How to Create Horror with Blackmagic and Cinematographer Ben Brown

Ben Brown Horror Interview
We've got tips for creating modern horror with Blackmagic cameras and DaVinci Resolve.

Is it just us, or is horror becoming the dominant genre in modern film? Maybe it’s because it’s October and a few days before Halloween, but damn, it seems to be that’s all anyone ever talks about right now!

Regardless of seasonal bias, horror is indeed a thriving genre that has grown stronger over the years. Not only in the blockbuster category either. Horror is a great option for filmmakers of any level or ilk, as its DIY roots make for fun projects for amateur friends or seasoned pros alike.

But, how do you actually go about shooting horror today? We chatted with seasoned horror cinematographer and producer Ben Brown, who has plenty of horror shorts and features to his IMDB resume.

Looking specifically at the camera, gear, and even post-production, Brown shares some insights about his favorite Blackmagic cinema cameras, working with DaVinci Resolve, and even why you—absolutely—need to watch John Carpenter’s The Thing.

No Film School: What got you started in film and video?

Ben Brown: I was working for a composer as a mixer-engineer and doing post sound/music freelance. Gigs started drying up for various reasons and he wanted to start producing reality TV shows. At the time, the writer’s strike had fertilized that crop. He bought a couple HPX170’s and we would watch a show, didn’t matter what it was, go out and shoot us faking the scenes, then drop the footage into Final Cut 7. We mimicked the shows and figured out angles, coverage, and how to cut. 

I think it’s important to start cutting as a DP. You figure out coverage and angles from what footage you have, so when you grab a camera and go out to shoot, you think about what’s needed for the scene. Not just grabbing a cool shot for your reel.

We landed a corporate client and filmed a skateboarding bulldog for about 18 months making internet videos. There’s no better way to learn quick composition and focus than filming a bulldog flying by on a skateboard. Finally, it was time to develop our own reality shows. Spent a couple years developing concepts, shooting and editing sizzle reels, and pitching shows to networks. Time goes on and I started shooting shorts and more industrials. 

Eventually, met Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff, Jr. at Amalgamated Dynamics while doing production sound for a small project at their shop. I scored a few internet videos for them and was asked about shooting. Showed them the sizzle reels, and Alec asked if I would shoot the Kickstarter video for Harbinger Down. It kinda took off from there.

NFS: What excites you about modern horror filmmaking?

Brown: Lots of stuff being made out there. That’s great. And with a lot of outlets for people to view your films, even better. Shudder is just awesome. They’ve really opened the doors for the genre filmmakers and fans. 

NFS: What led you to decide to shoot Harbinger Down on the Blackmagic 2.5K?

Brown: At the time, the 2.5K was fairly new. I had rented one a few months back when they were pretty scarce, so I could do tests. I asked a few colorists what they would want to see from a new camera’s footage, and did those tests. It impressed them and me. 

During pre-production on Harbinger, I was shooting BTS of the creatures/miniatures being made at ADI. Alec and I had a lot of talks about how he wanted his film to look. We would bring in different DVDs and Blu-rays of films, turn the sound off, and just discuss lighting, angles, etc. When he finally popped the question, “So, what camera are we going to shoot on?” It was fairly simple.

“Alec, I want to shoot on the Blackmagic Cinema Camera.”

He spoke to a few DP colleagues of his, and the consensus was, “That’s not a professional camera.”

The two of us talked, and that didn’t sit well with me. I asked him to let me do some tests, to show him what it can do, and see what he thinks. This is one of Alec’s strengths. He wants to see what something does and he can decide on his own. After doing some tests, I burned a Blu-ray for him and he showed it to those DP colleagues and the consensus was, “Damn. That looks great. What camera is that?”

NFS: What Blackmagic cameras do you currently use?

Brown: Love the G2. I have a couple that I use regularly. Big fan of the 4.6K sensor. Still have my OG 4.6K as my backup/C Cam. Not having BRAW is a little big of a hangup, but it does the trick. I’ve had the original Pocket Cinema Camera and the Big URSA. I really loved the URSA for what it was. Still have my 2.5K in the Contineo cage sitting on my desk.

NFS: How would you describe your production-to-editing workflow working with Resolve?

Brown: I did that transition that a lot of people have done, FCP7 to Premiere to Resolve. I started seriously editing in Resolve 10. I don’t want to say it was painful, but it was not the most pleasant experience. It changed rapidly once they decided to make it a serious NLE. 

Now, I use it almost daily. My file structure is set up on the RAID first and then mimicked inside of Resolve on the Media Page. That’s a priority. If there are any issues with missing footage, it’s easy to find. A few clicks later, all audio is synced to footage with timecode. I use the UltraSync Ones on camera and MixPre. Getting to the Edit Page is simple from there, and I’m cutting. After a cut is ready, get a first color pass. Then Deliver Page is set up for quick upload to Vimeo. It’s pretty simple. 

I love that you can hide certain pages to clean up the UI. I’ve helped a lot of people switch from other software, including iMovie to Resolve. Learn a simple workflow that works for you, get a few of the tools under your belt, and start cutting. Don’t try and figure out everything you can do. The software is too deep and complex. Make a simple cut and add on as you need.

NFS: What advice would you give to any aspiring horror filmmakers today? 

Brown: During the pandemic, a good friend of mine pulled out some footage he shot a while back—in 1988—on VHS. The tapes still worked, shockingly. These were supposed to be a few short films that he shot while in film school. He never finished them. This is someone who aspired to be a filmmaker for a career, but life happens. Another path happened. Don’t worry. He’s doing just fine.

When the lockdown commenced, he called and we decided to finally finish them. We made the cuts, sound, score, added some VFX, and tried to match color in the footage. Only after they were done, we decided to submit them to festivals and had quite a good run last year and this year.

Finish your film. Just because a few bumps, or decades, get in the way, don’t let that stop you. The sense of accomplishment, pride, and excitement of getting the project done is immeasurable. There are a lot of projects that don’t get done and there are a plethora of reasons that can happen. Find a way to be a finisher.

Keep your expectations in check from the very beginning. When you start planning your script, keep the budget in mind. Don’t start a short or low-budget horror film and end up with a script that’ll cost a few million just to shoot, not including the massive VFX and CG budget for post. I highly suggest not watching the latest blockbuster or Netflix multi-million dollar project as inspiration. Make sure your script is something that you can do, and most importantly finish. In the end, the 1’s and 0’s on your hard drive aren't that entertaining.

There are a lot of great horror film festivals out there. And some that aren’t. Don’t just submit (and pay) to a swath of festivals. Look them over. Find the ones that fit your film. Then, submit. 

Take people on a ride. Find a way to break the tension and build back up over and over and over. Horror is a fun genre to make and rules can be flexible. You don't have to make everyone look pretty all the time and that leads to some fun lighting and shots. Planning for FX and VFX is a blast, too. Build everything for the shot. 

And whenever you can, pull out John Carpenter’s The Thing. It’s just good for the soul.     

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