Lighting my first horror film, "Vicious".

Back in 2015, I had the opportunity to light my first horror film. I confess they're not my usual cup of tea, never really watch a lot of them, I found the ones I did watch a bit clichéd really, but to shoot one would be a challenge, so I jumped on board. Working at low lighting levels and simulating no light can be very rewarding though as I found out.

“Vicious” is all set in one house at night and tells the story of a girl who has recently lost her sister. When arriving home she finds her front door already open and suspects she might not be alone in the house. It's since had over 1,000,000 views on YouTube.

Writer and Director, Oliver Park, asked me if I'd shoot his first short film with him. Once on board, I found Oliver had done all his homework making mood reels cut from other films, shot lists and planned out everything he wanted. The choice of camera was something that we discussed at length as we wanted the quality and still be able to manoeuvre around inside a house without any big issues. We also considered shooting 4K too, looking at the C500 and Odyssey 4K recorder and even natively on the F55. Eventually, we settled on the F55 shooting 2k. The 4k would double our storage and discussions were held about what we really would be getting from shooting at that resolution and for the size of the project, would we be adding to our work-flow unnecessarily? The Sony F55 and a nice set of CP2 Primes were hired in from 180 Rental based at the Bottle Yard Studios in Bristol. As I was about to start shooting, I read an article on Tommy Lee Jones' latest directorial effort “The Homesman” in American Cinematographer magazine. In this piece, the DP chose the F55 for all the night scenes as it gave such good images at that light level. Confidence established; we were a go.

I also decided to shoot in S/Log3 format, instead of REC709 to allow us more leeway in the grade. With working at such low light levels, it was nice to be confident in being able to drop down to the bottom of the curve and know we had a bit of latitude in the grade if I went too far and lost any detail. I was acting as the director of photography and had operator, Simon Pearce, behind the camera for this job. It's nice to operate as well as light but when you just focus on the lighting, it's always good to have another trusted person to give input on the shot.

Some scenes featured the character walking around the house with no other lights on but a torch on her mobile phone. It was a nice exercise is seeing how far I can push believable and motivated spill sources from outside to still help to see the house around her and keep it looking moody. Looking around and noticing the light in my own house at night, it's amazing to see just how much light can creep in to the building. Street lights from across the road, moonlight, spill from the car park behind your garden, even a tiny bit of green spill from the safety light on the smoke alarm! It justifies the use of some nice colours and patterns that can be applied to any lighting work.

Taking the cues from the environment, we had a new daylight balanced street light on as a practical source out the front of the house already established so I decided to make the spill in to the rear of the house more sodium street light based to help mix it up. I set the F55 to tungsten as I do when shooting any night scenes and then only used tungsten lamps to light the set, with the exception of a 1.2 HMI to help push the street light in to the front bedroom. In the lighting kit we had a set of Dedo lights, a few china balls with 100w bulbs, a 2k blonde, a 1.2 HMI and two LCD 1x1 lite panels. Dedos aren't normally part of my lighting kit as I find them quite dim at 150w but in this particular situation, they were invaluable. We sometimes wanted a tiny little bit of spill or fill in very tight spaces or high on a window and we were able to fix the dedos with magic arms to any number of places.

Again, as per most shoots, I tried to shoot at a stop of F4 to help focus and maintain a certain level of depth of field. Focus was an issue one one particular shot that took a great deal of time to execute. Oliver wanted an epic long shot where we see the character move from the kitchen, to the downstairs hallway, enter a room, come out, and slowly walk up the stairs and finally walk in to a bedroom. The camera would be in front of her for the start but then move behind her once we started up the stairway. Lighting was fairly involved as I had to light essentially 2 floors and 5 rooms with the corridor and the stairs. What made the shot even more interesting was that the whole thing would be shot on a new Movi rig. Movi co-owner, Kaiam Daftari, would operate the unit downstairs with myself controlling the cameras pan and tilt movement via a remote control unit, and camera assistant Keith Scott working the focus also remotely.

Gaffer, Neil Oseman, rigged a pole cat arm across the ceiling above the stairs and slung a rope over it to act as a winch with the hanging rope eventually being tied to the top of the Movi rig half way through the shot. Once the character had walked down the hallway and had come back out of the room downstairs, the rope was attached to the Movi rig and then slowly lifted up as it followed the actor up the stairs. Once at the top, Movi owner, Paul Mackeson, would take over holding the rig for the action upstairs. In true David Fincher style for such an elaborate and lengthy shot, we eventually cracked it at 21 takes. Any number of variables would derail us from rope shadow, to focus, to my pan/tilt moves, to the Movi hitting the bannister up stairs. Nervous tensions ran high by the monitor as each take took us closer and closer to getting it right. We finally nailed it but it pushed the crew to the limit!

A lot of the action takes place on the upper floor landing and stairway. The practical lights at the house location were energy saving bulbs and not only were they reading a little green but they weren't dim-able. I decided to turn off the practical landing light and instead use a dim-able 100w china ball. Gaffer, Neil Oseman, once again rigged a polecat high up near the ceiling and we were then able to mount our china ball off that. We could move it if we needed to and being on a dimmer we were able to get it right down to a very low light level to the point where my meter was giving me ERROR as an F-stop reading. I skirted the top and sides with black drape to stop the light spilling on to the ceiling and side walls and lifting the light level. I wanted a source from above but it was a controlled and dim-able source. I hadn't used a pole cat in a long time, then like the Dedos it becomes the perfect piece of kit for the job at hand.

Another Movi number was the opening shot of the film where the camera moves along the upstairs landing, into the front bedroom and then looks outside to see the main character approach the house. We were lighting for the landing, the bedroom and the exterior of the house in this shot. I wanted to use the daylight balanced street lights as a nice source outside and then augment that with the 1.2 HMI to key the actress as she walks to the house. A lot of times on this shoot to support the mood, I didn't mind so much if the actors went in and out of my lights. It was a balance of lighting the environment and lighting the characters. Sometimes it was one or the other, sometimes both. Occasionally the actors might not find the perfect mark and would find themselves halfway outside my light, but it was nice to let that go sometimes, if the director got the performance.

I realised when shooting this project that what makes a good horror film isn't just darkness. In fact we need light to see deeper at the locations to see the spooky shadows. If it was just darkness that was scary, we would just turn off the lights and shoot. What is important is to have that sense of apprehension set up by story and then be confronted with a dark room. Without the apprehension, the dark room is just a dark room. Perhaps this I why I don't view or rate a lot of horror films. They lack this aspect and just think having lots of blood or a face by a window that suddenly disappears, will do the job. It is a lot like any action film with explosions, car chases, fight sequences or even a musical. The action scene or musical number must be the resolution or a continuation of the narrative and be a consequence of the story for it to have any true effect. If the story just stops whilst we sing/blow something up or in horror's case, have someone's head ripped off, then it isn't needed. Perhaps I might be missing the point as some horror fans love that sort of thing and that is why they go. But the film-makers could have an even better film if they took more notice of the why things are happening.

So, “Vicious” was a wonderful fun three days shoot. I learnt lots of new things, from the power and versatility of smaller units, to scheduling, to.... how to operate the pan and tilt on a Movi remote.

Watch the full film here:

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