Lighting a film that has overlapping genres can be difficult, especially when it’s a horror comedy. Each of these two genres has a very different, unofficial set of “guidelines” when it comes to lighting and the tones used.
Horror films tend to have a more minimal color palette to create an eeriness, which often allows the DP to play with the blackness in a frame. The lighting in comedies tends to be bright, soft, and flat, which can keep the mood light to enhance the absurdity of comedic situations.
We wanted to dig deeper into this topic, so we spoke with cinematographer Powell Robinson, who just had the Hulu horror-comedy Appendagereleased. For Appendage, Robinson wanted to take a grounded approach to the lighting.
“It is still highly subjective to the main character’s POV, and the lighting follows a specific color story to track where she’s at mentally and in relation to the appendage’s influence on her," Robinson said. "We opted to put very minimal, almost no film grain on it (which was a first for me) to avoid it feeling too gritty/serious/horror-y, but maintained a high level of contrast and a deep black level so the scary moments did still get to play dark.”
While we chatted with editor Alex Familian about his approach to editing this comedy-horror, Robinson sat down with No Film School to talk about lighting the Hulu's Appendage.
Appendage | Official Trailer | Huluyoutu.be
Editor's Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
No Film School: What made you want to become a cinematographer?
Powell Robinson: I love the “how it’s done” angle of filmmaking. As a kid, I would watch movies like The Matrix or The Mummy and try and guess how the special effects worked.
I’ve always been a techy person, which is just a way to dance around saying I’m a big nerd. I built my own gaming PCs in elementary and high school. I also simultaneously pursued art from a young age and would steal my parent’s camera on vacation to take my own pictures, as well as playing and recording music through high school and college. I think cinematography tweaks both sides of my brain, the art and tech, at the same time in just the right way.
NFS: How would you describe the look of Appendage?
Robinson: The look of Appendage is what I’d call heightened reality, with a pinch of Guillermo del Toro dark fairytale/storybook energy sprinkled in here or there. Our main reference films were Black Swan, Fight Club, Se7en, Don’t Breathe, and The Fly. These films all--perhaps The Fly less so--take a pretty grounded approach to their lighting, which we aimed for as well. It’s not so stylized you can’t figure out where any of the lights are coming from, or it takes you out of it with unbelievable surrealism or glossy beauty keys.
That said, it is still highly subjective to Hannah’s [Hadley Robinson] perspective and the lighting follows a specific color story to track where she’s at mentally and in relation to the appendage’s influence on her.
Hannah’s own internal mania/anxiety is portrayed by orange/gold tones. The appendage's influence is green. Hannah’s friendship with Esther [Kausar Mohammed], her comfort color, in general, is blue.
Robinson: Obviously, we couldn’t push these in certain situations like daylight because it would make no real-world sense, but we tried to stick to these ideas where we could. You’ll notice certain night scenes, like when Hannah is sewing in the beginning after her parents’ dinner, or when the appendage first pops out, there are distinct color blends of orange (practicals) and green (nighttime ambiance through the windows) as her anxiety, as well as the appendage influence, are equally taking over her life.
But a scene like when the puppet emerges from under the couch is surprisingly more overwhelmingly warm balanced because Hannah’s main concern going into the scene was drunkenly seeing Kaelin [Brandon Mychal Smith] text Esther at the bar and thinking he was cheating on her. This transitions to more appendage influence after she knocks it out and has to figure out what to do with it–the following alley and basement scenes get increasingly green as that sequence goes on to match that influence.
NFS: Can you talk about what cameras and lenses you used on Appendage?
Robinson: Absolutely! I’ve been working with Panavision for years now and as I mentioned, one of the key visual influences for Appendage was Se7en (shot on Primos), so it only made sense to go the same route. We settled on an ARRI Alexa Mini with Close Focus Primos and a 19-90 Compact Zoom. The Primos are sharp, clean, and high contrast which was vital for the number of night scenes we were doing, and how soft and dark the lighting was. Also, they are fairly aberration-free which was important for how much VFX clean-up and alteration was done to hide the puppeteers operating the appendage.
While we all love our more modern gritty reference looks, can’t forget about The Fly and the influence '80s body horror in general had on the film, too. Anna [Zlokovic] and I knew from the beginning we wanted to utilize one technique in particular from that era of filmmaking: the classic slow zoom–and precisely one smash zoom in the finale. That 19-90 got some heavy usage, not just for those types of specialty shots but it also helped us crank through some of our high setup count days when we couldn’t be swapping glass all the time.
Alexa Mini with a Panavision LensCredit: Kyle Frank/Hulu
NFS: Appendage is both a horror and comedy. Each of those genres generally has pretty different looks, stylistically. Was it difficult mixing those together?
Robinson: Besides the weather, this was the hardest part of the filming and color correction process. The rules we set for ourselves in lighting color choices, we also gave ourselves certain lensing rules to follow. For example, even very subtle differences like using the 40mm for appendage-based uneasiness vs using the 50mm for friends.
We needed specific guidelines like this because these are very different genres to mash stylistically–we had to be clear with our through lines and visual motifs to make the film feel cohesive. Take it one step to comedy and you end up with Scary Movie 2; take it one step to horror and suddenly no one knows what they’re allowed or supposed to laugh at.
Robinson: Factoring in the dramatic elements/heavy mental health topic at the center of it all, the visual tone always had to have a feeling of earnestness to it so as not to make light of, or detract from, the work the actors were putting in to bring the message of the film across. At the end of the day, it always came down to how Hannah was feeling, cause if we tried to track how the overall movie “should” feel based on visual genre tropes from scene to scene, it would have been a mess.
[Colorist] Sam Gilling really helped us tie the look together and put a bow on it in the color correction process. We opted to put very minimal, almost no film grain on it, which was a first for me, to avoid it feeling too gritty/serious/horror-y, but maintained a high level of contrast and a deep black level so the scary moments did still get to play dark.
The saturation tracks with Hannah’s emotional state, and gets bleaker as the film goes on. But it was important that it was not too bleak when establishing her relationships with Kaelin and Esther at the top, so it didn’t just feel like a straight-up drama and have nowhere to go as she spirals.
NFS: What was the most complex scene for you to shoot? Why?
Robinson: I’d say the main Stage-2 appendage reveal, when it crawls out from under the couch and walks towards her, had everything going for it that makes for a complex day: overnight shoot, practical effects, a jump scare sequence, multiple forms of camera moves, an emotional performance, and a crazy tight schedule.
We knew we wanted to have camera movement tracking the puppet coming towards her, and, conversely, her running away from it, but we didn’t have the money for motion control, Steadicam, or a Technocrane, let alone the space for it; this was a real, small apartment in Wilmington, NC. So we settled on a combination of handheld on Hannah, which carries through from the jump scare sequence as she enters her apartment and the little hand pops out, and a Dana dolly placed on half apple boxes on the floor to move backward with the appendage. The smoothness of the Dana dolly helped the VFX artists with tracking and gave us a repeatable range of motion to record a background plate for them for the clean-up of the rods and bodies of the puppeteers. The low profile of the speed rail on the ground gave us a nice, low, pleasing angle on the puppet in a place that even our fisher dolly with a low mode head would have been far too large to fit in.
Behind-the-scenes of 'Appendage'Credit: Hulu
NFS: Can you break down the lighting choices on the appendage? You mentioned that you wanted to keep the shadows clean in the film, what was the key to doing this?
Robinson: Earlier that year, I’d been working on a good amount of jobs on both 16mm and 35mm film which inspired me to limit myself to the sensitivity of a 500T film stock on Appendage. We were shooting at 500 ISO all the time (when the weather went our way). On the days we lost power or couldn’t place lights outside due to lightning, I had to just go with whatever was coming in through the windows, so I jumped up to 800 ISO.
While every camera now has crazy high sensitivity settings for shooting in zero light, I prefer 500 ISO for dark scenes as it helps limit any unwanted ambient lighting affecting my contrast ratio. Also, it helps get really controlled and sculpted with far-side key lighting and shifts your dynamic range bracket down a little for cleaner, more articulated info in the shadows.
When you’re grading a horror film like this it’s nice to be able to dig into those shadows a bit and bring out subtleties without introducing too much color noise like you would shooting at a higher ISO. Really great, too, for VFX so they don’t have to de-noise too heavily before getting to work.
NFS: We heard that The Fly was one of your main reference films for Appendage. What was it exactly about The Fly was inspiring?
Robinson: Anna would reference The Fly as our closest comparison for emotional tone for how the movie should feel but not necessarilylook. Getting the overall tone right extended beyond what I was doing lighting or lensing-wise. It required the collaborative effort of every department and the actors. The Fly was the perfect north star for us all tonally due to its ridiculous and campy energy on the surface, but it is so gross in its usage of practical effects, and also existentially upsetting in its themes, which are so beautifully portrayed in its performances.
Director Anna Zlokovic and DP Powell Robinson on setCredit: Hulu
NFS: Were you familiar with director Anna Zlokovic’s previous films before working on Appendage? How did she say she wanted this film to be different than some of her others?
Robinson: Anna and I were in film school together at USC and actually co-DP’d a thesis together before Anna decided directing was what she wanted to do full-time. So I’ve either shot or been involved in another capacity on, I think, every project she’s done since then, except one short film I couldn’t do because I’d just had surgery.
Where this one deviates was that in the past, our work together tended to be more dramatic, serious, and dark outwardly, and our joint and eerily similar bizarre sense of humor sort of weaseled its way into the final product in small ways that made the two of us laugh, but usually, people just found what we were making sad and disturbing. This one was designed to be a horror-comedy with an intentional sense of camp and fun at the script level, so some of our go-to visual and blocking inclinations would feel too bleak/dark, and we just kept each other honest about it the whole way through.
NFS: Is there anything else you would like to share about your work on Appendage?
Robinson: I’d just give a piece of advice to anyone embarking on anything like this film: you’ll most likely never shoot the same scene in your life twice, so remember to take it all in and enjoy it. We all know how hard and draining long shoots can be, the stress can really take over and will it make you forget how silly our jobs are and how lucky we are to have them.
On our toughest days, I’d look up and see that ugly-as-sin talking puppet staring back at me, and a bunch of close friends all around me also collaborating on this insane concept, and that would remind me it was all worth it.
Appendage is now streaming on Hulu.
For more coverage of Appendage, check out the No Film School Podcast.
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