Friday, June 2, 2017

A Minimalist Production Design for Out of His Tree

Finding suitable locations is one of the bigger problems confronting low-budget horror filmmakers. Many actors and crew members will work for little pay or no pay. Realistic looking locations (e.g., a restaurant, school, airport, hospital) are more difficult and costly to secure. Shooting permits, location fees, and liability insurance are expensive for those on a shoestring budget. In some cases, the law even requires a (paid) fire marshal and/or other professionals to be on set at all times.

But with a little imagination, filmmakers and production designers can create locations on the cheap. Such as in Out of His Tree (2016), an eight minute film set inside a hospital.

Hospital rooms, whether real or on a sound stage, can be expensive to rent. Instead, for Out of His Tree, production designer Sorsha Willow took a minimalist approach, merely suggesting a hospital with only a few set pieces.

Out of His Tree has two locations. The first is Dr. White's (Laverne Edmonds) office. She makes some phone calls before going to see her next patient. Her "office" is just a white area. The only set piece is a white phone.

Writer/director Robert Howat's cinematography assists Willow's minimalist design by bathing the office in soft white light, and blurring the wall behind Edmonds. What is that on the "wall" behind her? Charts and papers? We don't know. Nor does it matter.

Sound effects further assist in suggesting a hospital: soft conversations echoing in a hallway, phones ringing, etc.

Because a solitary actress standing in an empty white space can make for a static, dull scene, Howat enlivens the scene by shooting Laverne from different angles during her conversation.

The second location is in the patient Johnny's (Robert Howat) room. We learn that Dr. White is a psychiatrist. Johnny is mentally ill. Their conversation comprises the remainder of the film, ending with a supernatural revelation.

It's a simple white room. The main set pieces are two metal chairs, some papers, and wrist straps on Johnny.

Apart from saving money, the film's minimalist set design has the aesthetic effect of focusing our attention on Dr. White and Johnny, because there's little else in the rooms to distract our attention.

This focus is further heightened by Howat's heavy use of medium closeups and closeups. The frames become tighter as the story progresses, enhancing our intimacy with the characters.

It has been said that comedy is a long shot while drama is a closeup. Long shots emotionally distance audiences from the characters' sufferings. Closeups pull us into their hopes, dreams, desperations, and fears. Howat's use of closeups serves his dark supernatural tale well.

Also read about how low-budget filmmakers created inexpensive locations for Mark of the Witch and Psychic Sue.


For more practical tips for low-budget horror filmmakers, 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.

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