The horror genre in film is just as old as cinema itself; starting with silent films back in the late 1890s, through the masterpieces of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and Stanley Kubrick’s depiction of The Shining (based on Stephen King’s novel), to more recent films such as The Conjuring. Every Halloween you see an increase in horror films being released to the public, that point should be obvious. But have you ever stopped to ask yourself exactly what makes up a horror film? On the surface, you know a horror film is supposed to invoke terror or fear within you. However, there are specific techniques and timeless elements that are seamlessly woven into these films that make you cover your eyes and make the hair on the back of your neck stand on end. To get in the right mindset, take a gander at the finest moments from these horror movies:
As a filmmaker, you should be aware of some of the basic pieces of the horror puzzle. Not everything relies on how good of a scream your actor has, or how well the make up and costume on your monster looks. A good horror film first starts on paper with a solid story as a foundation. From there, it moves into the camera, the acting, and then down through post production – where I feel the real magic occurs.
Outlined below are three foundational elements every editor should have at their disposal for any horror film:
On the set, gaffers and light technicians are in charge of creating the core atmosphere for each scene; whether it be something with high contrast, or just dark enough for a creature to creep out of the shadows. Sometimes, a filter will be put on the lens to add or enhance a specific color in the scene. Generally, a blue or green filter would be used with horror films. However, in-camera lighting can only go so far. These days, I find there is no filter added on the camera because you can change the color so easily in post production. The director may want to play around with an assortment of colors and hues to achieve their desired effect. In these instances, CURVES is an editor’s best friend.
Curves can be found in most Non Linear Editing (NLE) programs such as Final Cut Pro, Premier Pro, and Avid. It can also be found in compositing programs such as After Effects and Nuke. Generally, the option will be under some type of IMAGE CONTROL menu or COLOR CORRECTION menu – if you cannot find it, I recommend consulting the Help Menu. Using Curves gives you control of an image’s highlights, shadows, and the RGB (Red, Green, Blue) color spectrum. If you receive editing notes from the director asking you to “push the image further,” generally, they mean to increase the shadows or contrast. A term they use for this in editing is “crush the blacks.” To do this, click and drag your curve to the proper settings of adjustment. By rule of thumb, blacks are located in the lower right and highlights are located in the upper left of the curve.
If the director wants to increase a color tone, use the drop down menu to select the color of choice – whether they want to add more blue or green into the footage, respectively.
You sometimes cover your eyes during a horror movie, but most of the time you forget to cover your ears. Even if you can’t see the horrific image, you can still hear the bones crack, the blood spray, and the victim let out one last shriek or a dying breath. A lot of the sound effects are created by Foley Artists (the people who create sounds used in movies). For example, a foley artist would record the sound of a machete slashing a watermelon into little bits to be used where the serial killer slashes a victims skull into little bits. In larger budget films, a foley team is generally hired to produce the sound content for the film, supplying the editor with the appropriate sounds to populate the movie. However, in smaller, or micro budget films, the editor needs to turn to online sound libraries for this content. There are websites out there filled with random sounds, music loops, and scores – sometimes free – to populate your horror film. There are literally hundreds of these websites all over the internet. However, some websites I have had good luck with and recommend include:
This one tends to be less obvious to most editors just starting out in the field. Perspective plays a large part in creating a horrific landscape, or an uneasy tension. Often times, the director of photography will partner up with the director to explore the ‘look’ of the film, mapping out the best camera angles and shots to best achieve the directors vision. In some cases, the director will need the editor to adjust a scene or image to help intensify the scene. The easiest way to add tension to a plain scene is by rotating the image on a angle.
By putting the perspective on an angle you subconsciously tell the viewer that “something isn’t right.” People like to see their world on an even playing field, and when you start to mess with that perspective, you begin making the viewer uncomfortable and on edge.
There you have it! A solid foundation in editing for the horror genre. Do you know of another horror element you would like to share or know of a link that could help out your fellow editor? Leave it in the comment section below!