In camera visual effects, lighting and exposure choices are just the beginning. Read on for all the great American Horror Story info!
TV has such a fast-paced shooting schedule, how much time do you have to block your camera movements with actors on set? Is there time to rehearse before shooting or do you do it on the fly?
The directors generally get to rehearse with the actors on set just prior to filming a scene. I try to walk through the scene with the director an hour in advance so I can pre-light the set and rough in important elements in order to save time, but some lighting elements will change based on the final blocking with the actors. The camera moves are sometimes suggested by the director during our initial conversation and sometimes suggested by me after the rehearsal. Everything flows together after the blocking rehearsal, and because I’ve been using most of the same crew for the past 10 years, we can communicate what needs to happen very quickly in terms of lighting and camera-wise in order to get the setup together. We mostly rehearse the camera moves with the stand-ins, then do one final rehearsal with the actors prior to rolling the camera.
I watched the first episode of the second season and it looked fantastic. The 1960's scenes appear to have a softer, diffused look to them. Did you use any lens filtration or was that done in post/telecine?
James Cromwell as Dr. Arden in season 2 of American Horror Story. CR: Michael Becker/FX
The 1964 scenes in the show use a variety of diffusion depending on the needs of the scene. I use the old Mitchell AB filters because I like the subtle way they soften edges without reducing contrast. Keeping the contrast is important since so many of our sets have a layer of haze in the air. We also use Black Nets, Black Magic filters, and (one of my personal favorites) the old White SupraFrost filters. These are plastic filters that no one uses anymore because they scratch very easily, and you cannot clean them without wiping off the effect. But they give a really nice heavenly glow to highlights and you can still have a rich black tone in the frame. I generally don’t like to leave a major component of the look to be done in post production because unless you know for a fact that you will be available for color timing, the effect may not be applied or may not be applied correctly. Doing it in the camera is best.
With American Horror Story being unique in the way it uses cinematography, especially in what's "hiding in the shadows" or the fear of the unseen, how do you intend to bring the feeling to Season 2 - where we have a new location, new crew, and new story?
From the Season 2 premiere of American Horror Story: Sarah Paulson as lana: CR Michael Yarish/FX
AHS: Asylum is a completely new show, and there are many more opportunities to bring that shadowy “what’s that in the dark?” feel with the mental institution setting. Many crewmembers are the same ones that worked on last season’s episodes with me. The desire from Ryan Murphy was that for the show to have a darker edge straight out of the gate as opposed to last season, which grew progressively darker. Most of the inspiration for the look of this season came from silent films from the 1920’s like The Phantom Carriage, Vampyr, The Last Laugh, and early sound films like Freaks and Island of Lost Souls. So I don’t know if I can claim to be doing anything unique visually with the show since it’s really a return to basic, gothic horror elements.
What’s been fun is using these early influences and exposing modern audiences to how effective they can be. By contrast, the 2012 sequences have much more of that punchy, in-your-face, visceral look that audiences expect from modern horror, so it’s a mixed bag. Oddly enough, one of the creepiest environments we shot was also the brightest; a basement lair that was entirely lit with fluorescent lights and had white walls. It was so flat and white that it had the unnerving feel of being a place where you would not want to spend any time.
The lighting throughout the show gives every scene that extra morbid feel. Is it just the light or are there other effects or special lenses it goes through to make the lighting more ominous?
That morbid feel is mainly the lighting and the haze in the air. We do some pull processing to reduce the color saturation, which tends to make people look a little less vibrant, but we also underexpose scenes to take them right to the edge of “acceptable” exposure. At times we also light faces from more extreme angles so that the map of the human face, from which we normally derive our feelings of humanity toward a character, is presented in a fashion that does not engender complacency.
An example of this would be a scene from episode five where Kit and Grace are in separate isolation cells and yet are trying to form a more personal bond with each other. The way they are visually presented aids that moment of almost transcendental communication by abstracting their very beings. [Yes, sometimes I really think that way.] Mostly these approaches are gut level reactions to the emotional beats in the script.
What's the most difficult part of creating an insane environment for the show, and what do you do to create that insanity?
Rubberman was introduced to fans in season one of American Horror Story. CR: Prashant Gupta/FX
I think that brilliant opening title sequence shot by Juan Ruiz-Anchia (ASC, AEC) goes a long way toward establishing an insane environment for the show. On my side, I try to not light the same sets the same way, so that every time you’re in a room, it’s almost like you’re experiencing it for the first time and it does not take on a feeling of comfortable familiarity.
In a paradoxical way, it takes a great deal of control and finesse to create an atmosphere of unbridled insanity. We break down the level of trauma into technical considerations like choice of lenses, special equipment, compositions, film stock, etc. and filter all those elements through the ultimate goal of achieving a certain level of insanity. Sometimes it’s subtle, like off-framing a close-up. Sometimes it’s major, like dozens of moving lights at six stops over exposure to make an alien encounter chaotic.
What are some different considerations you had to keep in mind when shooting a flashback scene, and then relating it to the present time in various episodes?
The basic agenda is to give flashbacks a different feel than the principle period. We used 5285 film in the first few episodes for the scenes taking place in 2012 with Adam Levine and Jenna Dewan-Tatum. We’ve also used it for “shock cuts” like the flashback of the boy eating the heart of the cow. In episode four, we used (EASTMAN) DOUBLE-X Black & White Negative Film 5222 in a hand-cranked camera for scenes taking place in Nazi Germany, and we’ve even used some Super 8 for a flashback scene at a pool party.
The use of different film emulsions is an important piece of the aesthetic of the show. The 5285 reversal film gives those scenes a much more modern feel with its super saturated colors and high contrast. We’ve done a couple of transition shots from the past to present and vice-versa, but for the most part they just ‘shock cut’ from one era to another, so it’s not necessary to figure out a way to smoothly blend the shots. That very jagged jump across time has become one of the signatures of the show, and people have come to expect it. The major consideration in flashbacks is if a character is supposed to look 20 years younger.
If we’re using the same actor, I light them much more flatteringly for their younger incarnation, even if the situation is grim and dark. But in the case of James Cromwell’s character when he was a young Nazi officer in World War II, we simply used James’ son John to be him. It was amusing to see the blogs the next day after the episode aired, when everyone was saying how remarkable it was that we were able to find another actor who looked like a young James Cromwell!
How do you handle morphing shots - like when Moira morphed from young to old, or when normal people become ghostly all of a sudden, etc.?
From the Season 2 premiere of American Horror Story: Evan Peters as Kit: CR Michael Yarish/FX
We didn’t morph the two Moiras. For the most part, I used old magician’s tricks and silent movie techniques to switch them out. For example, when young Moira is leaving the house for the last time and tries to seduce Ben, as she reaches the door she turns into old Moira. That was done by simply switching out the actresses. We shot young Moira’s thighs in that outrageously short skirt as she walked toward the door and reached for the doorknob, and as she pulled the door open, old Moira stepped in. It was that simple. The ghost people were photographed pretty much the same way as everyone else. Sometimes I would give a scene a glowing feel, as when Ben was contemplating suicide and Vivian intervenes, but that was more a function of wanting to reflect his psychological state rather than make people look like ghosts.
Are there “in camera” effects? Or is everything shot to accommodate the VFX later? How do you accommodate the visual effects and special effects needed? Does the VFX supervisor work with you closely during production?
I’d say that there are more in camera effects than VFX. We’ve done everything this year from shooting real black-and-white film in hand-cranked cameras to using mirror reflections to suggest a distorted state of mind. We’ve shot Super 8 film. We’ve bounced 20K lights into Mylar panels and shook them to get waving patterns of light. We’ve even shot reflections in those Mylar panels and run our fingers along the back to distort the image. Everything starts with the thought of what is the simplest way to achieve an effect. Sometimes it’s panning the camera and hiding a simple cut in the pan in order to make a startling transition. When we do use VFX, we have a marvelous artist named Jason Piccioni who understands the feel of the show. He and I discuss potential effects in detail, and we arrive at the best solution. It helps that I have a lot of experience shooting for VFX and Jason understands the dynamics of cinematography.
Is it difficult to work with a different director each week? What is that process like?
I find that rotating directors keeps the work fresh. I help guide the style in the direction that Ryan Murphy wants it to go in, but I like having a new voice in the mix, someone to challenge expectations. A director like Alfonso Gomez-Rejon always comes in with a completely original take on the material, and we end up incorporating those influences into the visual vocabulary of the show. Also on the plus side, I usually get calls from the directors I worked with on episodic television when they get a feature film project going.
Goi is a Chicago native who studied filmmaking at Columbia College Chicago. He has earned some 50 narrative credits for feature films and episodic television programs. Goi earned ASC Outstanding Achievement Awards nominations for the telefilms The Fixer (1999) and Judas (2005), and Emmy® nominations for My Name is Earl (2009) and Glee (2012). He also wrote, produced and directed the narrative film Megan is Missing. Goi served three terms as president of the American Society of Cinematographers.