.  We also hope to add a dolly for a few long tracking shots where it is essential to keep the shot moving to keep the tension building, not cutting away to give the viewer a breather.  These shots will add huge production quality to a movie that already looks great, and bring us one step closer to finishing this film.  Once that happens, you can check out the camera work for yourselves, and we can take what we’ve learned and apply it to our next film!

 


Lighting the Lovecraftian Short Film – Office Scene

Interrupted by the arrival of a new client.

Interrupted by the arrival of a new client.

A little alcohol makes this line of work easier to deal with.

A little alcohol makes this line of work easier to deal with.

For some more info on this scene, check out the previous blog post from yesterday.  The office scene really establishes the atmosphere of our short film; shadowy, moody, desaturated.  While much of that look is achieved in post production, there is absolutely no replacement for lighting it properly.  Still I wanted the light to appear natural, which for me meant bouncing a big light off the wall and ceiling.  With that set up in front of and to camera left of the Detective, we could leave some of her face in shadow, while soft light rained down on the rest of the scene.  To make sure her face didn’t have too much shadow, another stand with some white board clipped to it served as a reflector on the darker side of the Detective, acting as a fill light and bringing up the shadow by reflecting some of the soft light.  Finally, a rim light (or hair light) was placed in the back corner behind and on camera left, set up high and angled down.  This light is a small, hard and focused light, which falls right on the back of her hair and shoulders, serving to separate her from the background.  I only wanted a very slight effect, because I wanted the Detective to blend in somewhat to the messy dark room behind her, emphasizing how she practically lived there.  To achieve this, I attached a dimmer to the hair light and adjusted it down to be very subtle.  For shots of the scenery, I adjusted the big light bouncing off the wall and ceiling as well as the white board reflector, giving the scenery the same kind of shadowy appearance.

That was great, but we still had another person – the Detective’s client – who also needs to be lit in the same scene.  We used a similar set up but facing the other direction, and added in a black flag on a stand to block out some of the light that was spilling over where we didn’t want it.  Oh – and I can’t forget the sandbags used to hold down the light stands and make sure nothing toppled over.

In the end it was a pretty simple set up, but it was effective in creating our natural looking scene.  For those familiar with 3 point lighting, you can think of our big light bouncing down on the scene as the key light.  We could have easily used a traditional interview set up and put a big softbox as the key light, but the way we did it helped the light fall softly and evenly across much of the office.  This gave it a more natural appearance, as if some dingy light on the ceiling were shining down on the room.

In post production the colors, contrast, and saturation can be manipulated to find the right look.  Color grading is a more involved process and we’ll cover that in depth some other time.  Suffice to say that this was only quickly color graded for a preview picture, and the actual color grading process has not yet been done for the film, so the final look may end up very different.

Interested in lighting for film, or lighting for television?  There’s a lot of info out there, and I’m not a master by any means – the bulk of my experience in lighting was for TV shows and corporate.  I recommend doing a ton of research on film lighting, and once you understand how it works, watch your favorite movies and try to pick apart where the lights are (and why they are there).  For this particular scene I used a small amount of equipment – A redhead and a big fresnel for the bouncing lights, small fresnel lights for the hair lights, white board and black flag on their own stands with clips holding them in place, and a bunch of sandbags.  The bigger lights were on C-Stands and the smaller ones on some air-cushioned stands (Impact was the brand I believe).  Oh, and an electrical dimmer – and a bunch of cables and extension cords.

While it wasn’t a very difficult set up, the crew did help me bring a ton of stuff in because we didn’t know what we’d need (they also helped set some of it up).  It still took some time to get everything just where I wanted it, and since I’m the lighting guy, director, and cameraman, that’s a lot of set up for one person.  In the future when we have a budget, I will be sticking to the directing portion which will save huge amounts of time.  When you don’t have access to a location beforehand, you better come prepared and get creative in order to accomplish your objective.  On a no-budget short film, this is pretty much a certainty for every shoot unless it’s someplace you own.  Big thanks to the cast and crew for all their help, and my talented Mom for the set design (what good is light if there’s nothing to shine it on!).  Also big thanks to Mitchell, who in addition to being the audio guy, was able to secure the location for us.

Lighting Safety Tip: If you are plugging a lot of powerful lights in, don’t put them all on the same circuit!  Make sure you know what your circuit can handle, because best case you blow it and worst case (in some poorly wired older houses for example) you could start a fire.

Lighting Safety Tip #2: Use gloves whenever dealing with lights – they get hot enough to literally melt your skin, and using gloves every time will help make sure you avoid burns.


First Glimpse of The Crawling Chaos Short Film

Still shot from our short film "The Crawling Chaos"

Still shot from our short film “The Crawling Chaos”

If that looks creepy now, wait until you see it in motion – the darkness eats away and moves beneath the skin for a truly disturbing effect.  The film uses traditional Lovecraft techniques when it comes to the eldritch horrors – that is, giving the narrator only minimal glimpses until they finally discover the impossible reality.  Our Detective, who is not given a name (another thing common to Lovecraft’s own writing) finds herself drawn into her mysterious case.

A little alcohol makes this line of work easier to deal with.

A little alcohol makes this line of work easier to deal with.

Interrupted by the arrival of a new client.
Interrupted by the arrival of a new client.

Above we see the Detective working late, perhaps forgetting a rough week with a little drink.  This scene is a Lovecraftian take on the traditional hard-boiled detective story, where a grumpy late working detective gets an unexpected client.  We were lucky enough to have an office donated to us for this scene, where we built the set to look like the Detective practically lived there.  With papers everywhere, file cabinets of evidence, and just enough dingy light to get the atmosphere we wanted – the only thing missing was a ceiling fan.

More on our short film, including details on the actual shoot for the scene in her office, coming next post.


The Crawling Chaos – A Lovecraftian Short Film

Our film follows an unnamed detective, hired to track down a missing teenage girl.  Her search leads her to a mysterious cult, and the edge of her own sanity.  Narrated like a classic film-noir, the film will take you on a visual and psychological journey as our protagonist comes up against eldritch forces from beyond the stars.

When we set out to create this short film, we had a couple goals in mind.  We wanted a film that stayed true to Lovecraft’s theme, style, and atmosphere.  Since Lovecraft almost always had the main character narrating the story, we decided to have our main character also narrate with a voice over.  Lighting and atmosphere were kept dark, shadowy, and bleak.  Although clearly in the style of Lovecraft, the story was to be original.

With that in mind, we wanted to take on something that would help us hone our skills, without being too big of a project.  When the script was drafted, it was a good solid story with just the right amount of production difficulty for us to tackle.  Of course, the more work we did, the more the story grew.  It took on a life of it’s own, like some malevolent object from Lovecraft’s own fiction, and before we knew it the story had become something new.  It was darker, it was more complex.  The scenes became more difficult to light, to film, to edit.  When it reached its final incarnation, we knew it was the type of film that people would talk about, would share with each other and watch again and again.  There was no going back – I knew I could make this film, although it might take a little more help than initially thought.

For me personally, I’ve been wanting to make this kind of film my whole life.  Through growing my own video/photo production company, which specializes in events, commercials, and corporate – I’ve finally amassed the tools and experience to begin taking on the projects I want to do.  With years of TV and Film experience under my belt, and knowledge of almost every aspect of filmmaking, I trained my small crew of close friends to help me on this path.  With help from them and my family, we’ve come a long way already and finished about 90% of The Crawling Chaos. The goal here isn’t just to make this one film, it’s to satisfy a lifelong ambition by becoming a full time filmmaker.  What started as a child’s dream will finally be achieved through hard work and perseverance – and without living the “starving artist” lifestyle that would force me to rely on the financial help of others.  I’m proud of how far we’ve come together, and with help from backers on Kickstarter I hope to complete this film in the next few months.

That’s where you come in.  We haven’t launched the Kickstarter yet, but it will probably go up by the end of the month.  We still have a few key scenes to film, some expensive equipment to rent (crane, big time lighting gear, etc) and much of the post production process.  So far the project has come together out of my pocket, and with a budget of very little we’ve created so much.  We need your help to finish the last 10% of this film and share our story with Lovecraft fans across the world.

Whether or not you can help, be sure to follow this blog for updates and photos on the filmmaking process.  I’ll post photos from shoots, video trailers, and more.  I’ll talk about the shoots (try getting your friends to haul equipment into the middle of a forest at midnight), the filmmaking process itself, and the people helping me create it.  When we launch the Kickstarter this month, you’ll be the first to know.  Next up, a teaser of something creepy – a still taken straight from the movie!


What the heck is a Crawling Chaos Part 2

If you don’t know who Lovecraft is, or what the Cthulhu Mythos is, check out the previous entry or hit up wikipedia for some research.  The Crawling Chaos is one of many names used by Nyarlathotep, Messenger of the Outer Gods – and a key player in Lovecraft’s pantheon.  Nyarlathotep is perhaps the only one of the Great Old Ones and Outer Gods to actually interact directly with humans.  Not because we are important, but rather because he enjoys toying with us for amusement.  He especially enjoys giving humanity the keys to it’s own destruction.  Nyarlathotep has many avatars and appears in many shapes, from a creepy Pharaoh to a flying tentacled monstrosity.  He also takes on a role similar to the devil in one of his forms, signing pacts with witches and their victims.  In addition to having thousands of maddening forms, Nyarlathotep is one of few godlike creatures in Lovecraft’s fiction to be completely free, roaming the earth where and when he pleases.  His many forms also lend him to a variety of stories, where he may be used in different ways with different purposes to suit the author and their intent.  This is part of the reason that we chose Nyarlathotep, the Crawling Chaos, to be a part of our short film.  We can use him in the manner we want, while staying within the bounds of the Cthulhu Mythos Universe – and his passion for cruelty and madness allow him to take on a more personal role.  Either that, or Nyarly has taken over our minds and is using us to spread his madness and terror through this short film.

Now that you know a bit about The Crawling Chaos and where he comes from, the next post will discuss the short film itself.


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