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Scary Shooting Techniques

Champ Ensminger
October 29, 2011 by Champ Ensminger Plus

Like that zombie stampede from your VHS copy of ‘Undead Unicorn Apocalypse,’ Halloween is just around the corner. If you’re like us, then you’re putting together a killer costume, curling up on a couch watching ‘Undead Unicorn Apocalypse 2: The Galloping,’ and getting in the Halloween spirit with our Video School Lesson on Scary Special Effects!

But you might be wondering, what else goes into that horror classic that makes it so scary? It’s not just blood and guts and monsters, right? Look no further! Here are some tried-and-true techniques you can use for shooting your next horror classic that are so easy to do’s scary.

Get your story straight
Whether you plan to scare your audience with ghosts, ghouls or goblins, aliens from another planet or good old fashioned zombies, you still need a story to get started. Storyboarding isn’t just for pros. Think about all your scenes and sketch or write them out. This will allow you to organize your shot list and know exactly what you’re going to shoot when the camera starts rolling. Take a look at Christoph Horch’s sequence animatic depicting Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym.’

Although the sequence is not a storyboard for a live-action film per se, we get a sense of the story and pacing through the frame composition and the way the animation imitates camera movements. Aside from drawing arrows indicating motion, storyboard artists often animate their sequences to convey action and camera movement for reference. This is very handy for visualizing and pacing your story, especially scary stories that wait for the right moment to go...BOO!

Star of your movie: The Sound
You know the shark in Jaws is about to attack when its signature sound starts playing. Sound is the most important character in your scary film and can give your boogeyman a helping hand. It can build suspense, indicate mood changes and even give an extra scary jolt to your audience.

Check out this video from the people from SoundWorks, where sound editor Lon Bender talks about his work on Nicolas Winding Refn’s film, Drive.

Although “Drive” is not necessarily a scary film, the sound design team was very particular about building tension and establishing a mental sound space that puts you in the driver’s seat. When you have a scared audience, their hearing becomes hypersensitive, and constructing an effective soundscape can both set an eerie mood and deliver the biggest scares. Check out more of the SoundWorks Collection at their Vimeo Channel!

Remember a great resource to find music is Vimeo Music Store, where you can search for tracks with tags like, “dark, eerie, intense, etc.” or by tempo if you’re trying to build tension with a fast or slow music pace.

Look out!
Keeping your audience engaged and on the edge of their seats is important, and you can easily accomplish this by isolating what they can and can’t see. Alternatively, you can add anticipation by switching up the perspective of the scene and allowing your audience to see what’s lurking around the corner, while keeping your main character in the dark. Another great example, Alexis Wajsbrot and Damien Mace’s The Red Balloon, keeps you on edge alongside a babysitter and a little girl as they discover they are not alone in the house.

This short film is all about distraction. The camera spends time looking at random, inconspicuous objects, like stuffed animals or a red balloon. This steers the audience’s attention away from the danger that is lurking offscreen, and takes us by surprise!

Sometimes, less is more.
Many classic horror films never even reveal what the scary creature or character actually is. What made the Blair Witch Project so scary? The audience never actually sees the witch and is left to use their own imagination, right to the very end, about what horrible presence resides in the woods. When creating a low-budget scary movie, the unknown and viewers’ imaginations are much scarier than the real thing. For some inspiration, check out Adam Butcher’s ‘Internet Story,’ which uses video blogging and flash animation to draw you into a very eerie modern mystery.

“Internet Story” offers big chills by implying much of the creepy details without explicitly showing us. Also, nothing beats a well-delivered narration to make our imaginations run wild!

Lights out.
Typically you want to shoot with the light so that it is in front of your subject, however, when it comes to a scary movie, try shooting your subject in a dark room with a single light source. Seeing those silhouettes of Freddy Kreuger in the boiler room or shadows like that of the shower scene in Psycho leaves a lasting image with viewers. The music video for Fever Ray’s “Triangle Walks” makes use of single light sources, including a deep red lamp shade, to build on the mystery of her performance.

In horror movies, the characters often rely on a flashlight or a torch to keep away the dangers that lurk in the dark, making your light source a potentially important plot device. When the power goes out in the log cabin, and the kids fumble for the flashlight, who do they find standing right there as the light turns on? THE ZOMBIE UNICORN!

Shake it up.
When you’re shooting your scary movie, don’t be afraid to go handheld. It’s usually best practice to try and steady your camera or use a tripod so that you have a nice smooth shot, but a little shake can go a long way in adding more panic and suspense to a scene. A great example of this can be seen in the sequences depicted in the teaser trailer for Darkstone Entertainment’s “Plan 9.”

Notice the contrasting levels of urgency as the trailer switches between the dolly shot of the radio and the shaky action sequences? The shakiness makes the audience feel like part of the chase, and visually keeps them on their toes as they look around more carefully for danger. On that note, you may also want to consider putting the camera in the hands of your main character so that the film is shot from their perspective. In a similar vein, sometimes lower quality video with a grainy image quality or shot in black and white gives a story an amateur but more believable demeanor. It’s an aesthetic option to consider.

These are the tricks of the trade in the awesome and terrifying world of horror movies, and with these tricks you will have a horror classic that will send people curling up in their couches and watching through their fingers in no time!

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