When people think about the found footage genre, the movie that probably first comes to mind is The Blair Witch Project. Having been made for $60,000 and grossing over $200,000,000 worldwide, the horror tale revolutionized the subgenre and showed filmmakers they didn’t have to spend millions for a film to become a hit.

Since The Blair Witch Project, the subgenre continues to be reinvented with films such as Paranormal Activity, Cloverfield, Unfriended and more recently Missing. Welcome Villain Films is also dabbing in the space with their new yoga, horror film Mind Body Spirit.

Mind Body Spirit follows Anya, an aspiring yoga influencer, as she embarks on a ritual practice left behind by her estranged grandmother. What starts as a spiritual self-help guide quickly evolves into something much more sinister. As Anya becomes obsessed with the mysterious power of the practice, she unwittingly unleashes an otherworldly entity that begins to take control of her life – and her videos. Now Anya must race to unlock the truth, before her descent into madness threatens to consume her mind, body and spirit.”

A big part of found footage is the perspective and point of view. For Mind Body Spirit, the cinematographer, Blake Horn, committed to the perspective that the camera is already possessed by an evil spirit, Verasha, and it's just going to be turned on randomly at times.

When discussing this subject, Horn says, “With found footage you get to make the rules, and you also get to break those rules. I think for a traditionally shot narrative film, you think about coverage, you think about how to move the camera since the camera is this omnipotent being. But for found footage, it was just so much fun to problem solve in really creative ways. There’s also room for happy accidents, so when you're physically on set playing around with this, you'd get so much discovery.”

Blake talks about this, the Hereditary comparisons, and much more in the below interview.

MIND BODY SPIRIT (2024) - Official Trailerwww.youtube.com

No Film School: First off, how did you become a cinematographer? Was there a film that made you want to get into the business?

Blake Horn: When I was seven, my neighbor who was my older brother's age was over and he found Terminator 2 on cable and I ended up watching and it changed my life. So definitely Terminator 2: Judgment Day. From that moment on, it really opened up my perspective of what movies could be, and I just always have been in love with cinema since then. I definitely lean towards a fascination with horror and sci fi, and definitely B movies. It’s kind of like a recurring joke with a lot of my close friends that I love every movie. I want to like movies, I think every genre I'm really a huge fan of. My love of watching movies transitioned quickly to making movies, from shooting VHS in my friend's backyard, and then MiniDV, and then eventually going to film school at Ithaca College and shooting on 16 millimeter.

NFS: Can you talk about the camera, lens and equipment you used for Mind Body Spirit?

Horn: When I talked with the directors, Alex Henes and Matt Merenda, their first inception of the visuals and what dictated the type of camera that we use, was not wanting to shoot with a big camera - we wanted something really small and mobile. When we shot this at the end of 2021, the selection was the Blackmagic 6K Pro, which I think is just an amazing camera since you get so much for such a small body. We shot that with a Tokina 11-20mm zoom lens and a Sigma 18-35mm zoom lens. We always knew that we wanted our focal length to stay on the wider end of the spectrum, so we actually never went above 35 millimeters. And I think there's only one shot within the entire film that's 35 millimeter with a shallower depth of field. But for the most part, we shot a lot at 11mm and 16mm. We were just playing with our own sort of cinematic journey versus wanting to make this look like a YouTube video. Like someone could shoot this themselves, but we have our own slight tweaks - whether that's the positioning of the camera, or how we're lighting the scene.

NFS: Mind Body Spirit is a found footage film. What sort of discussions did you have with the directors before production began about the POV ect?

Horn: Yes, our point of view and perspective is so important and that's what was the most fun part. For the majority of the film, the camera is actually the audience's perspective. It is Anya setting up a camera and filming herself. And as an audience, you're watching this very intimate moment or moments with her opening up in front of a camera. And then we had fun moving the camera’s point of view since the camera is possessed by Anya’s grandmother's spirit, Verasha’s spirit. That's when the creativity sort of just flooded in with, “oh, we can do these 360 pans, or we can actually pick up the camera and move it in” and really getting to break away from this visual language that we start the film off with and allowing it to progress in this devious, as well as playful way.

NFS: Jason Blum has said before that making a found footage film can actually be a lot harder than making a traditional movie. Do you agree with this? Did the found footage angle make it easier or more difficult to shoot than other projects you have worked on?

Horn: I'll be honest, this movie was so much fun to shoot because with found footage you get to make the rules, and you also get to break those rules. I think for a traditionally shot narrative film, you think about coverage, you think about how to move the camera since the camera is this omnipotent being. But for found footage, it was just so much fun to problem solve in really creative ways, like “if the camera is here, but then it gets dropped, how do we want it to land for a new point of view?” And there’s room for these happy accidents, so when you're physically on set playing around with this, you'd get so much discovery and there's so much excitement. You get to build off of that excitement and find the shots that evolve organically, but also very deliberately. And in this respect, for Mind Body Spirit of being found footage, it was such a pleasant experience to shoot. Some days, we had literally only three shots because a lot of them were long takes where you set it up once and then you let it evolve. Everything was all very motivated. The film starts off with longer takes and a more static camera where you're really just stuck in this moment with this character. And, Sarah who plays Anya was just this amazing, amazing actor who never screwed up. It was just such a pleasure to work with her and see her really control the frame.

I think this idea of found footage was that it was an amazing collaboration where I didn't feel pressured. It was this really deep connection and understanding with the holistic perspective of the entire process. Like saying, “No, having the camera sit here for this five-minute take is so crucial and important to the larger whole of the film because when the camera does move, the audience is going to feel that movement even more.” It would be such a harder hit and so much more prolific, rather than trying to move the camera all the time. And I honestly didn't think I was going to like found footage as much as I did. Every time we were looking at the shots, it felt like such a fun moment. Getting to have fewer shots, gave myself as a cinematographer more bandwidth to really think about the emphasis and the importance of each shot and each frame. It allowed me to just remember that later down in the film, something else is going to happen and connect back to that to the current frame. Like I could think, “scene 2 is going to connect to scene 35” rather than just having a day where you have 40 shots and you're wondering how you’re going to make it through. It was a pleasure and just a blast to work in because it was so creative.

'Mind Body Spirit'Welcome Villain

NFS: Was any sort of improv involved with the Mind Body Spirit shoot?

Horn: That's a great question. For this one, and I hope my memory doesn't deceive me, but it really didn't feel like we had a lot of improv because Alex and Max’s vision was so deliberate and precise. And it felt so honestly comforting and un-chaotic, to walk in and know what the shots were, and then just being able to deliver on them. I think there is always a level of improv when it comes to production, just because when you physically get to a space, you feel the magic on set and you feel the energy of being around other people. There's a part of me that really looks at film as performance art. It's like a huge dance, with a number of multiple people working together in order to achieve something that is documented, so it does give the image of it being almost concrete and deliberate. But if you wanted to find improv, being on set and discovering things, I think there was so much discovery around this. This collaboration with many different departments recognized that we think one shot might work from a certain angle, but then realizing that the production design is so much stronger in this other angle and moving the camera to that. So I think that's where a lot of improv was. And Sarah was just such a strong performer and a presence on set where I think there was flexibility in the creativity, but there was never a deviation from the thesis and story out of desperation.

A lot of the pieces of this film and the process came together and worked so well. When we wrapped the shoot, we all looked at each other and it's rare, but you know the feeling where everyone's whispering like “oh my gosh, that was so much fun, I don't want it to end” and genuinely feeling that way? Not with these graduation goggles or the “grass is greener” perspective, but really enjoying the process throughout. So not too much improv, but there was just so much creativity in every single moment throughout the production of it.

NFS: What was the hardest shot in the film?

Horn: The hardest shot of the film was definitely ‘The Many’, which was shot with the Blackmagic. We used this Frankenstein rig, since we couldn't rent anything. No rental house had these sort of mid-to-lower tier pro consumer items, which just allowed our camera to be super small and really compact. And ‘The Many' was shot on the DJI RS 2, which has this crazy function of being able to do motion capture pretty accurately. But ‘The Many’ was hard just because it required us to start with a gimbal move. The scene is the moment Anya takes a sip of her cleansing smoothie and she sort of falls into this hallucination, then paralysis on the floor, and then multiple of her appear in the background. But the challenging part of the shot was making sure the gimbal move was smooth. It needed to work while she went from one Anya to the next Anya with motion capture, then physically picking up the gimbal, flying it with a really subtle move, and then landing on the floor without touching the gimbal. On top of that, we were hoping there was no gimbal drift, which fortunately, there wasn't and it was a wonderful surprise. But that one just felt like we were splitting hairs, there could have been so many potential little hiccups along the way. Physically moving the camera could really botch the entire visual look. And fortunately, we had an amazing visual effects team that really pulled that together and were able to clean up any small mistake we actually did have.

'Mind Body Spirit'Welcome Villain

NFS: When Anya is talking to her mom asking about the translation, the computer is supposed to be the camera. But when she slams the computer shut, the camera is in the corner of the room. What angle is this supposed to be from?

Horn: I think a lot of this came from the idea that Anya is surrounded by cameras at all times. And for us, we didn't want to get bogged down about which camera was filming and having this concrete logic to it. Because I think you can even beg that question, “why would she be recording herself on a camera that's in the far corner of the room when she's on FaceTime with her laptop?” And instead, we just committed to this perspective that the camera is already possessed by this evil spirit and it's just going to be turned on randomly at times. And I hope the audience is game for that.

I think we put a lot of trust in our audience and a lot of the conversation was reassuring that our audience was going to get it and it's going to be okay. We had faith in this idea that because everyone understands how a camera works now, because of iPhones, smartphones, that I think our audience is going to be okay if we pop around cameras. And we loved the idea of this eerie creepiness that when we cut away from this laptop, FaceTime call to a camera in the corner of the room watching, you remember that Anya is being watched at all times. At that part of the film, she's actually not recording herself anymore, now she's being stalked. She's being cornered by this spirit that is not allowing her to be herself and there's no escape. And that's actually one of my favorite frames in the movie, just like cutting out to this sharp, wide shot, far away and a little bit more telephoto. It feels different and think in that one, we have a little bit of a Dutch angle as if the camera is just like hanging out on a table, if I remember correctly. But we love this bopping around different media and bopping around different cameras. We were liking this idea that a camera just randomly turns on and records you, it's so violating. And I hope that comes across to the audience and they get that feeling evoking a sense of empathy towards Anya. I forget what scene this was, but when we were filming, Sarah and I looked at each other and in that moment we both understood how sad this was for the character Anya. Both of us put our hands on our hearts and had this silent moment with each other, just really feeling bad that this was happening to a person and how gross it was. I think that's sort of the crux of the film, this awfulness that happens to her and hopefully that ultimately does evoke a sense of empathy for the audience. It was this wonderful moment of connection with Sarah and that's what's so fun about making movies. You're pushing the limitations with a real world trying to make your vision become reality and materialize. It's such a creative endeavor and so much hard work goes into it, but it's also about the connection. How lucky are we to do something like this, we're playing pretend with multiple people over a long period of time, and then you walk away with something physical and tangible to share with other people. It's such a wonderful and fulfilling process.

'Mind Body Spirit'Welcome Villain

NFS: A lot of people online have brought up Ari Aster’s Hereditary when talking about Mind Body Spirit. Do you think that is a fair comparison?

Horn: I'm honored. That movie is so worthy of the hype. It’s always challenging seeing a film that gets so much hype surrounding it. I remember the marketing saying it's the best, scariest horror film since The Exorcist. And you kind of roll your eyes like, “Well, I've heard that a million times.” And then you see it and it really is so horrific. But Hereditary was one of our main inspirations for the film, so for people to pick up on that makes me feel so wonderful. In the respect of knowing the audience is picking up on the scenes and this inspiration. And Hereditary is not the body horror that's the horrific part. It's the family dynamics and generational trauma passed. And the real horror of it all is when you connect to these elements of fantasy, and you see them within your own reality. And to me the best part about horror films is that you get to draw this line that's so wildly improbable, but is rooted within our experiences. It’s just so thought provoking. And it's so much fun to see the genre of horror really expanding over the past decade. The genre is calling back to the 70s Golden Age of horror films and really having this transcendence into popular mainstream culture, it's just such a great time to be not only a filmmaker, but a movie watcher. There's just so much good stuff now.

NFS: Was your approach to the Kenzie Fit segments completely different than the rest of the film to show the contrast with Anya? And to accentuate Anya’s depression?

Blake: So I actually didn't shoot those, the co-directors did. And it's so much fun working with additional units or operators and having that collaborative process within the film. Because when you actually get to watch it, you didn't film it, so you get to watch it with clear eyes again. It's challenging watching your own work sometimes because you're nitpicky and you remember the process of it. Seeing the commercials in the film was so much fun for me because I get to watch it just as an audience member, rather than seeing the work I shot. And it's always so wonderful to bring in other perspectives and other people's visions to add to the film. I think it elevates it.

It was shot with a different camera, I think they shot it with a Panasonic. This might sound crazy, but I think it was a GH 4, not even a GH 5. So it's inherently going to feel totally different. Not just because someone else shot it, but because it’s different gear, different equipment, different lenses, different optics. So for me, those scenes are just so fun to watch.

Blake Horn

NFS: The camera goes in a continuous circle when Anya is killing Kenzie. Can you talk about the reasoning for this?

Blake: The 360 pan was a really fun balance and connection between the creative and the technical. When we opted for the RS 2, which I've used extensively before the shoot, I was able to talk to Alex and Matt about the limitations and also what the gimbal could do. And one of them brought up that you can actually control it with a virtual joystick on your phone and one of the things you can do is a 360 pan. Immediately, Alex, Matt, and I fell in love with that idea and we were trying to think about where we can have it fit into the film. We recognized the ending of having the slow 360 creep, where you get to see all these empty frames - was such a wonderful direction from Alex and Matt.

Within the horror genre, they are always promoting empty negative space to give that lurking and eerie feeling, and I think it works really well in it because those frames cause enough tension. We had that evolve by showing a 360 shot earlier in the film and then ultimately using that same camera movement as the climax of the film. It was so stressful because I have my iPhone and I'm moving my thumb on this digital joystick during the most important part of the film. Our makeup artist is doing so much gore work and if I mess this up, I'm going to feel so embarrassed. But it worked, and I think it worked really well. A lot of that was us realizing that if we kept the settings the same, we could actually stitch multiple tapes together as long as the 360 pan consistently moved at the same speed. So we locked the tilt axis, dialed in our settings for the pan, and instantly recognized that it was going to work. So that one 360 shot is actually multiple takes stitched together, other than a few takes where we only had one shot at it, just because with the makeup there was so much gore and fake blood, that it would just be a complete grueling nightmare to reset it all. So when we filmed that scene, it was a rush of confidence when we realized that it was going to work, even with the voice in the back of your head saying, ‘is this going to work’ and ‘is this going to be good enough.’ But that final scene was so much fun to shoot. And we shot almost all the film sequentially because we were just locked inside this huge legitimately haunted mansion in Altadena, for I think what ended up being 10 days. So having no company moves made the process so much more enjoyable, and doable, and realistic.