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.
The award-winning ‘Dragonslayer’ tells the story of ‘Screech’, a lost kid falling in love in the suburbs of Fullerton, California. “[Dragonslayer] is a portrait of a new generation of kids from the rotting suburbs of inland California, and a celebration of what makes them so unique” comments Tristan Patterson, the director of the documentary.
Dragonslayer was lensed by Eric Koretz, and was my second collaboration with this Cinematographer. The documentary was filmed off and on over the course of a year and a half.
Most times documentaries can pose a challenge for a colourist; the very nature of these narratives usually leads to compromised images, hastily filmed in order to ‘capture the moment’. However, I found that with Dragonslayer, this wasn’t your typical documentary!
Eric used the Canon 5D Mk2 as his primary camera outfitted with a variety of lenses: the Canon L series 24-70 and 70-200 zoom lenses, a must in the run and gun world of docs, as well as an 85 T1.2 for all the low light night stuff. When time permitted, a set of Zeiss ZF 21, 35, 50 and 100 lenses were used. The superior sharpness and optical quality offset the inconvenience of using the primes.
Dragonslayer differs from many other skateboarder movies I’ve seen in that it is shot with a more filmic aesthetic, both in terms of the framing and the pace; crazy wide-angle lenses and crash zooms are out, replaced with a more sensitive approach that feels fresh and less pretentious. The colour choices reflect this, and I worked hard to bring out what was already there, striking a balance between the rawness of the ‘negative’ whilst striving for cohesiveness and uniformity. For a colourist there is something very satisfying about the fact that the audience will never see what the ‘befores and afters’ looked like!
The filmmakers also gave Screech a Kodak Zi8 to record his own stunts with. The camera is capable of capturing HD @ 720p, but in one of the those ‘fortunate’ accident moments, Screech flipped the switch to record standard definition!
Instead of fighting the ‘compromised’ images or trying to find a way to ‘fix’ them, I accentuated them further by pumping a lot of saturation in the blues and greens while keeping the skin tones ‘healthy’. One thing I didn’t want to do was stretch the contrast like crazy in order to bury the noise. Instead, I floated the blacks a little and pushed in some grain to hide some of the more offensive noise. The vibrant look goes with Screech’s ‘elevated’ state as he skateboards his way through life. And let’s just say that the use of recreational drugs are rampant in this movie!
Another scene we had a little fun with was the Tattoo Parlour. We really wanted to accentuate the intricate tattoos on display, as well as the vibrant colours bouncing off the walls and the posters. Compared with the natural and softer palette of the rest of the documentary, we wanted this to feel more grungy, more raw. I achieved this by pushing a good amount of cyan in the blacks, and offsetting the coolness with yellow in the mid tones. I then punched the oranges and the reds but protected the skin tones so that they wouldn’t go nuclear! Saturation can be a powerful tool for storytelling, but you need to know where to use it; without being selective you can end up with an image that looks like it’s made of candy!
‘Dragonslayer’ has been an award magnet ever since it hit the festival scene. It recently won the Best International Documentary at the hotDOCS Canadian International Documentary Festival. That’s in addition to the two awards it won at SXSW – Grand Jury Prize For Documentary Feature and Best Cinematography. You can check out the official website here.
To stay up to date with Eric Koretz’s latest work, visit his blog at The Image Hunter.
Dragonslayer was colour timed at In A Place Post.