What is Giallo? We have a whole article on that lovely subject.

While it was never a specifically defined movement, Giallo films are Italian-produced murder-mystery thrillers, which feature scenes of excessive violence and blur the lines between art and exploitation cinema.

Films of the Giallo genre usually include strong elements of horror and voyeurism. The genre was largely performed in the Italian language throughout the 1960s, but as the genre gathered worldwide popularity, the '70s saw more and more of these films performed in English.

In case you are wondering what Giallo would look like in cinema today, Edgar Wright’s Last Night in Sohoand James Wan’s Malignantare two recent films that I think are stamped with Giallo characteristics.

Another newly released film to add to that list is Michael Bafaro’s Don’t Look Away.

DON'T LOOK AWAY (2023) Official Trailer (HD)www.youtube.com

The Don’t Look Away synopsis reads, “After a gang of criminals unintentionally unleashes a supernatural force onto the world, a young woman named Frankie is convinced she’s being stalked by a killer mannequin. Frankie soon realizes that her friends are in jeopardy too. She must find the man who holds the key to stopping the killings, but Frankie knows that once you see the mannequin, there may be no end in sight, except for your own.”

Athan Merrick served as the film’s Director of Photography and in the below interview he discusses the film being “saturated and dirty” with an homage to Giallo, why he shot in 8K, and the benefits of having documentary experience in indie filmmaking.

Let's dive in.

'Don't Look Away' poster 'Don't Look Away'

Editor's Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

No Film School: What made you want to become a cinematographer?

Athan Merrick: Both of my parents are artists. My dad is a photographer and my mom is a painter and former modern dancer. So my brain just worked visually to begin with. In high school, I needed a community service element to graduate and I just happened to get paired with a local filmmaker to make a recycling film for youth in New Mexico where I grew up. I loved going to movies and I had just never put two and two together and realized that it could be a legitimate job and career. I was probably 16 [years old] and figured out cinematography is, what I wanted to do, and, specifically, I wanted to make ski movies. I used to wear out VHS tapes because I’d watch a ski film so much. I moved up to Vancouver to go to the University of British Columbia film program and ski. Then I lived my childhood dream of making ski films for over a decade in the winters and in the summers I was a lamp op, best boy, and rigger on big union films. After a few years, I transitioned to shooting full-time, which was always the goal.

NFS: How would you describe the look of Don’t Look Away?

Merrick: Don’t Look Away is saturated and dirty with an homage to Giallo. Italian psychological horror films from the '70s.

NFS: Can you talk about what cameras and lenses you used on Don’t Look Away?

Merrick: We shot on the Blackmagic Design Ursa Mini Pro 12k, which is just a beautiful sensor. Color-wise, I think it may be the best out there. I’ve had trouble in the past with much more expensive cameras and cheap little bar led’s where you don’t have the time to change them out. Out-of-gamut color issues just do not seem to be a thing with this sensor. We shot in 8k because it has really great rolling shutter performance at 8k and we had some whip pans and handheld running scenes and I just wanted to keep it consistent through the film. The film was edited in resolve on a Mac M1 laptop by the Michaels, the director and producer team of Micheal Bafaro and Michael Mitton. Pretty incredible how efficient Blackmagic Raw is as a codec when used in Resolve.Athan

Athan Merrick

NFS: You are the co-founder of Dendrite Studios. Can you talk about why you started this company and what you all specialize in?

Merrick: I love to shoot narrative films, but I also really love shooting documentaries. Over the last year, I’ve been shooting a science feature doc on Ancient DNA with a different production company. Truth is stranger and more fascinating than fiction. Dendrite Studios I started with Nicolas Teichrob to make ski films. Our last full-length film, Numinous, won the biggest awards in the little ski film universe. It was a pretty amazing journey to fulfill my childhood dreams. We now have some projects in development and these days we are focusing on adventure documentaries.

NFS: Don’t Look Away falls into the horror genre. Do you feel the horror genre tends to allow for greater experimentation than other genres? If so, what was an example of this with Don’t Look Away?

Merrick: Definitely. The audience is going into the film suspending their reality. Would in-camera zooms, whip pans, split diopters, excessive haze, and strobing, multicolored slits of light serve the story for a comedy or a drama? Maybe, but probably not. We deliberately did all those things on Don’t Look Away.

NFS: Were you familiar with director Michael Bafaro’s previous films before working on Don’t Look Away? How did he say he wanted this film to be different than some of his others?

Merrick: The UBC film community is big but small enough that you hear about other projects through the grapevine. So I had heard of Bafaro and a couple of his films like Wrecker, but we had never met. The Michaels found me because they wanted to shoot in Victoria, BC on Vancouver Island where I am based and they wanted to use as many local crew as possible. In preproduction, we didn’t really reference his previous films. We mainly talked about Giallo. Of course, all filmmakers lean on our previous experience and cite specific examples of things that worked or didn’t work from previous projects. Bafaro and I were no different in our early conversations about Don’t Look Away.

'Don't Look Away'Credit: Athan Merrick

NFS: There is a dance sequence with a lot of strobe lights. What was the key to shooting this sequence?

Merrick: One was finding a club location that had a bit of built-in lighting already that we could utilize and augment and control. This little Jazz club had a basic DMX board and an overhead grid with a fair amount of control. We then used a lot of various Aputure lights, like the little MCs, B7c bulbs, 300xs with the spotlight attachment, i.e. a Leko, and some 60xs, to mix and have even more control through the Sidus link app. At points, we were hand-bombing a light or two for effect. We even had some dedo HMIs in the deep background. My gaffer, Kohl Fast, and key grip, Oliver Wynden, did a great job with this scene. Complicated scenes like this I am very thankful for my background in the lighting department.

NFS: Do you have any tricks or tips for making an indie film feel like a big-budget project?

Merrick: Pre-production is key, but at the same time being able to roll with the punches adapt on the fly, and be confident in making nice images as quickly as possible if required on certain days. Indie projects always have unexpected hiccups, no matter what the planning. I think having documentary experience is extremely beneficial for these scenarios. Also, don’t blow your budget on a camera and lens package.

Image-wise, you can afford to be modest. That is my belief. Convince the production to allocate budget to things like lighting, production design, and most importantly crew. Those things and people are going to make a bigger difference to the final image than a camera package.

'Don't Look Away'Credit: Athan Merrick

NFS: Is there anything else you would like to share about your work on Don’t Look Away?

Merrick: This industry is tough on lifestyle and family. I remember early in my lighting days I’d meet 60-year-old DPs who would brag about being on their 3rd marriage. That’s not how I wanted to live. As a DP, it is up to the key crew members to advocate for the entire crew. On this film, I negotiated with the producers. They wanted six days on and one day off schedule, which I have done in the past. It’s not fun, and by the end the crew is burned out and weary and the work suffers. I asked for five on, two off, and tried to schedule 10-hour days instead of 12-hour days. This means if you do an occasional 11 or 12-hour day going over your schedule it isn’t a big deal. Where 13 and 14-hour days can become common on sets where 12 is scheduled.

Ultimately, we settled on six on, two off, and scheduling for 10-hour days. The entire crew is so thankful for that. You can have dinner with your partner some nights. You can see your kids off to school some mornings. I’ve had similar negotiations on other projects. Advocate for your crew so they can live a healthier and more fulfilling life and a big thanks to all the producers out there who believe and trust in that process. It honestly makes better projects because the crew is happier, healthier, and rested.

Discover more of Athan Merrick's work here.

Don’t Look Away is in theaters now and coming to VOD on October 3.