In Never Hike Alone, director Vincent DiSanti dances on the fringes of the biggest horror franchise of all time, Friday the 13th. In this fan movie, we follow Kyle McLeod (Andrew Leighty), an adventure blogger on a mission to find the infamous camping grounds of Crystal Lake. Throughout the movie he documents his progress with his action camera, the entries of which become progressively grimmer, as his survival skills are put to the extreme test in a game of cat and mouse with the camp’s resident serial killer, Jason Voorhees.
The video diary style plays well to a younger audience brought up on Facebook Live and a ‘found footage’ approach to filmmaking popularized by another long running franchise, Paranormal Activity. At the same time there is plenty of meat for lifelong fans to sink their teeth into. Pun not intended!
From the sweeping camera angles to the locations to the design – Never Hike Alone screams of production values typically associated with a studio picture, not an Indie crafted together using blood, sweat and little help from Kickstarter. The result is a movie that adds to the horror lore of Friday the 13th, albeit in an ‘unofficial’ capacity.
The Hidden Location
Like any independent filmmaker knows, one of the hardest things to cheat on a project like this is the design. For a major studio picture, you have the funds and the means to build almost anything you can imagine, either practically or virtually. With Indies, you’re down to whatever you can put together on a shoestring budget, or, for the more resourceful filmmaker, what you can find.
Through a passing conversation with a couple Vince had been working with during the original trailer, they casually mentioned an abandoned camp up the road, College Camp, and whether he’d be shooting there. What followed was something akin to a real-life sleuth investigation that had Vince superimposing a phone image over a paper map, in search of the location equivalent to the holy grail. “I began zooming in and scanning a satellite view of the forest where I eventually found one of the buildings tucked between a grouping of trees. From there I traced a path that seemed like a road leading all the way back to the highway.”
That path led him to College Camp; “from that moment, we knew we had struck gold”. The abandoned camp – with its cavernous main cabin hall, creepy attic and countless rooms and buildings – would fatefully become Camp Crystal Lake in Never Hike Alone, allowing Vince to expand the scope of the story he wanted to tell.
Toys of the Trade
As someone who’s graded a fair share of Indies, I’m used to dealing with cameras of all shapes and sizes. Whether it’s due to budgetary constraints, coverage needs over a compressed timescale, or just the desire to eek the best picture possible out of the most unlikely of cameras, Indie filmmakers have always pushed the boundaries in this area.
At the start of Never Hike Alone, the primary narrative camera was the Sony A7sii. This seemed like the best DSLR choice at the time, producing the most filmic images, but production is rarely just about the final result: “Its major downfall was that it was a difficult camera to rig as it required several accessories that never seemed to work together simultaneously. On top of that, the rig had trouble keeping up with the physical demands of the fight scenes and slowed us down a ton on set”, DiSanti recalls.
- Red Epic 8K
- Varicam 35
- Sony FS7
- Sony A7sii
- DJI Phantom 3 Professional
- (x2) Go Pro Hero 4 Blacks
ZEISS ZF LENSES:
- 25mm f/2.0
- 35mm f/1.4
- 50mm f/1.4
- 85mm f/1.4
But as luck would have it, cameraman Evan Butka, who’d been renting Vince his beautiful Zeiss lenses for the movie, became enamored with the project. He soon jumped onboard, bringing along his Red Epic 8K camera. “Shooting with the Red made life so much easier from a technical standpoint and of course gave us beautiful 8K images that would give us much more leeway in post.”
In another twist of kindness, Evan introduced Vince to Ben Meredith, another cameraman who would step in when Evan wasn’t available. And what do cameramen have? Cameras – this time a Varicam 35, ideal for low light situations; “We relied on the Varicam to capture a lot of our night and early morning scenes. Overall that camera is a workhorse that never let us down or gave us any issues.”
Finally, to round things off, Co-DP JD Martz brought with him his personal Sony FS7, which ended up becoming the B camera for the majority of the production. “It was great for guerrilla shooting when the main production cameras were not available. Most of the scene of Kyle running from camp with Jason giving chase was shot with that camera.”
Of Lin & Log
Working with many different cameras doesn’t have to be a nightmare; if all the material has a video gamma-style transfer curve (like Rec709), you can create a base by dialing out any differences using a primary grade, upon which you apply your Looks and other tweaks such as sharpness. This was my approach when matching the DJI Phantom shots with the Sony cameras throughout the extreme hiking scenes, as well as the night showdown between Kyle and Jason. For the ‘video diary’ footage though, the intention was to retain a visual difference between the punchy, ultra-sharp Go Pro material, and the more filmic narrative pictures from the Red Epic. As such, I kept the former bright and vivid and let any corrections ride in most instances, even if it meant blowing out highlights. However, for the latter I kept the contrast in check more than I normally would to create a softer look.
The real challenge arose when Log and Lin material were intercut. This happens throughout the movie, especially during the fight and chase scenes. In these instances it is important to consider the final deliverable. “Our original goal was to release the film for free on YouTube, however, we found ourselves with a unique opportunity to premiere at the Telluride Horror Show”, DiSanti informed us when we started testing the pipeline. With that information, I could make some decisions.
This setup for me meant a 709 world (sRGB on most computer screens), and thus I chose to convert my log images to video gamma using a base correction (versus using an output LUT). Since the conversion was ‘live’, I could always dig beneath it to retrieve any blown or crushed details, while reaping the benefits of a ‘homogenised’ timeline, allowing me to easily apply Looks between the Lin and Log material. Since the pictures were pretty much bang on in terms of exposure, we had minimal problems.
For the Red material specifically, the manufacturer gives you a plethora of choices for just about any occasion. Unlike other jobs where I typically choose to work in RedLogFilm space, for Never Hike Alone I chose RedColor2 / RedGamma2 for my colourspace and transfer curve. This gave me rich images with a slightly flatter look, perfect to use as a starting point.
Out of the can, the images looked beautiful, but lacked uniformity. This was purely down to the varying capabilities of the cameras, as well as the intercutting style between the video diary shots and the narrative footage. Before considering any specific Look treatments, it was essential to balance everything out.
From a colour perspective, I wanted to create a distinction between the time when Kyle is looking for Camp Crystal Lake, when he actually finds it, when Jason finds him, to the time the terror unfolds in and around the camp and beyond.
For the exteriors near the camp, there was a lot of warmth in the environment; this is Southern California in mid Spring, where any green ground cover can quickly dry out under the bright sun, casting russets and golden hues across the underbrush. Those colours impart a warm and inviting feel, the opposite of the foreboding Look I was aiming for.
To set that tone, I modified a Look I’d used for a past job – June Gloom. Basically, you start by selecting three colours – yellow, red and magenta – from the black point all the way up to the mid tone, with a good deal of feathering into the highlights. Those ranges are then desaturated, leaving behind the cooler colours, but also some life in the skin tones. On first glance the image appears to cool, but it’s misleading: the absence of warmth is what tricks your eye into thinking the image is much bluer. The modification I made to this Look was to further saturate the greens and blues left behind, as well as any warm colours left behind that were key story points.
The result is a creepy, ominous look that repels any inherent warmth in the image (like the fried underbrush). It’s especially effective on cloudier days, which are devoid of brighter highlights.
It’s in the Sky!
Nothing makes a picture look like a million dollars more than well timed aerial footage, and this movie has plenty of it. “I purchased a [DJI Phantom 3 Professional] and learned to fly it on my own for the production.” DiSanti states. And watching the movie – from the breathtaking reveal over the lake to the epic crane as the ambulance races off leaving Jason in its wake – I would say he didn’t do a half bad job: “The hardest shot in the entire film was definitely the shot where Kyle runs across the log while the camera dollies forward over a large creek.” So if the director thing doesn’t work out Vince, then he can always be a drone operator!
Never Hike Alone premiered at Telluride Horror Show and simultaneously launched online on YouTube. Lifelong fans of the Friday the 13th series haven’t felt this good about a Friday film since the 80s. The movie has since been viewed over 50K times on YouTube and has received glowing reviews. “What seemed like a pipe dream early on in the process ended up being an experience I will certainly never forget”, DiSanti concludes.
The scope of the project is probably captured best by Greg Emerson, the online editor for the project: “Never Hike Alone was a full throttle 4K DI editorial job: six different camera types with variations in resolution, aspect ratio and bit depth. Digital FX, paint outs, variable re-speeds, reticule overlays…the show had everything that a $100M, big studio film would.”
For my full interview with director Vincent DiSanti, check out The Search for Camp Crystal Lake.
Randal Kirk skates down familiar territory in his debut feature “DGK: Parental Advisory” – a ghetto fairytale that takes place inside the mind of DGK rider Baby Scumbag, aka Steven Fernandez. The movie combines music video-type narratives with some of the most amazing tricks performed by DGK riders. “The individual stories are abstract, much like a music video, but as a whole they tell a story”. Randal’s idea of combining these two normally different elements was ambitious, and I had the pleasure of helping him craft those images into a finished piece.
“DGK: Parental Advisory” is different from most skate movies that preceded it, both due to the format as well as the story it tells; “DGK is a unique brand in that all its riders have been dealt bad cards in life. Skateboarding became their golden ticket out of that life”, Randal told me when we sat down to discuss the look of the movie. “I wanted to tell a story that captured the heart and soul of the team’s riders.”
The cinematographer that stepped up to the task was none other than Salvador “Vallo” Lleo, someone I have collaborated with many a time before. True to his reputation, Vallo gave us some beautiful, cinematic sequences: “I knew my pictures were going to be intercut with cool-looking fisheye skate board sequences…so to create contrast I steered towards conservative framing and story telling”. But that didn’t mean that Vallo had it easy. “For the exteriors we had no permits and there was a lot of guerrilla-style shooting with the camera on the shoulder, the lens wide open and praying for an image…it brought back memories of my early days as a young film-maker.”
Tools of the Trade
Three Red Epics were used on this movie for the tons of coverage that Randal insisted on. “His energy and passion kept everyone going in the hardest of times”, recalls Vallo. His lenses of choice were the Cooke S4s and for his lighting style, Vallo didn’t have to look far beyond the brand’s name: “Dirty Ghetto Kids is the name of the company. The texture had to be gritty and rough. High contrast situations, mixing vibrant temperatures and super-stylized lighting design”.
Vallo has long left his trusty tripod behind and replaced it with his new Technocrane. It’s ultralight, super fast to move compared to the standard Supertechno and great in tight spaces and remote locations. “This crane is so great and easy to work with that there will be days where the camera would not come off!”
As practical as a crane is, it’s the sweeping shots that it helps capture which make it an amazing storytelling tool. In the last shot of the movie, a wounded Stevie Williams steps out of an ambulance and skates away into the distance. As the crane goes up, dozens of kids skate after him with a gorgeous Downtown LA in the background. “It was a one take shot. Magical! Then Randal next to me shouted ‘OK kids…it’s a wrap!!’ Man, people went nuts! All these kids were hugging me and thanking me for the best experience of their lives. At that moment, it all made sense…and for me, that very moment was the coolest thing I have ever experienced. All the pain and suffering melted away. It reminded me of all the reasons why I came into this business. Not for the money, not the glamour or the fame but for these amazing happy moments that brings people together.”
Glossy with a Twist of Primaries
My approach to colour timing DGK was developed with Randal on previous collaborations, but this time with a twist. Randal explains that “over the years I’ve developed a glossy look for all of my videos that glamorizes the moment…This approach was appropriate for this piece since as a brand DGK has lots of bright and glossy colours in their designs, mixed with edgy/controversial images, much like the art I have made in the past.” The way I translated Randal’s vision to the screen was by giving the music videos a polished, poppy look with deep saturated colours and snappy blacks. However, this time I explored washing entire sequences with primary colours that existed in the pictures, giving them a certain vibrancy and unique signature look. The four images below show this approach.
There are many ways to achieve this effect, and the most basic one involves ramping up the lift/gain for the colour that you want to add, or even using printer lights (actually *subtracting* the colours that you want since you are theoretically working on the negative). This is certainly an option, but for me leaves you with an image which lacks color depth. Adding a wash doesn’t mean that every other color should be suppressed.
Instead, my approach was to use both blending modes and curves. After balancing the image, I threw on a Hard Light, which instantly added contrast, bloomed the highlights and dug into the blacks. Since we were going for drama in this piece, this single action helped get there fast. From here on you are sculpting, and curves gives you pinpoint precision. I increased saturation in my Yellow curve, but then to kill off the orange that was creeping in, I also increased the saturation along the Cyan curve. This is because Cyan sits across from Red, so any movement in either direction is going to affect the opposing colour. If too much Yellow/Cyan crept into parts of the image that I didn’t want it to, with curves its just a matter of adding a break point to contain its effect. I did this in the Cyan curve, because I wanted to retain the warmth in the blacks instead of cooling them off.
Not all images lend themselves to the same approach. For example, the picture above of Stevie Williams from his piece shows an exterior setup, with lots of colourless things in the scene (concrete, chain fence). Throwing on a Hard Light completely blasts the image with too much light, and his face disappears into the shadows. It’s the wrong approach. So for this, I made sure that I kept any gain adjustments in check, while using curves to seep in both colour and gain where I wanted it. The surrounding forest was perked up by adding green saturation, while his cap was brought out by adding saturation in the Red curve. For both primaries I brought down the gamma curve too, deepening the colors and giving them added richness.
Lost Ghetto Kids
“DGK: Parental Advisory” was a dream project for me, a collaboration with two artists I admire, who are always looking at breaking new ground with every shot, every scene, every motif. In the final act, as the skateboarders navigate past the frozen antagonists to overcome the conflict in their lives, Randal sits back and reflects on the project: “I’m visually communicating how skateboarding is these kids’ ticket out of a life of crime, drugs and death. Skateboarding has saved the team riders from all the harsh realities they could have potentially faced in their lives. Through skateboarding they are now living their dreams and the dream of all the lost ghetto kids on the street.”
In a first for this blog I interview Randal Kirk, the director of the movie in Lost Ghetto Kids. Here you can get the scoop on the story development, Randal’s ideas on creating memorable images and how it was to work with the army of kids in “DGK: Parental Advisory”.
It’s hard to believe that the sweeping fields in The Smell Of Success are nothing more than soundstages at Melody Ranch Studios in Santa Clarita! Expertly lensed by David Mullen, ASC, the story is about a manure salesman in 1960s heartland America, and even though the gags are overdone at times, the images ooze quality. Pun intended ;)
Timing this movie was challenging, especially because the DP was not available during the DI. As a starting point David had sent me a handful of stills, which evoked the overall ‘feel’ of the picture. A further challenge was the fact that the movie had already gone through a lengthy preview process, which left it with a lifeless sepia look and little colour separation. This was far from the painterly look both the DP and the Production Design department had planned for.
After untangling what had already been done, I started with a clean slate. This movie was shot on the Red One camera long before the upgraded MX sensor became available, and as such before Red’s FLUT colour science offerings. I picked RedLog for my gamma curve, giving me maximum detail in the highlights. The Zeiss Ultra Primes and Angenieux zooms David used gave me crisp images with excellent definition – a good starting point.
I started by discovering what was in the image, playing mostly with contrast and density and pulling out all the nuances that I knew existed in the ‘negative’; I was right – David had captured some remarkable, ‘filmic’ images, tempering the sharpness of digital cinematography with Classic Soft Blacks and Smoque filters. Through his lighting he created a soft overhead skylight for the outdoor farm scenes, using a combination of daylight Kinos, HMI lighting balloons or Lumapanels, the effects of which can be seen in the ‘Midday’ and ‘Afternoon’ images below.
Even though the gorgeous images had a well designed earthen palette, I still felt that some subtle accents could be used to signify the different times of day.
Seeing the same colour tint over the course of an entire movie soon nulls the effect, and so to keep the eye ‘entertained’ I experimented by adding graduated pinks into the dramatic skies earlier on in the day. This combined well with the hard sunlight being simulated by the 18K HMI. I qualified the clouds and pulled back on the luminance so that I wouldn’t tint the brightest parts. I then brought the gamma down to expose a little more detail in the clouds, and offset the colour by adding a hint of orange. This created a nice transition between the horizon and the clouds.
For later on in the day, I followed the same technique but used less pink. I also wanted to make the clouds feel heavy, almost like they’re engulfing the foreground. I turned to S-curves for this, giving me contrast in the ‘body’ of the clouds while snapping the highlights and deepening the blacks. At times the clouds almost look like they’re touching the ground!
For the afternoon I replaced the pink with orange, especially in the mids and the blacks, giving the ground a sweltering and humid feel. This worked well with David’s afternoon setup – a tungsten 12-light HPL MaxiBrute to simulate the warmer sunlight late in the day. By the time we reach ‘golden hour’, the sky is on fire, with the dipping sun blasting through the trees. For this I actually composited two identical layers over each other, blew out the base layer and blurred the whites. I then used a Soft Light blending mode on the top layer, which I also keyed through to reveal the base. The blending mode provides a nice transition between the two layers.
The whole treatment is in keeping with the whimsical nature of the story, and despite the added ‘texture’, I feel remains true to the cinematography.
I also had a little fun with the ‘high-on-mushrooms’ night scene, where I played with a stylized violet-blue wash and stark contrast. I also kept the blacks a little cooler than I normally would. This is one example of where you can use saturation to really fill in an image in the absence of mid tones. Overall, the movie has a very painterly quality.
For more stills from The Smell Of Success, click here.
To see more of David Mullen’s work, check out his website.