Todd Spence and Zak White of Midnight Video share their tips for creating scary horror shorts on virtually no budget.
If you know me, then you know I'm all about horror. And I've been following LA-based filmmakers Todd Spence and Zak White (who release movies under their Midnight Video banner) for a few years now. Their work is atmospheric and creepy and always packs a good, punchy scare. For instance, 2017's Your Date Is Here was a Fantastic Fest pick and a viral hit, and is one of my favorite horror shorts ever.
I was super excited when they released their latest short film, Fear Wish, this month. They made this particular short while working out some kinks on a separate, bigger-budget project, and kindly agreed to give No Film School a behind-the-scenes look at their development process and how they work with basically no money. So let's dig in!
NFS: You guys went to school together in St. Louis, moved to LA, and were originally working in the comedic space. What prompted the shift to horror?
Todd Spence: I think we both realized that working in comedy was a massive uphill battle. First of all, with the number of people in improv or comedians on Instagram, Snapchat, Vine (at the time), and so on, it’s just a sea of people working in comedy. On top of that, it seemed like no one really cared about comedy videos or sketches unless you were an already established comedic brand like Funny or Die, or you had celebrities in your videos. Horror, which we both loved, for me possibly before loving comedy, was something that was way more easily appreciated without having to have an established audience or some surprise cameo. People just want good horror, not caring who made it or who’s in it. Good is good. So that had a bigger chance of breaking through.
Zak White: It wasn’t all for strategic reasons, though. As Todd said, we were always horror fans, and although our comedy skewed dark, horror was an itch that we hadn’t fully scratched yet. Once we dug into it and discovered how fun it could be, and how similar the storytelling mechanics were to comedy, it all felt very kismet. And the great thing is that both genres are so intertwined that we never had to shift all that far. Some of our favorite horror has plenty of comedy in it and vice versa.
NFS: What advice would you give to a creator trying to shift genres?
Spence: First of all, do the genre you love. A lot of people seem to shift to horror because horror is really popular right now, and you can tell in the work that the love of it isn’t quite there. Your love of it, whatever it is, will guide your instincts.
White: As Todd said, follow your passion. What’s gonna make you get out of bed and create? Try to find a community that feels the same. No one ever achieves anything alone. In most cases, it will take you a very long time to get good at something. Make it something you care about getting good at.
It will take you a very long time to get good at something. Make it something you care about getting good at.
NFS: You typically work on very small budgets, which tends to mesh well with horror projects. Can you give us some examples of getting creative while having basically no money?
Spence: In general with horror we appreciate the less-is-more factor, real theater-of-the-mind stuff. It’s good to have a payoff of some kind in your story, but letting the audience imagine what we’re not letting them see really gets the imagination going, and imagination is why we love horror in the first place. It’s that feeling of walking alone at night, and your brain starts to play tricks on you and freak you out. That’s often scarier than anything else.
White: It’s all about pace and timing. Tension and release. If you can build the right moment, you won’t need a ton of production value to pay it off. Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to make something with a bigger budget, but learning how to scare without that budget is invaluable. And mainly it just takes practice. Sometimes we don’t find it until we’re in the edit. Take a few frames out here, add a music sting there. And learn a few camera tricks.
NFS: Did you face any particular challenges on Fear Wish?
Spence: The biggest challenge was [the character] Mike on the phone and the performance behind it. Since it’s someone you’re only hearing and not seeing, it was tough to make sure that voice wasn’t so emotional that it overtook our lead Nathan Sutton’s emotion, yet still believable in that his friend on the phone knew how terrifying a “fear wish” could be. A really tricky balance we had to figure out and question in the editing and VO process.
White: Luckily Scott Whyte is a super talented professional who nailed it right away, but before we landed on him, there were some versions we tried that were, let's just say, “different.” Just technically speaking, one of our challenges that took some thinking was figuring out how to make the fireplace as dark as possible in order to hide the wish, while also having enough light on our actor so the entire short wasn’t an underlit mess. Thankfully, our DP Dave made everything look beautiful and equally atmospheric.
NFS: How did you achieve the VFX shots in Fear Wish on no budget?
White: Easy, we don’t use any. So far, for all of our shorts, what you see is what you get. We’d love to learn a little more about VFX. I think blending it with practical elements can be a really useful tool, but we also love love love using practical effects. There’s something more tangible on the screen.
NFS: What gear were you working with on Fear Wish?
Dave Jacobsen (DP on Fear Wish): Sony a7iii, Sony 24-70 GM lens, 2 1x1 LED light panels, and 1 LED light stick. To stay within the small budget, we decided to go with the equipment we already owned. The new Sony cameras do really well in low light, which allows us to keep the gear to a minimum.
As for the lighting, less is more when it comes to horror.
NFS: You shot a lot of Fear Wish in near-darkness. Can you talk about how you lit this short?
Jacobsen: As for the lighting, less is more when it comes to horror. You still need to retain the information, but you can get away with more shadows in this genre. Rather than throwing light everywhere, we lit just what we wanted the audience to see. Small LED lights have gotten versatile, but still too punchy to be used alone. When space is limited for equipment, a quick go-to is to just wrap the light in diffusion (light grid being a personal favorite).
NFS: All of your shorts build amazing tension. What are some of your tricks, both during development and in post, for creating that kind of ominous atmosphere?
Spence: Thank you so much for saying that. All we can do is think the tension will be there, but in the end, it’s the audience who tells us if it worked or not, so that’s awesome you felt that. For Fear Wish, we wanted Nathan to feel a bit trapped. So instead of sitting on a couch, we wanted to give him a chair with arms as if he had no choice but to stay locked in and deal with the situation. Also, we didn’t ever want to see the front door, which would give the audience that immediate idea of “Dude, just run out of there!” So really tunnel vision for our lead and keeping his POV on the light from the flashlight was really I think what delivered the tension.
But generally speaking, it’s setting up “the game” of the short so to speak; here are the rules of the game and you’re about to see how not fun this game is about to be.
White: Just like in comedy, it’s all about setup and punchline. The only difference is a scream instead of a laugh. And misdirection, you want your audience to look left while you’re setting up the scare to the right. But more than just camera tricks, if the audience doesn’t feel for the character, if they don’t put themselves in the character’s shoes, the tension will feel forced and artificial. It has to feel personal.
NFS: You self-funded your previous films but are currently crowdfunding your next project. What tips would you give to someone wanting to crowdfund their first short?
Spence: We luckily had a portfolio and track record people could check out to see that we would use the funds wisely. So we wouldn’t recommend starting out asking for money. With that said, if you’re starting with your first short film, write something simple and easy to do that will barely cost you anything. You’re learning, after all. A lot of people think they need all of the money in the world to do any sort of film production, but you really don’t, not in today’s age. If you have a vision and a solid, yet simple concept, and some links to a camera and some lights, you’re golden. The best example of this by far is David Sandberg’s Lights Out short film. It clearly cost nothing to do, but the concept and vision of how to execute it alone made it all work.
If you’re starting with your first short film, write something simple and easy to do that will barely cost you anything.
White: If you can help it, don’t. But if you must, try your best to bring your backers along on the ride. Everyone wants to feel a part of something. They want to be in on the journey, that’s what they’re giving money to. Not for another piece of content. There’s endless free stuff to watch already. They are giving money because they like you or your project and want to feel connected to it. So let them be active participants, however that shapes up.
NFS: Can you tell us anything about your next project?
Spence: Since we were able to raise some funds, we asked our friends at Russell FX who just won a [Fangoria] Chainsaw Award to create some practical stuff for us which we’re really excited about. And we think you guys will love not only the FX they’ve made but the overall concept of the film as well. We’re very excited about it.
White: We’ll hopefully be shooting it very soon. The rest, you’ll have to wait and see. Tension!
What's next? Learn more about shooting horror!
Here are some spooky lighting set-ups you can use in your horror short, or if you're short on money, horror lighting with one light. And be sure to check out more of Midnight Video's work, then get inspired by these other horror shorts.