Techniques to shoot a horror sequence
Horror is one of the most interesting genres of cinema that generates a variety of emotions ranging from tension, fear, curiosity, relief and much more. If made well, it can captivate the audience like no other theme can. But creating this horror and sustaining it till the end of a story is not an easy task.
In the second part of our educative series, we speak to Tribhuvan Babu, the talented cinematographer of the horror film, Ragini MMS, which had the audiences completely gripped. Tribhuvan Babu shares with us the techniques of creating fear, the equipments used to amplify the tension and the thought process that is crucial to engage the audiences till the very end of a horror story.
For this particular film, as the name suggests – MMS, we were dealing with hidden cameras. The idea was hidden cameras and hence static. The technique which we used was the typical CCTV concept, where we hid the cameras in a lot of props like a cupboard which had lots of books in it, a flower vase, a ceiling fan and so on. For the other portion which was not static, it was a conscious decision to give one camera to the couple itself who were filming each other. So this other camera was handheld and was the only break in terms of the narrative. Since the placement of the camera and the lensing used was all a conscious decision, we didn’t miss any movements of the static cameras. Also that itself created a lot of tension in the room. A lot of activities that were happening were outside the boundaries of the frame, you always wanted to see what is happening, where the sound is coming from, and the fact that the camera was not revealing where the activity was happening, in itself enhanced the tension.
FEAR THROUGH FRAMING
Alfred Hitchcock had said that ‘The fear is not in the bang but in the anticipation of it’. That sort of helped our lensing and our camera positions because we didn’t reveal the action in its entirety and hence kept the horror alive. You were always seeing what the characters were reacting to, what they were going through and yet not revealing what was actually scaring them. That is what kept the horror alive. If we would have revealed the ghost earlier itself, people would have got bored.
FEAR THROUGH POSITION OF CHARACTER
Whenever a person is afraid of the unknown or anything else, we tend to curl up, go into a womb position and go to one corner of any room irrespective of how it is lit. Even if it is day time and it is brightly lit, if you are feeling scared or lonely you will automatically curl up and go and sit in a corner, which is a human tendency. What that position does to an empty frame is magical. Imagine an entire room which you have by way of your wide lensing and just one character who is curled up in one corner and there is lot of empty space around her. That is scary because you don’t know what is going to happen next, whether the ghost is going to come from top or left or wherever. What you are trying to do is inviting your audience to suspense; you are telling them that she is not alone, even though she is alone in that frame, an imbalanced frame that is kept deliberately. That is one way to create suspense.
WORKING WITH WIDE SPACES
Working with wide lenses was a conscious choice. In the film we were dealing with a lot of closed spaces like the rooms; bedroom, living room, kitchen etc. To show the audience the limitation of the space, we had to go extreme wide lens and show the entirety of the space, the emptiness and the claustrophobia together in it. So once the character tries to escape that space, you realize that it’s not easy. Even though wide lens makes things look larger than what they are, the contrast is when you actually see the character in that space. That is when you realize that this particular character does not have the space to move around and that is what makes it more interesting. Essentially what we are trying to do is enhancing the horror with wide lensing, making it wider than what it is and involving the person.
SHOOTING THE ESCAPE
There was only one camera in the bedroom which had the bed; the other room was never showed, except by way of the handheld camera. Once the horror starts creeping up to the characters, the lights go off and it is night time. So the only source of light that the girl has is the camera and that has a night vision and an inbuilt torch in it. That was the camera which we took when the girl escapes because even she had to see where she is going. So it is only natural for her to hold the only available source of light i.e. the camera. At one point of time even the torch goes off and the only source we have is the night vision in the camera which requires minimal light and got simulated as the moon light. It was the only source we shot with. In the jungle when she was running and even in the corridor when she was shouting for help, it was all with the night vision camera itself.
It is very difficult to capture the audience, so much so that they know that the moment the door opens the ghost is going to be there. People have seen various kinds of horror shows and various things have been done in a particular formula. Now the idea is to break away from it. So the idea is to fool the audience and keep them interested every time and hence the shock has to be unexpected
There is a sequence where the female character is running in the jungle and at one point she hides in a dilapidated structure. She hears something, takes out her camera with the night vision on and is trying to search the source of the sound. And that is the moment when you know that the ghost is going to appear. So she is seeing the empty jungle and finally the camera stops right on the ghost. That is required to create a kind of visual shock.
The camera package we used included the Canon 7D. In the lens package we used 11 to 16mm Tokina, 10-14mm canon zoom and 16-35mm canon zoom. These are all wider perspectives which is how a typical CCTV is. Even if you want to zoom in on a particular detail you do that in Post, where you keep a decent amount of pixilation of the image because you have zoomed in to more than what it is and that is what happens in a typical CCTV footage. These lenses helped to replicate that typical wide angle bird’s eye point of view and as and when we decided to zoo, to go into a detail of a hand cuff or wound or horror on a character’s face etc we were zooming in deliberately and pixilating the image. So that added to the authenticity of the image.
There are three things that are important for creating fear. One is lensing. The second is lighting. When the characters come into the house it was lit well but once the horror starts creeping in, the lights go out, it was all dark and only what we wanted to show was lit. We did not light up the things we did not want to show and we deliberately kept that because we wanted people to think that there was something in that dark patch, which was actually the case. So the lighting design is not about lighting up, you don’t light whatever you see, the whole idea is to light up a set, switch off a couple of lights and then start shooting. Third would be the production design, the art direction, the color you choose on the walls, the props, the characters, the makeup and everything, all that is a collaborative effort where all the elements come together to create the effect.
Whenever you go into a project like horror, you should always be conscious of what is going to scare you, more than scaring the audience. And that itself starts the thought process of your production design, color scheme, lighting design, choice of equipment etc., everything comes together. It is very important to know your audience but equally important to know whether you personally would be scared of it. If you can replicate what scares you, then you have arrived. Like it’s not easy to do comedy it’s not easy to do horror.
STILLS FROM THE FILM