Tips for Shooting and Lighting Horror with Director Mike Pecci
An interview with Mike Pecci about his recent horror short film ‘Come Home’ and how he was able to channel Sam Raimi for that classic horror look.
Out of all the film genres that we love to watch and create, the horror genre has become one of the most popular in recent years. From what was once a seasonal selection for audiences and filmmakers alike, entire careers and industries are being built on the back of this iconic genre.
As such, the art of crafting horror films has become much more refined and creative, yet still very exact and precise as audiences expect to see and experience certain looks and aesthetics—while of course always looking for a new angle or surprise.
So, when we get a chance to check out a new horror short film that somehow excels at recreating iconic film looks while still crafting new juxtapositions and characters. It’s exciting for us to learn how it was developed.
We chatted with filmmaker, writer, and cinematographer Mike Pecci about his most recent short film Come Home, and were able to gain some insights into how other aspiring horror filmmakers can write, light, and shoot their own shorts or features.
No Film School: We loved the iconic horror look and feel to Come Home, can you talk a bit about your inspiration for this horror short?
Mike Pecci: Well, the non-sexy version for it is that I had another movie that was in pre-production prior to COVID-19, and it was a feature and it was about to go, it was ready to rock, and I spent over a year prepping it. Then, with all the events that happened with COVID-19, everything just sort of halted. It was as if I was ready to give birth to a baby and it was taken away. I ended up thrusting pretty deep into depression for a little bit through that period of time. My friend Lance, who's the lead actor in the film, and I would spend a lot of time talking about the director-actor process, so we decided to just start working on a scene together.
We just sort of came up with this sequence with this guy in this shed and the whole story of him trying to put together this toy. So I was like, OK, so he's fighting this inner demon, and let's sort of go make it this literal demon, and let's see where we can go with this emotionally. We just shot him in the shed.
The motivation for the piece was literally just the love of filmmaking and trying to refine that love after what happened to so many of us directors and filmmakers out here in Los Angeles. The business really beats the shit out of you. You go on this really sort of bipolar journey with projects and whether or not they get approved and you get the money. And so I think you'll see a lot of that in the character of this film. He's a guy who's really trying to keep control over his work and his process, and he is struggling with this depression and this internal demon. That's really where it came from.
Credit: Mike Pecci
NFS: Despite its tight and small location, the film feels very big and cinematically expansive. Can you share a bit about what cameras and lenses you used for the short?
Pecci: I talk about this on my podcast all the time. In general, I really don't have any loyalties to specific manufacturers. I feel like everything that's out there is a tool for storytelling. Everything out there has its purpose and you don't always pick up the same shovel if you're going to do landscaping. There are different tools for each task. With this piece, we shot on the ARRI ALEXA with Atlas Orion series anamorphic lenses.
With that large format, you get an even wider scope, which you can see when you watch the movie, you'll see that it's beyond your standard anamorphic scope. And because the shed was so tight, it actually enabled me to get these very epic frames in a very tiny space. We picked that camera for that reason, but then for all of our B-cam stuff, and all of our macro inserts, we shot on the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera 6k Pro.
That is one of those cameras that I love to have with me. I have a handful of cameras that are always in my space, especially when I'm in the editing room, I'll hit moments where I go, "Oh, I need an insert of a blinking light bulb." I'll literally turn around in the edit space, go grab a dimmer and a light bulb in an apple box, light it, set up the shot, shoot the insert, and then put it right in a timeline. So, the Pocket 6K Pro does a fantastic job of being able to match the ARRI and just fit seamlessly into a timeline where you wouldn’t know the difference at the end of the day.
Credit: Mike Pecci
NFS: The film feels like a master class in cinematic horror lighting, what were your go-to lights for this production? Any tips on how others could replicate your cinematic horror look?
Pecci: I shot this movie as well as directed it. If you notice the cinematographer title on this is actually a reference to MacReady from The Thing. I should also mention that I come from a world of lighting. I love lighting. When I see good lighting, it feels like eating a good steak. I’m always on the hunt for that satisfaction and I've got a kit full of all sorts of high-tech and low-tech toys to try and get me there. But we heavily relied on Aperture units for this just because of the low power draw that they have, which is great. And then obviously the RGB abilities to be able to dial in light, which is really fantastic. I also love and use the Spotlight Max, a lot! It’s a gorgeous backlight and great for dialing in a specific spot or eye light.
I try to explain this to anybody that I'm teaching lighting to: it’s not the units that you're using, but it's how you're controlling that light. I see light like a fluid sort of splashing around in a room. As I talk to you right now, I'm standing in my living room and I'm literally lit by the house across the street and the light is bouncing off this white house and then pushing this way through all these green leaves on the trees in the front of our yard. And it's lighting me from a key side, and then it's bouncing off the blue couch next to me, and that's giving me the fill that I need for that.
At the end of the day, when you're talking about light, it's all about how you're modifying light, especially when you're making horror. You can make light on the wall a character in the film, just by moving a tree branch in front of it. You can run a snow machine in front of a lit door and add depth and movement. Practical gags are the best because they can be performed and feel almost accidental and surprising. It’s exciting! I think that is what I like about the horror genre in general, is that the audience is buying a ticket to be a part of all of the tricks. And if we're over-exaggerating our camera angles and light gags and if we're just having fun, then the audience can too. I mean, thank you Sam Raimi for allowing us to continue that language that you set up with The Evil Dead franchise.
Credit: Mike Pecci
NFS: Yeah, absolutely. Thank you. Sam Raimi.
Pecci: Yeah, man, fucking Sam Raimi is the man.
NFS: Can you tell us a bit about your post-production workflow? What did you use for editing and color, and why?
Pecci: Yeah, so I cut all my stuff on my trusty Puget System edit machine. I love my Puget System machine, if you don’t have one yet, you should totally check them out. All my editor buddies are jealous of my 6k real-time beast! And then I am generally cutting in Adobe Creative Suite. So I've been cutting in Premier for years, and I still think it's more comfortable than anything else at this point. However I am color grading in DaVinci Resolve, and I will say that I brought the stuff in there and found myself doing more than just color grading because their compositing is just insane right now.
I had to do a bunch of touch-ups with the snow and I even had to add snow into some interior elements and I just sort of fell down this hole of tracking masks. I was quite impressed with how quickly I could track masks and with just the polishing and the color grading abilities in general. Honestly, man, it's like fucking Skynet tracking stuff in that program that is just mind-blowing.
Credit: Mike Pecci
NFS: Finally, if you could give any advice to any aspiring horror filmmakers looking to make their own short or feature project, what would it be?
Pecci: Well, it's interesting, right? I mean, besides directing, this is what I do on my podcast. So I have a show called In Love of the Process, and I started that show specifically as a filmmaker because I had a lot of other young filmmakers just constantly reaching out and writing to me every day and saying, how do you set up your business? And how are you dealing with clients? How are you staying motivated? And I found that there really weren't a lot of people in our business that were being really fucking honest about it and how difficult of a life choice it is to do this stuff. And as the show continued, I really sort of fell into my love of horror, cinematography, and music and I was bringing on other filmmakers and artists that share how they fucking make it on the show. And guess what? We all are the same.
There are lessons that I wish I learned much earlier because when I grew up, I grew up in the nineties, man. I grew up wanting to be a music video director like David Fincher or Spike Jonze, and thinking that if I did it the way they had done, I'd have a movie career. My first general meeting was in front of a movie studio executive and guess what, they couldn’t give a shit about my music videos, or the fact that I had been directing commercials for over 15 years. I bought into all the press and the promotional stuff that was used to build the legends around those filmmakers. Here is a reality check, directors are not geniuses, they don’t pop out of their mom with an opinion on the right lens for a closeup, and more often than not, they have no idea what they are doing. They are continuously trying to figure it out, and deal with their own imposter syndrome, just like the rest of us.
When you’ve been doing this for a while, you sort of hit this point where you go, it's not easy to get into this business. It doesn't matter who you are. And the only chance you have is by making things on your own and doing things for yourself. Believe it or not, at some point, you could be standing in the room with David Fincher and if you're someone who's made a short film then you both will have something to talk about because the first day on every film set starts the same way. Your first shot always sucks, no matter the budget. And every director questions themself at that moment. And so regardless of whether or not we're talking about horror or filmmaking in general, what I say to folks is just make stuff. As soon as you call action and you have people there working with you is the first day that you can say that you're a filmmaker and you're a director, and you can be proud of that.