How to put the scare into a 3-minute horror film.
Composing for any film is a challenge. Composers and Sound Designers use the tools of sound to tell stories. For a film that is just under 3 minutes each second of sound, or silence, is critical. I will be explaining how it was done for the Steven Taylor directed, quarantine horror short film, ’19’. This will be in three major parts. The Setup, The Execution and The Results. The first thing I want you all to do is to watch this.
This film, as short as it is and shot entirely on an iPhone, caused a lot of reactions (inclusive of a “private” rejection email from a certain gatekeeper). Remember what I said about gatekeepers in #17 of this blog
The majority of reactions however, were overwhelmingly positive and encouraging. You will see much of it in the ‘Results’ section of this blog. Not bad for a film with zero budget and was made during a nationwide lockdown.
1. The Setup
This film was a three person operation. Steven Taylor, his wife Rheem Taylor and myself. Steven Taylor is a Film Director and Rheem is a Producer and SAG affiliated actress. They are also co-Directors of the company, Rheem Gourmet Granola.
The concept for this film was borne out of a newspaper headline of a person who escaped quarantine during the Covid-19 pandemic. Steven and Rheem wrote the script, created a storyboard and for three days, shot the film using only an iPhone and a flashlight. They also created all the visual effects for the film. The film was then edited.
This is where I come in. Steven asked if I wanted to compose the Soundtrack and do the Sound Design. After looking at the footage I quickly realized that not filling up the film with sound was the best approach. This is an important thing for Composers to remember ….. not every scene needs a Soundtrack.
2. The Execution
To me, the most important parts of the film was the Sound Design. Composing the music for this short film was the easy part – just locate the two main jump scare parts and use those to bring the loudest parts of the score forward. The Sound Design however, is what makes the film believable.
It’s all in the details
The Sound Design was a combination of audio that was recorded by the iPhone from Steven and audio provided by myself. This was great as the sounds that were from the iPhone were already in sync with the video. The iPhone’s audio however, had a slight hiss as it was also recording the room tone. This was remedied by using a denoiser plug-in to make the other recorded sounds from it more distinct.
The Director and myself had a few discussions and notes on how close or how far sounds would be heard relative to the viewer. All the Sound Design should be diegetic. I’ve explained what diegetic means in the ‘Printers’ section of this previous blog.
Take a look at the top of film again. It opens with the sound of a washing machine during its wash and end-of wash cycle (alarm). The alarm was from my washing machine. Rose (played the Rheem Taylor) then walks away from the machine. Notice how the sound of the soles of her feet sound on the tilled floor in a narrow corridor. That was from the iPhone.
In the next scene when she enters the bedroom, multiple events are taking place simultaneously. The sound of the washing machine (which was on a separate audio track) fades to be in sync with the closing door. Her footsteps walk to the left of the screen. As she charges her phone notice a few things. The snapping sound is a lot louder due to the closeness of the activity to the camera. More importantly, listen to the reverb. It is short and bright. This emphasizes the loneliness and emptiness of the room. This concept also applies to the phone’s notifications especially when the camera is focused on Rose.
“I can hear you breathe ….”
This line is the most deviant part of the script. The Director and myself had discussions about how to pull this part off convincingly in terms of volume levels. During the voicemail Rose is shot at different focal points and the audio has to reflect that. As I have said previously, we are engaging the sounds relative to the viewer. The voicemail (which was sent to me as a voicenote from the Director) was treated with equalization to make it more sinister and placed within the reverb space of the room.
Ring … Ring .. Buzzzzzz (The Payoff)
What I really like about this film is that it does not go the typical ‘jump scare’ route of having complete silence before the payoff. There is a palpable tension by the use of something familiar … a ring tone. For all of us who use mobile devices the buzz from the other phone that comes immediately afterwards tells you that she is not alone. THE PAYOFF is how quickly the jump scare comes while the viewer is processing what the buzz really means. To make it happen I made sure that there was a volume difference between the relative quiet of the ringtone to the loudness of the buzz, followed by a louder gasp of realization from Rose to the payoff … the jump scare!!
The death scene
The death scene was actually the easiest part to create mainly because most of the sounds were produced on site. Rose (Rheem) was asked to scream into a pillow numerous times and the audio was recorded by the Director. He also recorded himself punching the mattress. I then used those audio takes and combined them with punches from my Sound Design library. Notice how the sound of the punches change between the perspectives of Rose and her attacker. Just before she ‘dies’ you hear a snapping sound to indicate that she was fatally injured. It is gruesome but it adds to the shock element of the film.
In terms of the Score, I used the notes (in descending order) Dflat, Bflat, A and Gflat at the beginning and at the end of the film. Why? I’ve found that the order of those notes gave me a very unnerving and unresolved feeling. It also worked very well representing the number ’19’, ‘Covid-19’ and the effect of the attacker (Steven).
In terms of instrumentation, I used a series of VST’s from Spitfire Labs (Atmos, Opia, Frozen Strings, Scary Strings). I also used various Kontakt instruments and combined them with audio samples from my library.
All the MIDI files were then converted to audio for further mixing. You can see from the previous two pictures there is a Sound Design section and a Score Section. It is good practice to have those disciplines separate. During the mixing process you are guaranteed to be making constant adjustments to every single audio track due to your own tastes and also notes from the Director.
Which comes first?
Since I was tasked to do both the Sound Design and Score I decided to do the Sound Design first. When combined with the visuals the Sound Design would be the best indicator of where music would be needed and how intense it should be.
Here is the screen capture of the process. The runtime of the entire video is 1hr:54min so you are free to skip forward to watch parts that are of interest to you.
3. The Results
The result of our collaborative effort came as a shock to a lot of people and we received numerous positive comments about the film, through personal messages and social media posts. Here are some of its effects.
- An evening news feature on CNC3 that was put together by Talk Show Host and Producer, Michael Ramsingh.
- Interviews from the Trinidad and Tobago Film Company on our work on the film. This is Steven’s interview. This is my interview.
- Favorable review on Facebook from Icon/Producer/Director and Actor with a forty year span of national, regional and international experience, Che Rodriguez. Plus, he is also a Chef!
- Reaction videos – yes we got that too!
- Featured in an entertainment article on LoopTT
- Favorable review by Film Critic Julien Neaves
- Favorable review by Film Critic Matthew Bailey
- A Facebook write up by Culturego
- Used as an example in a FilmTT/Filmco seminar
As I said at the top of this blog regarding gatekeepers, you will experience disappointment. That should not be an excuse to not innovate and do something totally new in the creative space that you are in. That being said, I have received permission to post the following screenshot from the Director as it was already posted in a pubic forum. Look at what he wrote (and the further successes he got from that 3-minute film) as an encouragement that, despite the message written by that gatekeeper you can still be noticed, appreciated AND be given bigger and wider opportunities to showcase your works. Looking forward to seeing what you are going to create. Onward and upward!!