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.

1 comment:

  1. Chris Cunningham's music video for Aphex Twin's "Come To Daddy" uses similar techniques. Cunningham obscures the monster makeup with tight framing, quick cutting, and strobe lights. Even though the makeup is pretty effective on its own, these techniques make the creature seem even scarier.

    Here's the video for reference (relevant part starts at the 4 minute mark)