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.


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).


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. 

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.