How would you plan to shoot a horror fight sequence inside a carnival ride? What tools would you choose? What about the lenses you would pick to differentiate two distinct time periods?
Well, have we got some advice for you because we spoke to the DP responsible for these very sequences on the new movie Totally Killer.
The film, directed by Nahnatchka Khan, is a romp of a horror story starring one of our favorite scream queens, Kiernan Shipka, as a stubborn teenager who trips back in time and decides to stop a series of infamous murders. She finds herself befriending a younger version of her mom, all while trying to identify the slasher before he kills again.
We spoke with Aussie director of photography, Judd Overton, via Zoom ahead of the film's release. His advice is super specific and helpful, so enjoy it below!
Totally Killer - Official Red Band Trailer | Prime Videowww.youtube.com
Editor's note: this conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
No Film School: This a fun Halloween film to have going into the season. What attracted you to the project?
Judd Overton: It was a lot of fun to make as well. I had worked with a director, Nahnatchka Khan, a number of times on television, and that was her main background. She'd done one feature film before, Always Be My Maybe, but we had a great relationship on a couple of projects, Young Rock, and I worked with Fresh Off the Boat a little.
When the opportunity came up to do a horror/comedy with her, I was like, this is incredible. We kind of just jumped into it. I mean, I guess the real question was what is this genre? What is this sort of mashup and how do we find a good tone? Nahnatchka was really great about and has always been really great about collaborating. It felt like a real project that we discovered together, discovered the look and the style of it ... I think the tone was a really important thing for Nahnatchka from the start.
How do you balance really great comedy and really bring people in with the comedy, then still deliver on all the gore and all the splatter, and really pay tribute ... I mean, Blumhouse obviously involved in this project. They have a great heritage, and some great horror fans out there. So we had to tick the box and make sure we were aligning those ideas with that genre.
NFS: So you mentioned the look, and that was going to be my next question. What were your visual inspirations as you were settling on that look and finding that tone?
Overton: When I get the script, I'll read it a few times first and see what jumps out at me. See if any inspiration comes from other films, photography, or anything else comes to me just when I'm reading it. I like to, even before I've spoken to the director, I like to see what comes off the page and inspires me there.
Then, once I started talking with Natch, we went through, and there are really some obvious references in the script. They're referencing Back to the Future, and it's a very kind of postmodern film in that it is quite self-referential. It refers to all the kinds of genre things, the tropes that have gone before. That stuff was obvious.
The less obvious stuff, and the kind of thing that I was hoping to discover or that we spent the most time on was how to differentiate time periods, and how to really make it clear to the audience, especially when you start popping back and forth between 1987 and 2023. We wanted there to be a film language that didn't bump people, but instantly let you know that you're in a different place, a different time so that once you've established it, you don't need the time machine device to go back and forth. You can really just, in a cut, tell people where they are. So that was something that we really workshopped.
I guess what happened was we started exploring twofold. Because 90% of the film happens in the '80s, we sort of really need to nail what that look was. We knew that we had a big ensemble cast, so there were some other requirements there from the script and from the schedule that we had to be aware of and had to make sure that worked. We were less worried about shooting big group scenes and things like that and shooting quickly because we have done that in television. We didn't want to rely on the television way of doing things. We really wanted to stylize this and make it a movie, make it its own thing. But we were less concerned because if push came to shove, we knew how to cover a scene and throw more cameras at it, and get our days that way.
So it was really about, "Okay, what does the 1980s look like for us?" Nahnatchka ... we'd watched a lot of stuff, and some early horror movies as well. I think the first original Halloween was, I mean, has obviously been a reference for a lot of people, but it was a big reference for us, just a simple way of doing things and not forcing a look too much.
The main key reference for us for the '80s actually turned out to be John Hughes films, so Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink, that kind of thing. We really wanted to set an innocent tone, not too forced. There was some discussion going back and forth about do we want to add grain or do we want to degrade the image in some way to make it feel retro. Because so much of the movie happens in that world, we want to make it really accessible. We don't want to put a patina across the screen that separates the audience from the film. We want to make it really easy for them to watch, and we don't want to go super colorful into that Stranger Things world, or we don't want to sort of lean into that either. We really had to find our own way in ... The John Hughes approach is really a comedy approach, but it is quite muted. It's quite neutral, but it's also warm and inviting. I guess that was our go-to. That was sort of our guide for the '80s.
Now, within the '80s, obviously, you have a lot of different scenes. They end up on a Gravitron, the quantum drop. Those rules are going to go out the window once you get into those really saturated worlds. Each world, the time machine itself obviously has its own lighting. We worked hard with our department to build in practical lighting for those sets and those environments so that they would then take over and be their own thing. But as long as we had the rule and we'd always keep coming back to the rule, I mean, as you know, rules are meant to be broken, so you start out with that guideline and it gives you a good way into the text, but then you divert from that when you need to.
Julie Bowen as “Pam Hughes” in the horror-comedy, TOTALLY KILLER, a Prime Video release. Courtesy of Prime Video
NFS: So if John Hughes was your approach to the '80s, what was your approach to the present-day?
Overton: We kind of reverse-engineered it from that idea of flipping back and forth between time periods. If we went with reduced contrast and warmth in the period stuff, we kind of went towards more contrast, slightly cooler, slightly more saturated in the contemporary time periods.
We didn't want to do a Soderbergh, kind of Traffic. Mexico is burnt orange and America is blue saturated wash. We explored it through lenses, [that] was a big thing that we spent a lot of time on, lenses. Originally, we were looking at potentially shooting anamorphic for the period stuff. But then basically again, once we got to the practicalities of it, we knew we were going to shoot on multiple cameras, and to get matching vintage anamorphic lenses, was starting to get both costly and also labor intensive.
There were days when we had three cameras shooting, and had splintering off to get establishers and other bits and pieces, so we wanted to make sure that we could handle the amount of gear. We didn't want to overcook it. We needed to have two sets of lenses for the different periods and we were jumping between, so we really wanted to keep that lean, so what we ended up doing was going with some slightly vintage lenses.
We had some Gecko glass, which are a German prime lens manufacturer, and they basically rehouse. It's like a K35, or there are a few different lenses that they repurpose, but they're very much, for all intents and purposes, they're a modern lens, in terms of practicality, and putting them on the camera, and switching between cameras. They behave like a modern lens, but the look is slightly vintage. I'd say it's just slightly lower contrast, and you can get a little bit of flaring. You get a little rainbow flare from highlights, which was quite nice for just a hint of nostalgia for our '80s stuff.
We did actually end up using an anamorphic lens. We used a Kowa 32mm for just a couple of shots in the film. The main one is when Jamie, Kiernan [Shipka's] character, first steps out of the time machine and into the '80s, and we do a big 360 rotate around her on Steadicam, and using this 32mm anamorphic lens, and it is just super wonky, and the edge is all distorted, and it's just like, "Wow, where am I?" I think she even says, "What the f*ck?" Or something like that.
Yeah, so that was a lot of fun to play with. But again, consistency and making sure we had the right lenses for that was super important. Then conversely, in the '20s, we went with the SIGMA primes, which are very much, I mean, they're quite an affordable lens, which is good, but they're styled after the master primes. I feel like they're very clean, neutral, and have good contrast. That was just instantly a great juxtaposition. You put those lenses on, and you already feel that there's a difference between the two worlds.
NFS: What was the most challenging sequence to shoot?
Overton: I mean, every scene's a challenge, and especially as we know, it's time that's always your enemy. Also, we shot in Vancouver over the summer, and the whole film is set at night. We had some built-in challenges there. Luckily the crews are fantastic, and they're used to the nine months a year they get a rain.
Condors and made tents so we could start shooting when it was still daylight. Then as soon as it was shootable dark, we'd pull all the gear away and start shooting our wide establishing shots in any coverage looking in the other direction. We just had this kind of system down and really great. Troy [James] Sobotka was my grip up there. He was really fantastic, just to help organize all that and keep it running to military precision.
So I think aside from those general [things], that just became a process. So we had to deal with that. I think the most challenging or even the most exciting stuff was the set pieces and the action sequences that we did. We spent a lot of time on those, and we really planned them out so that there was almost no way we could fail.
We just wanted to make sure that we had exactly what we needed for those so really early on, we broke down those action sequences. Everything from the first kill, the first attack, which is basically with the mom in the house and she's been defending herself. She's been doing self-defense classes, preparing herself for just these moments, so it really was a sort of badass fight, and we really wanted her to feel like she knew what she was doing.
To have all the scares, it's the first time we've sort of seen the killer, but we also wanted to give it a real sense of style and a real hopefulness that you really think that the mom's going to be victorious. There's a number of beats through that ... That's just like, "Wow, she's getting it. This is going to be a short movie." Then obviously, making it really, really gory when she finally bites it. That was a great one to shoot. Again, that's shooting interior, exterior, all shot on location, big tents, ending up having a crane and remote head sort of pulling out the door, and then the scene transitions that's sort of our title sequence, and then transitions into the cops have all arrived and the aftermath of the death there.
Olivia Holt as “Teen Pam” in the horror-comedy, TOTALLY KILLER, a Prime Video release. Courtesy of Prime Video
NFS: Can you talk about that Gravitron sequence? I think that is a really compelling fight, too.
Overton: When I read that off the page, I was just like, "Wow, I've never seen anything done like this. A fight sequence in a Gravitron is going to be incredible. How do we do it?"
So again, we really just broke it all down, what the beats were. This is even before we had stunts involved. Nahnatchka and I then went out to a Gravitron. We found one. There was a county fair out in Vancouver, and they ended up actually being the people that we hired the Gravitron from. We went out and we just sort of blocked through it, or just really loosely walked through it with myself and her, a couple of the other crew just to see if it was even feasible. It's actually quite a small space inside these Gravitons. Also, they're very highly engineered, and they have safety checks, and before they run each time they have to be signed off and licensed. It's quite a process to shoot in one, let alone if you need to rig things and pull things apart. We were really limited, in terms of what we could do there.
In fact, to the point that we had a full conversation and went down the whole path of, "Can we build this on stage? Can we build just half of this on stage? What's the VFX cost and what's the cost of the set build?"
We really explored all the options, but it just wasn't viable to do that build. What we wanted to do in there really used every quarter of square foot of the place, so we just wanted to make sure that we could actually fit the crew in there. We sort of went through and just took stills, and took a little bit of video, and just kind of worked it through and blocked out a couple of the moves. We brought in the stunt guy.
So we would've gone out two or three times to the actual real Gravitron before we got it, and just sort of worked out. Okay, what is it going to look like? How would the beats go, and what are going to be the problems? Obviously, we couldn't shoot inside with it spinning. The centrifugal force would push all the cameras and all the crew out to the edges so the only place that we could shoot while it was spinning would be from that center box, and that's super tiny. There's only enough room for the operator. So basically, what we ended up doing after we storyboarded after we'd handed it over to the stunt team and they'd sort of preview it in a different location, they'd sort of worked out boxes and worked out the blocking and what needed to happen.
Then we got the Gravitron. I think we ended up negotiating to have it for a week. In that week we had to shoot the exterior of it in our setup, in our carnival setup at Billy's Boardwalk. Then we also had to wrap it, move it to inside of a nearby stage, and set it up. We were allowed to remove one panel, I think, and then we got some fake beds. We got some sort of rubber beds that we could put over that hole so that it looked like there was no hole there for when we needed to shoot 360 [degrees]. we also made some other beds to fit over the back of the door because usually when the door closes, it just has these big hydraulic pipes on it. We also wanted to have, for one of the gags where the young Pam gets sucked out at the door, we wanted it to look like she's climbing around the beds and when the door opens, you don't know where it's going to open, and so she gets sort of pulled out, and then the killer's mask gets sucked out with it. Yeah, so that was important to have it look like a 360 space with no edges and no walls, and you don't really know what's going on in there.
Then we had to work out rigging. Simon Burnett was the stunt coordinator on the film, and he did a great job with his guys because essentially, they couldn't attach anything permanent anyways to the structure. They just used little pullies, and we put one piece of track in for the moment when the killer kind of walks around the walls of the Gravitron, walking towards Pam to get her. So yeah, we just had a lot of fun and just played with all the gags that we could do to make it seem like the Gravitron was spinning, to get that sense of movement.
James Jackson was my gaffer up in Vancouver. He was fantastic. We ran everything through dimmers, so we were using LEDs a lot, just for the speed and being able to make the changes. But because it's a Gravitron period device, we couldn't really use the kind of tools you would usually use, so he actually found some LED ribbon that had a rubber casing on it, and it looked a lot like the old neon strips, so we kind of used it like that. We set up a chase going around that we could spin at different speeds to kind of make it feel like we were ramping up, ramping up.
Then, with the grips, we replaced the floor. We built a slightly elevated flooring, just to flatten it all up so that we could push our dollies around in there. For the big 360, we got a Scorpio head in for that because we wanted to actually take the camera to 90 degrees as the killer started walking around. We see him stand up. He basically stands up and pushes his body away from the wall. That was one rig. Then we switched him onto the track and he stood up again, and as he stood up, the camera rotated to 90 degrees, so it looks like he's standing upright, but we're pulling back around the wall, and we do a full 360 around the wall and end up back on Jamie's character as she starts crawling down the wall to try to get to the control box. That was a really fun shot.
Who's The Next Blumhouse Slasher?www.youtube.com
NFS: This is what the magic of filmmaking is to me, all these little details and how you pulled it off.
Overton: Revealing the magic tricks.
NFS: I also just feel really romantic about the fact that you saw it on the page, and then it's realized.
Overton: It's really great. We were happy to make compromises, and Natch was really happy to do script changes or work on the other pieces of the story in order to save and make these set pieces as cool as they could be.
NFS: What advice would you give to someone wanting to get into cinematography?
Overton: Yeah. I mean, I think there are so many ways to do it these days. I mean, I was fortunate in that I got to go to film school in Australia. I went to the National Film School, but I'd been working in the industry for 10 years before that as a focus puller, a camera assistant, and a clapper loader. All that time, I'd been making little short films. They're pretty terrible. Taking photographs, which I still love doing. So I think there are so many ways to do it.
It's really hard to find one path, and each person has to find their own path. Some people come from a technical background. Some people start down that path and end up finding out that they actually love the technical side, and that's where they are best suited. Other people find out on day one, no, this isn't for me, and start shooting straight away.
So yeah, I think there are so many paths, but I think generally the more you can read, the more you can research, the more you can build up ... your cohort, basically. Those are the people, whether they're acting in helping out funding your short films, or that turn into the producers or helping you make the connections later in your career. I think it's so important at all stages of the business and of this industry to have people around you. It's a collaborative art form. I mean, I've actually been incredibly lucky. I've shot a lot of documentaries as well, which is a small crew, and you can go out and make stories with just yourself or a small team, but I think it's always about relationships. Building a cohort around you, I think is the most important thing.
NFS: Is there anything you wanted to bring up that I didn't ask?
Overton: I'll just say I had a great B camera operator, Jeff Zwicker up in Vancouver, who was fantastic. He really helped out a number of times. We had scenes that, for example, the dodgeball sequence that we couldn't end up shooting all of it ourselves. We would have to shoot out our lead actors in the scene, but it was really great to have him be available to then go out and keep shooting the scene and put all the action beats together with the stunt coordinator.
Then another time we had a great, something that I was really proud of with these little murder dioramas that we came up with. We were looking at a way to tell the story of this murder podcast. We've all seen crime scene photos and it's kind of a bit tropey been a bit done. I was just doing a Google search and found these little diorama projects that people were doing of kill rooms—and my internet search is a big flag on that—but it was just an interesting take on it to do these little models and dioramas. We did do photographs as well, but then luckily, Nahnatchka and Liz Kay are her art director and production designer, and they'd actually done some diorama stuff back on Fresh Off the Boat. That was a Christmas theme, so a little bit different from what we ended up doing. But it was really fun to make these.
I think they were quarter-size models with model cars and model cabins in the woods. We set up a sort of macro stage and had that running parallel to our Graviton work, actually. Jeff was over there working with the grips, and they sort of set up. They're using probe lenses and doing some great macro moves through these environments, sort of replicating the murders that had happened in the past. It was just a really nice, fun take on it, something new.