Writer-director-cinematographer Scott Di Lalla shoots a scene for I Am ZoZo with the Super 8 Canon 1014 XLS. Photo: One World Studios
I Am ZoZo is an independent horror film inspired by accounts of real supernatural events. The story concerns a Ouija board experience that goes wrong on Halloween weekend and five young people who become the target of a malevolent spirit called ZoZo.
Writer-director-cinematographer Scott Di Lalla embarked on the making of I Am ZoZo with his One World Studios partner, Zack Coffman, who served as producer-editor. Di Lalla and Coffman had met at UCLA in the Tae Kwon Do club. Together, they fantasized about making movies. Then in 2004, they produced Choppertown, a cinema verite biker documentary that was embraced by the motorcycle community, went on to win festival awards, and launched a full-fledged distribution outfit.
For I Am ZoZo, the filmmakers’ first narrative feature, they agreed that a good horror story requires the perfect setting. Seattle and San Juan Island were chosen for their gloomy, dreary weather to accentuate the feeling of isolation.
Next, they discussed how to achieve the right look for the film. “Horror absolutely must have the right look to elicit an eerie feeling,” says Di Lalla. “I had been doing a lot of research and came across The National’s ‘Fake Empire’ music video. When I learned it was digitized Super 8, I was sold. It was exactly what we wanted.”
Di Lalla and Coffman acquired the same type of camera as used on the music video – a Canon 1014 XLS with a fixed zoom lens – and loaded up on KODAK VISION3 200T Color Negative Film 7213. “It was a brand new stock and the images were so much smoother,” Di Lalla notes. “We shot every frame of I Am ZoZo on it.”
“Cost wasn’t the deciding factor,” continues Di Lalla. “It was about shooting the film we wanted to make the right way with the right production values. Compared to HD video, it really wasn’t significantly more expensive to shoot film, especially Super 8. Plus, lighting was a consideration. Film has more latitude than digital video in high key light situations and the negative is extremely forgiving.”
Coffman adds, “When you shoot on film, every shot is so planned. Yes, our budget went to a new level because of this decision, but cheap is cheap. We wanted quality. We were frugal and found ways to budget for the stock. Nothing out there in the digital world emulates the look of Super 8.”
The filmmakers relied extensively on 360-degree lighting setups and shot long takes, often using self-made glider and shoulder mount rigs to help the characters draw the audience into scenes. “We rehearsed for three weeks because this style was unfamiliar to our nascent actors, but we got great performances without a lot of retakes,” Di Lalla notes.
They also chose to shoot in a 4:3 aspect ratio and blow up the Super 8 to 16:9. Alpha Cine in Seattle handled processing, and Lightpress transferred the film to 1080p HD, delivering a flat scanned image. Once the EDL was set, the duo went back to Lightpress to work with colorist Eric Rosen.
“In post, we were really able to open up the images and add contrast,” says Di Lalla. “It was so fantastic to see the rich, deep look once it was color timed. The VISION3 film, in combination with the high-end rendering system, held up amazingly well. We were initially concerned about how the grain would hold up, but it wasn’t an issue; we got fantastic images.”
Di Lalla offers this advice: “If beginning filmmakers do their research, and keep their story and setting to a minimum, they’ll be surprised by what they can get out of their budget.”
Coffman concludes, “Film will always have a place in the world of moviemaking. At the end of the day, you have to decide what kind of filmmaker you want to be. The business has become a sort of Walmart culture. But art is about expressing yourself and cost should not be the single negotiating factor for the right medium to showcase your work. Once we decided on Super 8, we never spoke another word about digital. Filmmakers owe it to themselves to find the format that suits their vision and make it happen. It pays you back!”
One World Studios was entertaining offers from distributors at press time.