Horror Filmmaker Damien LeVeck Tells You Which NLEs to Learn

Credit: Damien LeVeck
We learn some insightful filmmaking tips for jumpscares and cloud storage.

Every filmmaker, whether they know it or not, is an expert in suspense and horror—that is, at least, if you’ve ever had the sudden panic that comes from checking to see if your footage is backed up and properly stored, or if just by chance something’s gone wrong and your entire day’s work is missing or corrupt.

For filmmaker Damien LeVeck, horror filmmaking isn’t nearly as scary since he’s started working with cloud storage and remote editing with Blackmagic and DaVinci Resolve. He’s also a seasoned editor who learned how to deconstruct horror genre tropes like jumpscares to write and direct some standout horror features including The Cleansing Hour and his latest film A Creature Was Stirring.

We chatted with LeVeck to talk about how he was able to tailor his cloud workflow for the least amount of suspense, as well as to see if he could share some tips for other aspiring horror filmmakers and editors looking to develop their genre craft.

Credit: Damien LeVeck
No Film School: What got you into filmmaking and editing—and specifically horror?

Damien LeVeck: Well, I'm one of those people that has kind of a clichéd story. I've known what I've wanted to do since I was 12 years old. I was watching Star Wars and Indiana Jones, you know, that's where I got my first interest in movies. But I was also watching films like The Exorcist, Friday the 13th, Critters, and Gremlins, and other different horror movies at a young age. So I’ve always sort of had an affinity for his horror genre—and exorcism films in general.

I got into filmmaking, though, through post-production, where I’ve been an editor for over 15 years now. And during that time—and through editing—I’ve learned a lot about how to be a better writer, the economy of storytelling, the economy of words, and the basics to structure, plot, and all that good stuff that makes movies work.

All of which led me to making The Cleansing Hour, which, through that film’s success, I was able to launch my own production company through which we got A Creature Was Stirring off the ground.

NFS: Tell us about the project you’re currently working on (A Creature Was Stirring), how did you get started on it?

LeVeck: My latest film A Creature Was Stirring is about a mother who’s a nurse keeping her daughter medicated and locked in her room to sustain a fever because she thinks that if she gets too hot or too cold, that she’ll turn into a monster.

Two kids break into the house to escape a raging blizzard and they discover the mother and daughter and this severely dysfunctional relationship… and that there’s perhaps something else lurking in the shadows. 

So, it’s sort of a psychological thriller that was inspired by Italian Giallo cinema. We went for a Dario Argento look with really saturated colors which very beautifully lean into the Christmas vibe and everything. It’s meant to look like an ‘80s creature movie—a real throwback to Critters and all sorts of practical effects. In fact, we did no CG with the monster at all, which I’m very proud of. Our entire approach to the monster in the movie was as if computers didn’t exist. 

Credit: Damien LeVeck
NFS: What cameras did you shoot on and why?

LeVeck: We shot on Sony VENICE and on a Blackmagic URSA 12K which was our B-camera. We chose VENICE because it had this Rialto extension that basically allowed us to break the sensor off from the main body of the camera. And then you have something that’s about the size of a sandwich that you attach a lens to and you can stick it anywhere. We were filming in a small house, which didn’t have any breakaway walls or anything like that, so having the ability to take the camera into tight spaces was a huge plus.

However, for all of the high frame rate stuff, we used the Blackmagic camera because VENICE couldn’t do anything higher than 48 frames per second. So we found uses for both cameras with our setup.

NFS: Tell us about using the Blackmagic Cloud workflow, how have you found the experience?

LeVeck: Well, before I get into that, I should start by giving a shameless plug for my company Shoot2Post, which I started with my friend Jordan Maltby. We manage digital assets for film and TV productions. And basically what we do is we help dump your camera and audio cards into a box on set, duplicate and verify it, and then send in all the footage to the cloud. We also create on that box viewing and editorial proxies that we can send to the editor who can begin editing remotely without even having any hard drive attached to their computer using our cloud technology.

So, Jordan and I were already very familiar with cloud-based workflows because Shoot2Post. So when Blackmagic announced their Cloud Store product and cloud-based Resolve projects, we were able to tailor our cloud workflow around it.

Credit: Damien LeVeck
NFS: Could you share a bit about how you utilized DaVinci Resolve in this cloud-based manner?

LeVeck: I’ve actually been using Resolve for a long time, but mostly for color. I hadn’t really touched it for editing but had been keeping a very close eye on what Blackmagic had been doing with the application over the last two years. As it's been improving I thought, what the heck, I’ll try this out. And actually, this movie was the right kind of project to do a test run with and really learn how to make it work.

Now, I’ve been editing for a really long time, and I’m well-versed in all of the major NLEs. I can start up in a new program and get working pretty quickly—even within a few days. And that was the case with Resolve. And while there’s obviously always some room for growth, I think if they keep developing Resolve at the rate they’re going, the program has a major chance of unseating Premiere Pro as the sort of king, non-Avid program for editors.

NFS: Can you share any tricks or insights into how to create horror tropes, like specifically jumpscares?

LeVeck: Well, I don’t shy away from tropes. And in fact, I don’t think audiences mind tropes, they only mind them if they’re done badly. The anatomy of a jumpscare is anticipation. Anticipation can lead to anxiety, which leads to being startled when something happens. And when you’re watching a horror movie, there’s an anticipation when someone is slowly creeping down a dark hallway while approaching a door that they’re about to peek inside of.

Just like the cat that jumps down from the ceiling in Alien, you’re building anticipation there because you know something is going to happen and then you get a release—in that case, it's a red herring but it works for all of those reasons. As long as it’s not just a big orchestra hit or something. That’s what people hate. People hate it whenever a jumpscare is manufactured with just a sound effect.

Credit: Damien LeVeck
NFS: With cloud workflows and horror evolving, what advice would you give future horror filmmakers?

LeVeck: For future filmmakers, I would encourage everybody to do what I did, and that is not shy away from learning any technology. If you hear about a new way of editing, or a new program, or something within reason you should try to learn it. I think everyone should learn Avid, and I think everyone should learn Premiere Pro and mess around with Resolve with the goal of eventually becoming fluent with them all if they want to be an editor.

Learn the tools and learn how the pros do it. You have to be kind of a jack-of-all-trades because that’s going to empower you to do more creative things. I mean, I learned After Effects, I learned Shake—which isn’t around anymore—I learned Nuke for compositing effects and motion graphics. They all gave me the tools to be able to make more stuff on my own without having to rely on other people.

I think it’s really an amazing time where you can literally go on YouTube and learn how to do just about any kind of visual effect that you want with the help of enormous communities of different artists out there who use all of these programs and are out there teaching it.     

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