This post was sponsored by Blackmagic Design.
The lives of two convicts, Nick and Guy, are turned upside down when their prison transport crashes and they’re able to make a run for it. Both think they’re in luck when they find a remote farmhouse, but their fortunes quickly turn when the couple living there turns out to not be the victims they initially appear to be. While they had just escaped imprisonment, Nick and Guy soon find themselves fighting a different type of confinement as the horror feature American Gothic unfolds.
American Gothic is the latest project for writer, director and producer Stuart Connelly, whose previous projects include Natural Selection (2016), starring Anthony Michael Hall and Katherine McNamara, and The Suspect (2013), starring Mekhi Phifer and Sterling K. Brown. American Gothic recently premiered at the Atlantic City Cinefest, where it took home prizes in the horror category for Best Feature, Best Cinematography (Sherry McCracken) and Best Actor (Mark Barthmaier).
Connelly and team followed a new filmmaking model for the film. “I’d seen firsthand where individual dollars pile up to big numbers even in modest budget pictures. And these days, indie budgets just don’t have the room for wasting a dime, not if they want to turn a profit,” says Connelly. “So for American Gothic my plan was to eliminate all those opportunities for waste, allowing for a production that would have the same cinematic qualities as our other films but for a dramatically lower price tag. This wasn’t DIY—it was a SAG production and followed all the rules—but we knew we could engineer out the elements that create excess spending so we could cover more ground with the budget we had available.
“It started with the script: few characters; a tight story timeline to keep them in the same wardrobe; a single ‘super-location’ that could not only cover all our story locations, but also one that we could walk away from instead of wasting time with wrapouts.”
That “super-location” turned out to be the Chester County farmhouse where Connelly and his wife (and producing partner) Mary Jo Barthmaier live with their twins, Wesley and Callie.
“And most importantly,” he says, “we needed the flexibility of owning the camera.” Connelly knew from experience how critical grabbing additional footage after wrap could be. “Having the camera would allow us to go back out and shoot B-roll, VFX plates, inserts and cutaways without the extra costs of additional rental days. That flexibility was crucial in the end—but here we were, with the smallest budget we’d ever worked with, and one of the line items is ‘camera and lens purchase!’”
Gearing Up for a First Feature
Connelly and the film’s DP, Sherry McCracken, selected a Blackmagic Production Camera 4K as their camera of choice.
“We knew the type of cinematic look we wanted going into shooting and we weren’t willing to compromise that vision. We wanted to invest in a camera that we knew could deliver a high-quality image and work well with post. It also had to fit into our budget. The price point for the quality of the Blackmagic Design camera was incredible, but what ultimately sold us was the previz we did,” says McCracken. “The previz shots captured the exact look we were going for.”
American Gothic was the first film for cinematographer McCracken, who’s spent most of her career as a still photographer. After working as the still photographer and producer for Natural Selection and The Suspect alongside Connelly, McCracken decided to take the plunge and get behind the camera for American Gothic.
“Whether working as a still photographer or as a DP, it’s all about storytelling. The way you look at things is very different, but the end goal is still the same, so that’s what I kept in mind as I dove into planning for American Gothic,” says McCracken. “Since it was my first film as a DP, I found it very helpful to use tools I was familiar with, which is why I was thankful to be able to interweave my Canon lenses alongside the productions’ Rokinon primes. Actually, the Blackmagic Design camera allowed me to integrate many of my other rig components.”
The Right Camera Size
“A lot of the film is fast paced and involved run-and-gun style shooting,” says McCracken. “We were shooting on location in a farmhouse, so the spaces played a lot into how we framed our shots. We could be tucked inside a silo, crouched down behind the cell bars in a dark basement or working inside a confined tool shed. We shot one scene in a small powder room where I had to squeeze in behind a toilet with a six-foot tall actor leaning over me, frantically looking for an exit. We really wanted to have the audience feel the intensity of having this escaped prisoner towering over them. The Blackmagic Design camera was perfect for getting into those tight spaces—I don’t think I could have shot it with a bigger setup.”
“Being physically smaller than most DPs or camera operators, I struggle with getting weighed down with heavier camera gear,” she continued. “All rigged up, the Production Camera 4K was still very manageable for me. I am very much a hands-on DP and enjoy doing as many of the shots as I can. This camera gave me the freedom to not only frame the shot I wanted, but also allowed me to go for the run-and-gun shots that, with another rig, I might have needed to hand over to a stronger operator.”
Adding Intensity in Color Correction
“There’s a frantic energy to American Gothic and we really wanted to use color to add a heightened sense of chaos to those scenes,” says colorist Pat Taylor of ColourSky Films. Taylor used Blackmagic Design’s DaVinci Resolve to color grade the film.
“Having worked with Stuart before, I had the opportunity to become involved with the project early on, during the pre-production phase. This allowed us time to do some camera and looks tests before principal photography began. This process turned out to be paramount to establishing a final look for the film,” says Taylor.
“After auditioning a handful of color treatments, we settled on a look for the film by desaturating the background and adding pops of color to certain items and to skin tones to add intensity. We took things scene by scene, with each having its own story and distinct mood. During the more tense scenes, we wanted the audience to be a little uncomfortable, just like the characters. To achieve this we increased the contrast and held back on the saturation of the skin tones a bit. We also added some blue to these scenes and paid special attention to the convict’s blue jumpsuits. DaVinci Resolve’s node-based structure was incredibly helpful in this regard, as it allowed me to have a high degree of control over separate elements in each scene.
“One of the best things about working with nodes in DaVinci Resolve is that I can create complex node chains with the Stills and Powergrade functions, which allows me to design tools that I can store and re-use on other scenes and even in other projects,” says Taylor. “In essence, I’m creating my own set of grading tools. I have a whole suite of them and I build on them with each project. They save me a ton of time when I’m grading.”
“Controlling the skin tones was very important with this project, especially since we went with a varying degree of desaturation of our environments. By using DaVinci Resolve’s qualification and tracking tools I had the control I needed to isolate and adjust skin tones and other elements individually, according to the mood of the scene. Ultimately, we were going for a moderately desaturated world with characters that stood out but were still a part of their environment, and the control that DaVinci Resolve’s tool set offered us is what allowed us to get there.”
Amplifying Effects with Fusion
Along with directing the film, Connelly also got creative with the film’s visual effects using Blackmagic Design’s Fusion.
“Our post budget was tiny and it didn’t allow for bringing VFX people on board,” he says. “We knew that going in, so we tried to make sure everything was practical and ‘in-camera.’ However, when the edit started coming together, I realized there was an opportunity to deepen the tone we were going for: adding intense clouds in the background behind the house, an orange glow to the tip of a hot needle, mist and fog.
“There were also some little mistakes that slipped through the cracks with our intense shooting schedule. For example, one shot that is so innocuous in the film has two complicated effects you’d never notice: a rack-focus on a car moving toward camera had both the wrong state’s license plate and the wrong year on the windshield’s registration sticker. The plate had to be swapped out, while the sticker’s date was overwritten, both in Fusion.”
Connelly’s favorite fix? “One of our actors looked at the dummy head that was going to represent his character on fire and he had no idea how we were going to ‘sell’ it because it didn’t look much like him. I gave him the standard ‘we’ll fix it in post’ line, but the truth was I had yet to figure out how. Using Fusion’s particle system and tracking and displacement tools, I was able to graft his face over the dummy’s and create a heat haze coming off it that looked totally natural. When the actor saw the result at a film festival for the first time, he was amazed at how real it looked.”
“In the end,” says the moviemaker, “American Gothic will more than hold its own against indie horror films costing 10, 20 times the money. There’s no way I’d be in a position to say that without the breakthroughs in digital film, color technology and VFX at Blackmagic Design that were harnessed.” MM
American Gothic will be available in stores and on-demand in North America, and on streaming platforms worldwide, this year.