Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Psychic Sue: Pragmatic Aesthetics in the Use of Location and Set Décor

One of the biggest expenses for many low-budget films is renting an appropriate location. Actors and crew will often work for deferred pay, or even no pay, and there are plenty of both to choose from. But appropriate locations -- especially on the cheap -- are harder to secure.

Money can be saved on location rentals (and their permit fees and insurance coverage) by reusing the same location for different locales (i.e., pretending that the same place is really someplace different). Even cheaper and easier if you can reuse the same location without changing any of its set décor.

(By location, I mean where a scene is filmed. By locale, I mean the place the location represents. For instance, a scene that is filmed in Toronto (the location) might represent an event occurring New York City (the locale.))




In the short, comedic horror film, Psychic Sue, Jennifer (Kate Finegan) visits Sue (Andrea Coyne) for a reading. Sue's psychic shop is stereotypical of such places -- red curtains, candles, occult knick-knacks. Sue spouts the usual spiritual gobbledygook. Rather than demanding anything so crass as money, Sue instead asks Jennifer to "cross my palm with silver." She also claims that her candles are "forged by the monks of Tibet."




Later, a ghost compels Sue to visit "a real psychic." So Sue visits psychic Zoe (Sarah Agha), whose shop is nearly identical to Sue's. Identical red curtains, candles, lights, occult knick-knacks. Only the tablecloth and its place setting are different.

Obviously, director Dave Lojek used the same room and set décor. He didn't even bother to vary the curtains and knick-knacks. Yet events make it clear that this location represents two different locales -- Sue's shop and Zoe's shop.

This dual use of the same location and set décor serves two purposes. Pragmatically, it saves money. Aesthetically, it provides humor. Monty Python often used the same sets (with only cursory changes in décor) for comedic effect, the characters pretending not to notice.



Well, sometimes one character -- usually the put-upon protagonist -- does a quick glance-about, noticing the striking similarities, before shrugging it off. Sue does likewise in Zoe's shop.

Psychic Sue's script reinforces the comedic effect of using identical rooms for different shops. For instance, Zoe spouts nearly identical nonsense to that of Sue. Zoe asks Sue to "cross my palm with silver" and extolls her candles as being "forged by the monks of Tibet."

By using the same location and décor for different locales, Lojek saved money. But what makes his reuse of locations especially admirable is that he put his financial corner-cutting to aesthetic use (e.g., heightening the humor).

Psychic Sue's duel use of the same location is an example of what I call pragmatic aesthetics -- when a filmmakers puts a budgetary compromise to aesthetic use.





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For more information about mise-en-scène and pragmatic aesthetics in horror films -- see Horror Film Aesthetics: Creating the Visual Language of Fear. This blog represents a continuing discussion of my views on horror, picking up from where the book left off.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The First Step: Obscuring Low-Budget Makeup Effects

Sometimes less is more. A threat might be more frightening if unseen and left to our imagination. For instance, the entity in The Haunting, slowing pressing in the heavy wooden door as the terrified characters watch from its other side. We never did learn what lurked behind that door.
But sometimes "less is more" is just a filmmaker's excuse to show less (fewer sets, locations, actors, or special effects) because he could not afford to show more. The film needed to show more (nothing was aesthetically gained by its showing less), but more was not in the budget.
And sometimes these two motivations for showing less -- aesthetic and financial -- conjoin in a mutually supportive manner.
In The First Step, a cellar dweller creeps up from a basement, up three flights of stairs, to kill a little girl. This is a short, low-budget ($500) film. As such, the cellar dweller's makeup effect (by Delia De Cock) is admirably original and effective, but upon close examination, it looks like makeup.
This means that, should audiences get an opportunity to closely examine the makeup, it will be that much harder for them to suspend their disbelief and enjoy the horror.


The First Step solves this problem by obscuring the cellar dweller with dim lighting (such that the creature is often seen in silhouettes) ...




... and a soft focus (thus blurring the edges of the makeup application, so that the creature's twisted features appear natural).  




Framing also helps obscure the monster, often showing us only its body parts (e.g., a foot, a clawed hand, etc.).
I don't know if this was the filmmakers' (Daniel Brown and Kate McMeans) intent behind their lighting, photography, and framing, but that's the aesthetic effect. If you were to pause the film and scrutinize the creature, then its feature will more clearly be seen as artificial makeup, rather than actual monster skin. But when seen only briefly in quick cuts, and under dim lighting, and through a slight blur, then the creature's artificiality is less obvious.
By obscuring the cellar dweller, more is left to the viewer's imagination. This imagination is further stimulated by the monster's creepy voice and disjointed body movements, (actress Jon Anna Van Thuyne), both of which suggest all manner of horrors.





To recap:
The First Step's low-budget yields some fairly nice monster makeup effects, but these effects are obviously artificial should viewers closely examine them. To prevent such close examination of the makeup, the filmmaker employs...
* Dim lighting (creating silhouettes),
* Soft focus (blurring the image),
* Tight framing (showing only parts of the monster),
* Quick cuts (further preventing close examination of the creature).
This leaves the creature's nature up to our dark imaginings, which are further stimulated by ...
* Sound (a creepy voice for the monster),
* Acting (disjointed body movements by the actor).

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For more information about lighting, photography, framing, editing, sound, and acting in horror films -- see Horror Film Aesthetics: Creating the Visual Language of Fear. This blog represents a continuing discussion of my views on horror, picking up from where the book left off.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Acting in Clockwatchers: Artificial Facial Expressions vs. Authentic Emotions

There is no such thing as horror acting. There are horror actors (e.g., Bela Lugosi, Peter Cushing, Jamie Lee Curtis), but only in the sense that the actor becomes known for working in many horror films. But there is no horror acting style. Yes, scream queens will scream, but their screaming is more often a form of performing rather than acting.
Performing is a broad term that encompasses (among other pursuits) dancing, singing, poetry readings, standup comedy, acting, and screaming in a Halloween haunted house attraction.
True acting, as taught by teachers of The Method, involves creating a character with an authentic, emotional inner life. Real emotions that actors project through their instruments that's what Method teachers call an actor's entire being (including his face, body, thoughts, and emotions).
Method actors emote through their instruments.
Most of the past decade's hundreds of micro-budget, indie horror films fail in one or more areas. Flat lighting, crude sound, and poorly motivated characters  are prevalent. But the most common defect among micro-budgeted indie horror films is the quality of the acting.
Some beginner actors mistakenly think that acting is largely about creating facial expressions. (Someone even self-published a book about it.) But if the actor does not project an inner emotional life, then the facial expression will appear false. External and artificial, rather than internal and authentic.
You've likely fooled around with friends, when one of you pretended to be sad, angry, or scared, maybe by mugging a facial expression. Surely everyone could see that the person was merely playacting, rather than actually being sad, angry, or scared.
Conversely, there were likely times when you sensed that your friend was sad, angry, or scared, even if they tried to hide such emotions behind a happy face. Their true emotions were breaking through the surface -- a far more powerful and convincing thing to see than a fake expression.
Great acting is not about artificial facial expressions, but about generating and projecting real emotions.
A scene in Clockwatchers (1997) demonstrates an acting fallacy committed by poor actors (and poor directors). Lisa Kudrow plays an office temp (Paula) with dreams of becoming an actress. While riding home a bus, Paula shows a co-worker all the great faces she's learned at acting class. This scene is meant to satirize poor Paula, who (unlike Kudrow) is a terrible actress. Yet this scene also illustrates one of the hallmarks of bad acting.








While Paula's "acting" is as good as that in many low-budget horror films, it falls short of great acting. (Her happy face appears the most authentic. This is likely because Paula herself is in an upbeat mood as she showcases her faces to her co-worker, so her happy face has authentic emotions behind it.)

However, to really "get" the above scene, one must view the actual film. Film students should watch Clockwatchers in any event, as it is one of the best indie films of the 1990s. A satire of office cubicle workers, it has authentic acting and dialog, and is subtler, more powerful, more poignant, and more true-to-life than the similarly themed Office Space.
Students of acting and directing should also compare Betty's (Naomi Watts) two performances of the same scene in Mulholland Drive. Betty, like Paula, is an aspiring actress. Betty first performs the scene at home, as she practices for her audition. Her performance is pretty poor. Betty then performs the scene a second time at the audition. This time her performance is so extraordinary.

This instructive scene from Mulholland Drive not only demonstrates great acting as opposed to poor acting, but it also shows that the same scene, when played with different emotions, yields startlingly different results. 
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For more information about acting in horror films -- see Horror Film Aesthetics: Creating the Visual Language of Fear. This blog represents a continuing discussion of my views on horror, picking up from where the book left off.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Dual Use of a Wide-Angle Lens in "The Concrete Captain"

Wide-angle lenses expand space. If the lens's angle is wide enough, it even noticeably distorts space. Horror films have found many applications, both aesthetic and pragmatic, for wide-angle lenses. Among its uses, a wide-angle lens can...

* Depict the subjective POV of a person who's drugged, drunk, tired, or insane.

* Depict the subjective POV of an unnatural creature (e.g., a ghost, alien, demon).

* Suggest an ominous, alien, or supernatural presence or situation.

* Photograph everthing in small rooms or tight spaces (low-budget films can rarely afford to rent a professional studio in which the camera has enough space to pull back to photograph a scene).

* Expand space so as to suggest a larger setting. (Realtors also use wide-angles lenses for this purpose -- ever notice that houses, lawns, and backyards often look bigger in their Zillow photos than they do at Open House?)

But especially admirable is when a filmmaker achieves more than one aesthetic effect from a wide-angle lens. Such an application may be referred to as being aesthetically efficient.

It is because of its aesthetic efficiency that I admire this shot from "The Concrete Captain," an episode from TV's Ghost Story/Circle of Fear.




In the above scene, a ghost possesses Gene Rowlands, compelling her to come out to the beach. Her husband, played by Stuart Whitman, catches up and tries to bring Rowlands back to the motel. They struggle at the top of some stairs.

The wide-angle lens in this scene achieves two effects.

* First, the lens's distortion of space suggests a supernatural presence (i.e., the ghost possessing Rowlands).

* Second, the lens' expansion of space makes the stairs appear that much higher above the ground. This makes the consequences of falling down those stairs appear that much more dire, thus heightening viewers' tension as they watch Rowlands and Whitman struggle.

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For more about the use of lenses in horror films, see Horror Film Aesthetics: Creating the Visual Language of Fear. This blog represents a continuing discussion of my views on horror, picking up from where the book left off.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Poor Staging of Actors in Evidence of a Haunting

One of the film director's jobs is to stage the actors -- to instruct them on where to sit or stand, where to look, when to notice each other, etc.

Staging is a fine art, the search for a delicate balance. It's rarely a good idea to over-direct the actors, directing their every smile, frown, head tilt, eyebrow lift, shift in tone of voice. Then the actors feel like constrained marionettes, denied the freedom to "find their character."

But neither is it a good idea to just dump the actors on set, and leave them milling about, without any instruction or direction. This is especially true if one is working with amateur actors, because they lack the training to behave appropriately without direction.

Evidence of a Haunting, yet another fictitious horror film about "true-life TV ghosthunters," provides an instructive example of inept staging.

In this scene, our team of ghosthunters go to their next investigation, a haunted suburban house. We see our ghosthunters outside the house, approaching the front door...




We then cut to this (above) shot of a father and his two daughters, standing like mannequins in the hallway, doing nothing very much. Apparently the director placed them in the hall, because soon the doorbell will ring, so they must be prepared to open the door.

HUH?

How does this family know the ghosthunters are soon to ring the bell? Were they standing in the hall for the past several hours, just waiting for the doorbell to ring?

I also love how the father has his eyes closed, the older daughter slouches while smirking and staring at nothing much, and the younger daughter looks bored.

Well, of course she's bored. You'd be bored too if you spent your evenings standing in a hallway waiting for someone who is expected to arrive sometime over the next several hours.

As for the older daughter, I suppose she's smirking because she's so excited to be in a movie. It's anyone's guess why the father fell asleep.



DING-DONG!

Now the doorbell rings, bringing the father and older daughter to life. The younger daughter is a little late to react.

Perhaps this shot is taking a long time to finish. Young children bore easily. Amateur child actors are no exception to this rule.




Even so, the younger daughter comes alive in time to lean in unison with her family, as everyone prepares to see who's out there. The family that leans together stays together.

Captions now also provide their names, identifying them as our ghosthunters' clients.




And our ghosthunters are outside! They enter and everyone exchanges the usual banal pleasantries.

This shot is poorly staged, poorly directed, and poorly edited.

* A better alternative is for the actors to have been staged off-camera, as if they were busy living their lives elsewhere in the house. They should have entered the hallway only after the doorbell rings.

* Even better if only one of them enters the hall to open the door. Otherwise it's a light bulb joke. How many clients do you need to open a door? Three. One to turn the knob and two to lean over and watch.

* Another alternative would have been to delete this shot entirely. Why not just cut to an exterior shot of the house, followed by our ghosthunters already interviewing the clients inside the house. It would have quickened the pace. As it is, this shot is not only poorly staged, it is superfluous, in that it doesn't add anything necessary to the film.

* At the very least the director should have trimmed this shot so that we don't see the family waiting in the hall, the father asleep. Perhaps the actor was only resting his eyes, or blinking. It's a brief moment. Even so, the director should have caught it in the editing room and trimmed the shot. The film's editor also bears blame.

Evidence of a Haunting has many problems. This shot is just a sample. The film is poorly written, ineptly staged, and performed by a cast of amateur wannabe-actors. But I can forgive bland dialog and amateurish acting if a film is entertaining. Evidence of a Haunting is not. It's boring.

For an example of good horror staging, see my post about "Legion of Demons."

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For more information about staging and editing in horror films -- see Horror Film Aesthetics: Creating the Visual Language of Fear. This blog represents a continuing discussion of my views on horror, picking up from where the book left off.



Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Kiss: Implied Gore in Offscreen Space

A long-running debate in horror film criticism is the merits of explicit vs. implied threats. Which packs the greater emotional punch? To see gore in all its graphic detail, or to leave such horrors to our imagination?

The Kiss (1988) provides an excellent example of the power of implied gore, in a scene that is set at a department store. The scene comprises 39 shots, running a total of 1 minute, 19 seconds. 

The scene opens with three closeup shots of escalator stairs, from different angles. 

 


Two teenage girls step onto the escalator, Amy (Meredith Salenger) and Heather (Sabrina Boudot). 




As they rise with the stairs, Heather realizes that she's dropped her lipstick. She returns to the bottom of the stairs to retrieve it. As she reaches for it, her necklace is caught by the escalators.






Naturally, Heather is unable either to extract the necklace from the stairs, or to remove the necklace from around her neck.

There follows an increasingly tense series of shots. Heather rising with the stairs. Amy looking on in horror, screaming for help, unable to help Heather.








Amy's boyfriend, Terry (Shawn Levy), who works at the store, hears Amy. He rushes to the escalator. He kicks the Emergency Stop button, but to no avail. The escalator won't stop. 





As the scene progresses editing heightens our sense of panic through brief, quick cuts of the same few shots -- Terry's frantic kicks, Amy's horrified gaze, the moving escalator stairs -- and Heather's screaming face, the necklace wrapped ever more tightly across it.





Viewers, morbidly tantalized, fearfully anticipate what will happen to Heather's face when she reaches the top of the escalator. But when Heather does arrive, the penultimate shot of is Amy's horrified gaze -- then a final shot of the escalator stairs, still running smoothly as blood, hair strands, and necklace bits collect at the top.



What happened to Heather is left to our imagination. Instead, we cut to a scene of a distraught Amy arriving home. We learn that Heather is in the hospital, "badly cut up."

We never see or hear of Heather again. Her face -- or what's left of it -- is forever left to our imagination.

This scene's dramatic setup and editing do much to build audience tension. So much so that our minds filled in the blanks as to what occurred to Heather's face.

Some filmmakers would feel the need to push the envelop and show the flesh tearing off from Heather's face, perhaps in slow motion. Some films have indeed shown humans being skinned alive (e.g., Dagon). Yet The Kiss's handling of this scene is also extremely effective in instilling suspense and horror.

The Kiss is an excellent supernatural tale of African witchcraft. It is currently out-of-print as a DVD, but you can see it on YouTube:





 
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For more about the use of offscreen space in horror films, see Horror Film Aesthetics: Creating the Visual Language of Fear. This blog represents a continuing discussion of my views on horror, picking up from where the book left off.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Edge: Poor Grooming Hinders Suspension of Disbelief

Sometimes a filmmaker can't achieve something on screen because of a low budget -- but sometimes it's due to laziness and a lack of artistic commitment. It would have been just as cheap to shoot a scene correctly, but the filmmaker -- or the actor -- couldn't be bothered.

Hair styles are one example. Hair cuts and shaves are cheap. I've complained before about low-budget films that feature soldiers with beards,goatees, and ponytails. Edge, a low-budget film about a serial killer, makes the same mistake with its portrayal of uniformed police officers.



This cop from Edge (above) has a full beard.



And here's a cop (above) with a Mohawk. Not an undercover cop, mind you, but a uniformed officer.

Maybe this Mohawk is an "in joke" -- one of the film's producers is "Mohawk Lighting Productions." If that is the intent, filmmaker Jacob Whitley should at least be aware that his joke comes at the cost of detracting from the film.

How so?

It concerns suspension of disbelief. The lower a film's budget -- the cheaper its  sets, props, costumes, the sparser its cast -- the more difficult for viewers to suspend disbelief, and the more likely the film becomes Mystery Science Theater 3000 fodder. This is why low-budget filmmakers should do everything within their skills set and budget to achieve verisimilitude -- a sense of reality -- on screen.

Remarkably, Edge's end credits list four actual cops -- two "tactical advisors" (sic) and two "location assistants." (Their ranks are one officer, two sergeants, one captain.) True, these cops weren't part of the hair & makeup crew, but you'd think one of them would have mentioned something about the police characters' beard and Mohawk.

Edge's credits indicate the film was shot in La Palma, California. Is this how real cops groom themselves in La Palma? Even if that were so, Whitley should have known that such grooming is outside the norm, so his film would have greater verisimilitude with clean-shaven officers.

Edge's detectives have five o'clock shadows, but one can be more forgiving of that. Detectives are more often portrayed as casual in dress and grooming than are uniformed officers, so audiences are more likely to accept that.

But Edge has some other faults that break viewers' suspension of disbelief. In one scene, police officers storm into a house. They find a dead man, his throat slashed. Detective Rivers (Scott Butler) finds a knife in a sink filled with bloody water.




So Detective Rivers reaches into the water and picks up the knife.



He stares at the knife in disgust, then tosses it back into the sink.

Huh?!

Even if the serial killer had tried to wipe the knife of fingerprints, and wash off his DNA, wouldn't a professional detective have removed the knife with rubber gloves, then placed it into a plastic baggie, for further analysis? Instead, Rivers contaminates the knife with his own prints and DNA. And his partner beside him says nothing, as though this is normal procedure

I think modern audiences have been sufficiently sensitized over these past few decades of CSI shows that even lay people know better than to touch anything at a crime scene with bare hands. Once again, it would have been just as cheap to have filmed Rivers leaving the knife untouched, than to break the viewer's suspension of disbelief with his unprofessional behavior

Edge is not an entirely bad film. It's reasonably entertaining for its budget. DP David Molina's photography is sharp and his use of blue lights to evoke night nicely done. Although the film is set in California, Scott Butler has what sounds to me like an Australian or New Zealander accent (his IMDb page says he's from South London), but one can overlook that.

You can see Edge on YouTube:




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For more about mise-en-scène, see Horror Film Aesthetics: Creating the Visual Language of Fear. This blog represents a continuing discussion of my views on horror, picking up from where the book left off.