This post was written by Josh Jay.
This is exactly what happened to director David Sandberg when he posted his no-budget short horror film Lights Out to YouTube in 2013. Shot in his apartment with no budget, no crew, and his partner playing the lead, this wickedly effective short film quickly amassed millions of views and caught the attention of Hollywood.
Sandberg was soon inundated with offers to direct. Producer Lawrence Grey saw the potential of Sandberg’s short as a full-length feature and connected him with producer James Wan and screenwriter Eric Heisserer to flesh out the script, with Sandberg attached to direct. The feature-length Lights Out (2016) was a huge commercial and critical success, legitimizing Sandberg as a bona fide and in-demand Hollywood director.
Sandberg went on to direct box-office hits Annabelle: Creation, Shazam!, and the upcoming Shazam! Fury of the Gods.
Sandberg’s origin story is the stuff of filmmaking folklore—plucked from obscurity and catapulted to fame off the back of a single short film posted online. So, what exactly was it about his viral short film that captured the internet and Hollywood’s attention?
I break down the key filmmaking techniques Sandberg used in the original Lights Out that contributed to the short’s viral success and how you can use these same techniques in your next no-budget horror to go viral and launch your film career. Check out my full video below.
Lights Out the short takes just 12 seconds and three shots to hook the viewer.
For an audience on the internet, it’s crucial to move them into the story as soon as possible. The spooky image in the third shot has an immediate creep factor and gives rise to a burning question in our minds: "What the heck is that in the hallway?"
We’re going to keep watching to find out the answer.
As any horror fan would know, sound is king in horror.
Sandberg employs sparing use of spine-chilling sounds across the film to create tension, often using silence as a lethal weapon and music only at key moments.
'Lights Out'Credit: David Sandberg
Masterclass in Minimalism
Lights Out runs for just two and half minutes and has 13 separate shots.
Sandberg packs a lot into the runtime—even a three-act structure. But the film focuses on one core idea: when the lights go out, a monster appears.
Simple and short is almost always better than long and complex for virality.
This is arguably the most important reason why the film went viral and caught the attention of Hollywood in the first place. The idea of a monster appearing only when the lights go out is original and brilliantly executed by Sandberg and precisely the kind of low-budget horror concept that can be spun out into a feature film—which is exactly what happened.
Credit: David Sandberg
One Final Scare
The end image is truly something to behold. It comes unexpectedly, and as soon as we see it for half a second, the film abruptly finishes. This leaves a cold chill running through the audience and has great shareability. If you want to scare the wits out of your friend in under three minutes, this is a great little short to share with them.
Which filmmaking techniques do you think contributed most to the short’s viral success? Let us know in the comments.
Check out Josh Jay's YouTube channel, Feature Filmmaker.