Fade into France 1896, filmmaker Georges Méliès creates the first horror film. It was a little over 3 minutes in length and entitled Le Manoir Du Diable (The Devil’s Castle). Melies manipulates bats and ghouls with creative light and shadow to evoke a gloomy and haunting mise en scene. These cinemagraphic elements have shaped how we create horror films today. As a horror cinematographer, I study all types of films to perfect my style and technique. All cinematographers bring their own style and soul to the screen and it takes many mistakes and happy accidents to reach a stylized look for your work. I am a perpetual student of the art of cinematography, there is always something new to learn and discover that will promote the suspension of disbelief.
What is a cinematographer? To put it simply a cinematographer, or Director of Photography (DP), is the person who sets the visual aesthetic of a production with domain over the camera and lighting crews of a film. They use perspective, light, and shadow to express a tone and style for each project. For example, if you lit Friday the 13th (2009) like you would light The Hangover (2009) you would have a very different movie. Light and color affect the human psyche and mind. A cinematographer is merely a painter who implements these elements with the proper stroke.
Every time I light a film I think to myself, “how does the lighting help tell the story? What mood is this film trying to achieve?” and I go from there. First I would look in depth into the script and decide with the director what type of mood and tone of the piece he or she is going for then I put my personal touch into achieving his or her vision. You can plan until you are blue in the face but the real magic happens when the camera starts rolling.
The cinematographer also handles all decisions related to the camera. This includes framing, depth of field, aperture settings, lenses, and much more. The DP will work with a very talented camera team to achieve the shots that the director wants, but with the DP’s personal style and insight. Everything you see and feel in a film is a direct result of the DP’s vision. It can take months of pre-production and collaboration for a cinematographer to plan a film shoot. Many hours, careful thought and consideration are required to create a beautiful product for an audience to enjoy. I have worked on camera plots for days only to complete a handful of scenes representing mere minutes of screen time. Can you imagine creating lighting and camera plots for a feature length film with a minimum of 88 minutes? That could be months of preproduction and you haven’t even picked up a light meter or camera yet. It isn’t just “put the camera there and let’s shoot a movie.” This is an art form. Cinematographers are the most ambitious artists of the film industry because we have to convince a team of professionals of our vision for a film we didn’t write. We must be able to construct and implement complex combinations of lighting and camera plots to tell a cohesive story not only to our bosses but to all future audiences.
As a cinematographer I have a few tips and tricks for shooting horror films on a budget. Most of my advice deals in the lighting department which is one the the biggest tools in telling a convincing horror story. For instance if you have a halogen shop light handy and change your white balance setting to tungsten and that will create an eerie blue light on camera without spending too much on lighting gear, a simple fix when you are working on a tight budget. When the majority of the budget goes to costuming and makeup, these little lighting cheats can save the film and make it stand out among the rest. Horror lighting is usually very harsh with hot stabs of light, for example, as Jason is chasing someone through the woods at Camp Crystal Lake you will see giant pools of moonlight escaping through the trees that gives the film a hint of beauty and mystery. To accomplish this effect, the DP uses strategically placed balanced bulbs or gels. Flashlights and high angled lighting can be very useful “cheats” if you are on a budget and cannot afford an industry lighting setup. Effective cinematographers know how best to combine our gear with our vision to bring a film to life. Pro tip: experimentation is key. Always remember with a bit of still photography and practice you can create a lighting scheme that you love.