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How to direct horror?


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#1 Luke McMillian

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Posted 05 January 2007 - 12:41 AM

Hey,

I'm going to take a stab at doing a good horror movie, (mind the pun)and just thought I'd ask some opinions on classic horror movie production techniques to utilize.

Now I think everyone knows about the classic P.O.V shot of the murderer or monster watching people behind a bush with heavy breathing sometimes used or what not. But what about techniques that are more subtle but used a lot?
Another one I can think of is the shock cut -
Usually the main character is looking for clues or looking to see if a monster is in behind a door etc and then we hear the big sound effect of the monster and a fast close up cut of the monster jumping out at them. Or instead it's another character that accidently scared them, the audience is rested, and then we get a suprise cut when the monster does come out.

Or how about you establish that there is a monster lurking in the shadows of a big room and a man is walking around slowly looking for the monster, and you see a quick flash across the camera in the extreme foreground of the monster running by, followed by a big sound effect, and then a close up of the reaction of the main character. I see that one in a lot more recent horror films.

I know LIGHTING and SOUND and story all play a huge role in horror, but what about the actual shot by shot montage techniques that can be used? Any others you can think of? That are classic and induce the scares or newer techniques?

Luke
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#2 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 05 January 2007 - 12:48 AM

Everything you do should revolve around the notion of fear, so you have to ask yourself, what are you afraid of? For example, walking around a dark room where it's established that something bad or dangerous lurks there hidden.

An essential part of suspense, as Hitchcock notes, involves giving the audience enough information to know that something bad might happen, the "ticking bomb under the tea table" lesson. If you don't show the bomb first and it goes off during the scene, it's shock. But if you show the bomb first and then the characters sit and talk, not seeing the bomb, that's suspense. In a horror film, you have a mix of shock and suspense.

But I think the best horror films conjure up our deepest fears, so the filmmaker has to always be asking themselves what scares them -- it's not just a matter of using cinematic tricks. The situation has to be ripe for fear, it's a clockwork structure that the filmmaker has to design, wind-up, and then let work. If you don't do that, all you can do is give the audience cheap shocks.
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#3 Luke McMillian

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Posted 05 January 2007 - 10:35 PM

Hey David,

Thank you very much for the reply. I knew about the ticking time bomb theory, but I didn't consider my own fears which i should of right from the start. I'm going to brainstorm tonight, and find out what really scares me the most, I have a good idea so far, but I'm gonna dig deep.

As far as horror films go, what would you recomend personally that uses really good structure? (besides hitchcock) I know there are some great ones out there that I haven't seen yet. The film that has scared me the most thus far was Hostel. I'm not into the gore thing at all, or shock horror, but the wetness of the blood on the floors, and how cold and dark everything looked really messed me up visually.

Thanks again

Luke
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#4 Jonathan Bowerbank

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Posted 05 January 2007 - 11:12 PM

All the classics that shocked me as a kid and still freak me out sometimes, "Jaws", "Poltergeist", more recently "28 Days Later", "The Devil's Backbone".

I find that people are getting harder and harder to scare nowadays due to desensitization through the media and blah blah blah. But there are still the core fears that we all have, and I have to agree with David, you just have to tap into those fears.
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#5 Nicholas Jenkins

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Posted 05 January 2007 - 11:49 PM

Part of the problem is that "Horror" is a seriously wide open genre. I think there are several different ways of approaching a horror film, it really depends on what you want to do. Just remember, serve the story first. It's the old design motto "Form Follows Function".

This might help you select shots and editing as you don't want to (necessarily) combine multiple tricks and trades from different horror films simply because they are from good or effective horror films. It all revolves around the collaboration between Director, DP and actor. What is the scene about? How can I best accomplish recording this scene and instilling it with the emotions and psychology that has been agreed upon.

Take a look at Roman Polanski's The Tenant or Repulsion sometime. Both are scary films (probably more thrillers than horror) but both contain elements of the horror genre. But there are not really any quick/flashy cuts to "toy" with the audience.

Another good director to look at for Horror (and I'm biased here) is David Lynch. Specifically, check out Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive, and (god help you) Eraserhead. None of these films are classified as "Horror" really, but all have incredibly potent and horrific scenes.

Hope that's helpful in some way.
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#6 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 06 January 2007 - 12:04 AM

Although all horror films descend into a sort of nightmarish dream state to some degree, some have an overall realistic framework, design, and look ("The Exorcist", for example) while others are theatrical and fairy tale-ish right form the start ("Sleepy Hollow", for example, or "Dracula").

But even the most realistic of horror and thriller movies follow a pattern of moving from Realism to Expressionism since the storyline to some degree is psychological in nature (descent into madness is a common theme, or possession by evil, or uncovering some ancient curse, etc.) So things start out as ordinary as possible but slowly start introducing certain fantastical or supernatural elements, or simply extraordinary events.

Lynch is a good example of someone who conjures up deep-down feelings of dread. The pilot for "Twin Peaks" is saturated with a feeling of dread, and the image of Robert Blake standing in that nearly-empty wooden room with the bare lightbulb and plastic covered furniture at the end of "Lost Highway"... well, it just feels like something horrible either just happened or will happen in that room.

As a kid, I was always scared by vampire stories and tales of possession because it seemed like the loss of your soul to the Devil was the worst thing that could ever happen to you, worse than physical pain, because it was forever.

I remember being scared one night when I caught this old Hammer horror film on late-night TV, the second Christopher Lee "Dracula" movie (the one where he never speaks) because it begins with this tourist being kidnapped and strung over Dracula's open crypt, and their blood being drained to revive Dracula.

I was also scared at the end of "Ghost Story" by the decaying body of the dead girl walking down the hallway towards the hero.

As far as shocks go, the dead body floating out of the hole in the boat in "Jaws" was certainly a memorable one.
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#7 Richard Boddington

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Posted 06 January 2007 - 12:25 AM

I'm in post right now on my first horror feature. Shooting more new content starting Monday as a matter of fact, but that's another story.

I was watching the JAWS making of DVD and Spielberg talked a lot about how he would shoot scenes so they could be potentially cut 3-4 different ways. Then he would edit the 3-4 different versions together and do some testing on "audiences." This was as simple as asking a group of people that where handy to watch the variations of the scenes and then ask them what was scariest or he would just watch their reactions.

He tells the story of using this technique very successfully when Hooper finds the big tooth in the hull of the boat and the head pops out. He discovered he got a good jump scare from a group of guys for the version used in the film, so he knew he had it.

Naturally I decided if this approach was good enough for Spielberg then it was good enough for me, so that's what I did for several of my scenes. Especially when a "jolt" reaction was the desired effect.

So then I ended up with these variations of the scenes and footage that wasn't used in the film. I added this footage in as scene breaks, mixed with future scenes, and bolts of lightning. Makes for interesting transitional scenes.

Of course the public will have the final say on whether what I'm doing is any good or not. I would post my existing trailer for you guys to see, but, I'm adding some really neat "stuff" so I'll wait until it's upgraded.

R,
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#8 Luke McMillian

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Posted 06 January 2007 - 12:37 AM

Hey guys,

Thanks for the replies, really great insight! Lynch has always been one of my favorite directors lost highway definitely gave me a creepy feeling, Robert Blake... The sounds in Earaserhead is what does it for me. I totally agree that you must always serve the story. I just thought that you guys may know of some tried and true techniques.

One technique I read recently that horror directors use is they'll have someone in a scene walking around in a dark mysterious room in a house for example done with a fairly wide mastershot. You will hear the sound of the monster off screen. The character looks around, and is frightened, possibly cut to a P.O.V shot of them quickly scanning the room looking for the source of the sound, and then return to a tight close up of the actor looking around or walking.
Supposedly its effective because the framing is so tight, and gives you that claustrophobic feeling, so you really badly want to see what's around the character to feel safer, but you can't because the director has chose this tight close up and sticking with it to keep you tense, and unable to search an open wide master shot. Psychology of the frame. These are the techniques I'm looking for.

Not sure if this all made sense, I just remember reading it somewhere, and now trying to find similar devices like this to explore my options.
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#9 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 06 January 2007 - 12:48 AM

An old trick that gets credited to David Lean from "Great Expectations" is someone who is scared backing away from something and then turning around and running right into something scary. Usually with a shock sound at the moment, or music cue. "Star Trek II" borrowed the trick for a shot of McCoy backing away from seeing a rat on the derelict space station, then turning around and bumping into a corpse dangling from the ceiling.

Misdirection is a constant theme to these tricks. Mirrors are often used for such scenes, like a person being scared by something that turns out to be their own reflection.

The other scary thing is, of course, when you see something behind the main character, who is unaware of it. The dead killer sitting up behind Jamie Lee Curtis at the end of "Halloween" for example. An extension of this is when you can only see that creature/monster through some device or trick, like taking a photo or seeing it in a video camera viewfinder.

Jack Clayton's "The Innocents" has some great creepy moments involving ghosts of dead people standing in a room, usually at a distance. But the best scare moment is when Deborah Kerr hides behind a curtain at night playing hide-and-seek with the kids and the face of the ghost appears in the window pane as she turns to look.

Another great shock moment is in "Alien" when Tom Skerrit turns around in the air vent and shines his flashlight into the Alien just as it lunges at him.
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#10 Nicholas Jenkins

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Posted 06 January 2007 - 12:50 AM

Well, that's tough because different directors make techniques work better than others. For instance, Sam Raimi makes whip pans and snap zooms work very effectively, but I've seen the same technique tried by other filmmakers and it comes off as too much. I think that's because Raimi's horror material is suited for that type of photography.

But, I think something healthy for you to do would be to rent some horror films and really break some scenes down. Start looking at exactly what is going on in a scene you find particularly effective and come up with your own shot list:

1. Wide Master of Living Room, Jamie Lee Curtis staggers into frame.
2. Medium of Jamie, tracks backward with her.
3. High Angle through fan blades of Jamie picking up dropped butcher knife.
4. Insert of Jamie's hand grabbing butcher knife.
5. etc...

this allows you to say, ok, this was a scene about Jamie being alone in the house and finding a weapon. How did it build tension, how did using this selection of shots work to the filmmakers advantage to get the point across. Another thing to look at is how long we hold on one shot as opposed to others. Lynch is a good one for this.
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#11 Luke McMillian

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Posted 06 January 2007 - 12:56 AM

Thanks so much guys. Exactly the stuff I was looking for. Brilliant!

Luke
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#12 James Steven Beverly

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Posted 06 January 2007 - 01:11 AM

I like what Hitchcoock said, if you what to get the audience's attention, don't put a bomb on a bus and blow it up, put a bomb under the bus and let only the audience and the killer know it's there. As the the charatures chat away the audience goes crazy knowing the people they have been made to care about though the story have no idea they're about to be blown to bits (paraphrasing of course). They used this technique in Halloween when there was a scene of Jamie Lee on the phone with Michael in the background and she was total unaware he was there. The big thing about Jaws was (and it's been told over and over again) that the reason Speilberg never let you see the shark was because the damn thing didn't work, but they should thank and praise the inept designer who built the thing because not seeing the monster made the audence fear it much more than if they had. If you can create situations where the audience's imagination takes over and what they imagine is far more terrifying than anything you could but on screen, then you've got them! B)

Edited by James Steven Beverly, 06 January 2007 - 01:14 AM.

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#13 Jason Debus

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Posted 06 January 2007 - 01:34 AM

I like what Hitchcoock said, if you what to get the audience's attention, don't put a bomb on a bus and blow it up, put a bomb under the bus and let only the audience and the killer know it's there. As the the charatures chat away the audience goes crazy knowing the people they have been made to care about though the story have no idea they're about to be blown to bits (paraphrasing of course).


Maybe you should read the threads you post in? :wacko:

Luke:

Are you the same Luke that was in cinema2 at LACC this last semester? If so I liked your horror stuff and I've still got that greenscreen if you need it ... !
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#14 David Sweetman

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Posted 06 January 2007 - 02:26 AM

So no one's mentiond The Shining? That's how to do horror. Try getting a copy of the script (you should be able to find it free online) - read it first, and then watch the movie. That could also be helpful with The Silence of the Lambs: http://www.godamongd...pts/lambs.shtml
That way you can see how suspense was created in the script, and how the director translated that suspense to the screen. It's also interesting to see what they changed from the working draft to the final draft.
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#15 Stuart Brereton

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Posted 06 January 2007 - 06:25 PM

Another great shock moment is in "Alien" when Tom Skerrit turns around in the air vent and shines his flashlight into the Alien just as it lunges at him.


No matter how many times I see that film, that moment still makes me jump, even though I know it's coming...

The Ring (U.S version) also got me. Scary for 5 minutes at the beginning and five minutes at the end, but the atmosphere in between....
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#16 Matthew Buick

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Posted 07 January 2007 - 12:41 PM

So no one's mentiond The Shining?


Oh yeah, The Shining, now, THAT was scary didn't scare me at all, you're all wimps.
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#17 Jan Weis

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Posted 07 January 2007 - 01:53 PM

Oh yeah, The Shining, now, THAT was scary didn't scare me at all, you're all wimps.



ok, you do sort have a point there matthew, its not scary as in lots of blood is spurted out of heads and limbs, but instead kubrick tries to create a film that is psychologically uncomfortable which is a better approach in my opinion.

The shining may not be scary as scary as it was in 1980, but that does not mean its 'easy' to watch now a days either.
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#18 Nicholas Jenkins

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Posted 07 January 2007 - 02:14 PM

ok, you do sort have a point there matthew, its not scary as in lots of blood is spurted out of heads and limbs, but instead kubrick tries to create a film that is psychologically uncomfortable which is a better approach in my opinion.

The shining may not be scary as scary as it was in 1980, but that does not mean its 'easy' to watch now a days either.


The Shining isn't as "BOO" scary as other films (although it has its moments). I think the great thing about The Shining is, as you pointed out, it creates a sense of isolation and slowly decays the canonical to a point of fright. It's really a great "Horror" film without the tense sort of boogeyman theatrics that are quite popular in cinema today.

One thing that I'd say be wary of though is that Kubrick (along with Lynch) are incredibly difficult filmmakers to be "like". I see it with my students an awful lot. They are both such creatures of their own psychology and styles that it can be misguiding to feel as though "well Kubrick did it, so I can do it." Kubrick and Lynch techniques TEND to work best in their own contained films. But, that's no reason to shy away from them or their techniques. Just something to be aware of.

Man, did that make any sense at all? :huh:
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#19 Luke McMillian

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Posted 07 January 2007 - 02:58 PM

Hey,

Sorry not the same Luke here. I'm just getting into directing and writing horror, I've always loved ghouls and ghosts and a huge fan of Hitchcock, so I have to make my mark in this genre. Thank you all for the great comments.

Luke
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#20 Joe Giambrone

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Posted 07 September 2008 - 07:43 PM

Ted and Terry at Wordplayer have a term called "audience superior," which is basically when the audience knows something that the character doesn't. It's a basic suspense tool.

"Good" horror, like good anything else is going to require a strong story and inventiveness, to avoid all the cliches done before. It's not going to be endearing to just redo some old hat horror tricks.

You need a good bad guy. You need plausibility, that the world you create could actually exist. And you need the shocks, surprises and rising suspense to carry it for two hours.

If you have no budget, you're going to be stuck at a couple of locations, so they better be good ones.

Many, many examples are available. You should go watch 100 decent horror films asap before proceeding...
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