There are many essential tools that help a cinematographer’s job go as smoothly as possible, storyboarding being one of them.

Storyboarding may seem like a thing of the past in 2023, with all the strides in VFX and computer technology, but there is a reason many Oscar-winning filmmakers still use it in films today.

Besides saving a lot of time and money on rogue shots and editing, one of the major benefits of storyboarding is simply being able to lay out what the final film will look like shot by shot. When a production team understands the direction of the film, they can work more efficiently and get more work done in less time.

Cinematographer Clayton Moore can attest to why storyboarding is important, especially on his latest film, Shudder’s The Puppetman. “Storyboarding is your last chance to experiment and make mistakes before you roll cameras. Pens and paper are cheap! It's particularly helpful for Brandon (the director) and I to get on the same page about what shot ideas and coverage we can come up with together, then it sets a road map for us to follow throughout the day.”

Moore sat down with No Film School to chat about

The Puppetman | Official Trailer |

No Film School: What led you to become a cinematographer?

Clayton Moore: I started out wanting to get into postproduction, specifically visual effects and compositing. My first job was working as a TV news photojournalist, and I did that for a few years while I learned the basics of composition and exposure with a lot of on-the-job training in the run-and-gun environment of broadcast news. I learned a lot about shooting news because I had to, but it left me wanting to be more expressive creatively. I left the news to work at a small production studio where I worked my way up, shooting commercials, broadcast TV, and corporate events. I got laid off in 2008, and decided that was as good a time as any to become freelance. I eventually started my own production company. It was because of that I was able to meet a lot of my frequent collaborators such as Brandon Christensen, and even my wife!

NFS: Was there a particular movie that made you want to get into the business?

Moore: There were several. 1980s cinema in general had a huge impact on my life and my childhood. A lot of the classics from that era, like the work of Steven Spielberg, Robert Zemeckis, and John Hughes were such golden examples of romantic escapism for me…They were all big influences and just thinking about those films gives me warm fuzzy feelings. Star Wars and Indiana Jones probably top the list of course.

NFS: What did preproduction look like for you on The Puppetman? Did you storyboard scenes out?

Moore: Brandon and I started working on pre-production three months before the principal photograph before I was even officially hired on the project! We would screen films at his house and discuss things about them that stood out to us. Brandon left for Buffalo, NY about a month before we started and we would work together remotely, reviewing things leading up to when I left for Buffalo; about a week and a half out. Once I got there, we did all our location and tech scouting and really started to formulate our plan of attack. It was fun for us as it was a brand new environment we had never filmed in before. The cold snowy cityscape of Buffalo excited and inspired us. We did some early storyboarding, but typically we do rough storyboards and overheads the night before we shoot or even the morning of.

Four people sit around a table summoning a ghost in 'The Puppetman''The Puppetman'Credit: Shudder

NFS: What would you say is the benefit of storyboarding?

Moore: Storyboarding is hugely beneficial. It's your last chance to experiment and make mistakes before you roll cameras. Pens and paper are cheap! It's particularly helpful for Brandon and I to get on the same page about what shot ideas and coverage we can come up with together, then it sets a road map for us to follow throughout the day and I’m able to communicate to my crew about what shots or setups are coming next.

NFS: Can you talk about what equipment you used on The Puppetman? Lenses, camera, lighting.

Moore: We used RED camera systems. Brandon has been a longtime fan and owner of various RED cameras and everything we’ve ever shot together has been acquired on various RED cameras. Our A-camera was a RED Gemini Iand our B-cam was a RED Komodo. We used Atlas Orion Anamorphic lenses, specifically 32, 50, and 80mm focal lengths. This was our first time shooting anamorphic and there was a bit of a learning curve, but once we got used to how each focal length looked, we really enjoyed utilizing the characteristics of the lenses as a storytelling device. We shot most of the film in a single camera style, utilizing track and dolly for any movement. Having the Komodo was very helpful on bigger days where we wanted to shoot matching coverage or have a second angle on a big death scene. The smaller size of the Komodo allowed us to utilize it on a Ronin gimbal for a few shots, and it was a very easy-to-use camera for when Brandon wanted to jump in and operate the B-cam.

Our lighting package was pretty simple. We had a 3-ton grip truck with some add-ons, specifically a couple of Skypanel S60’s, Lite Mat Plus 2’s and Plus 4’s, some Quasar Science tubes, 2 Arri M18 HMIs, and a tungsten package.

NFS: What sort of initial conversations did you have with director Brandon Christensen about the look of The Puppetman?

Moore: We had many discussions about the look leading up to production. From the time he sent me the initial pitch deck for the film, we knew it was going to be dark and dreary. One of Brandon’s big influences is David Fincher, so we watched a lot of his films, specifically The Social Network and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, since we knew we were going to be shooting in the snow. Some other films we watched were The Empty Man, Prisoners, Don’t Breathe, It Follows, and Vivarium.

DP Clayton Moore with his camera outside Credit: Taylor Miller @MillerRay

NFS: You have worked with director Brandon Christensen on a few films before The Puppetman. How has your working relationship changed from your first project together until now?

Moore: Brandon and I have shot many short films and commercials over the years, but the first time I worked with him on a feature was when I shot It Stains The Sands Red with Colin Minihan and Brandon was producing. I was able to contribute to Brandon’s first and second features as a second-unit DP. Once he was ready to shoot his third feature, Superhost, he brought me on to DP. Working together for so long has built a very strong friendship and collaborative shorthand between us. We’ve done 3 features together now, and I swear we can read each other’s minds sometimes.

NFS: The Puppetman falls in the horror genre. Do you think the horror genre allows for more experimentation than other genres? If so, what did you do outside of the box for this film?

Moore: The genre lends itself to dark and moody environments so I think there is ample opportunity to push the boundaries of lighting, exposure, and composition due to the fact that the genre itself can be so stylistic. A lot of horror films are based on supernatural circumstances, so I feel like lighting doesn’t always have to be naturalistic as well. There is room for filmmakers to become a bit more stylistic or expressive through their lighting, and it just works.

Brandon encouraged me to push myself on this film, and I definitely did. We lived at the toe of the exposure curve on a lot of scenes, and I worked at light levels a lot lower than I normally would. There is a scene I'm especially fond of, that is lit entirely by ambulance lights. Also, due to necessity, we shot a lot of the driving scenes in the studio utilizing the poor man’s process. I always enjoy shooting this way as you have to get creative to sell the motion of the car.

DP Clayton Moore with his camera by a white car during a night shootCredit: Aimee Kuge @MeltyFeelings

NFS: What was the most complex scene for you to shoot? Why?

Moore: There is a scene in the film where the main character steps out into traffic on a busy city street. This was by far the most complex scene simply because there were so many moving parts to coordinate. We had a street shut down, and we laid all the dolly track we had on the grip truck across the street. The shot tracks into a close-up on her face and then leads her out into the traffic, all in a single move. The passing traffic was a light gag of course, we couldn’t run cars over the dolly track, so that was an additional element that had to be timed just right.

Between the camera doing a very long dolly push into a close-up, and then pulling back with her as she crossed the street, my focus puller had to really be on his A-game as we were shooting wide open. My dolly grip had to get the timing and spacing just right, and my gaffer had to sell the effect of passing headlights by hand-holding a few open-face tungsten units. The actress had to hit a lot of technical beats while also giving a killer performance. We did a lot of takes, but eventually, everyone was really in sync with each other and we finally got the shot.

The scenes on the bridge were also very complex to shoot, due to the extreme cold, wind, and freezing rain all night long. Along with the narrative beats on the bridge, we also had to shoot VFX plates, so we could film the actor jumping off the bridge against a green screen at a later date. Lining up the angles, and matching the lighting in the studio also proved to be pretty challenging, but I think the resulting shots are very convincing and effective.

The rooftop was also another challenging scene. We got a late start that day, and once we finally did get started, our A camera went down. Brandon and I had planned to shoot almost the entire day on two cameras. The weather was very windy and cold which negated my original lighting plan and I had to simplify it on the fly. It was a frustrating day, but we got through it!

NFS: Is there anything else you would like to share about your work on The Puppetman?

Moore: I’m very proud of the film. It is a milestone of my career and I hope people see the film and enjoy it. Shooting this film was an extremely challenging yet rewarding experience, and I’ll never forget it.

The Puppetman is now streaming on Shudder.