Deep Fried Interview: Cinematographer Benji Bakshi talks the creature feature Big Ass Spider!
Between all the sharnados and sharktopuses (or is it sharktopi?), the schlocky CGI creature feature has become a subgenre embraced almost solely for its charming ineptitude. But Big Ass Spider! makes it clear in its very first scene that its aim is loftier than being enjoyed ironically.
That opening scene is an extended slow-motion stroll through Los Angeles in the midst of an enlarged arachnid rampage – set to a cover of The Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind?” It establishes everything that sets Big Ass Spider! apart – competent effects, self-aware humor and visual panache. The latter comes courtesy of cinematographer Benji Bakshi, who tells Deep Fried Movies how he helped return a scrap of credibility to the giant monster movie.
How did you end up involved in making a movie with a title like Big Ass Spider?
Benji Bakshi (BB): At the time, this was not the genre of movie I would have foreseen (myself) shooting. But when I first read the script I was laughing out loud and imagined exactly how it would look in my head. I consider Big Ass Spider! to be a comedy/action/sci-fi. I don’t really think there’s much horror in it at all. There is some, but not as much as the comedy and driving plot pace. What attracted me was the mixed genres and turning things a little on their head. It seemed like no matter what, at least we’d be having fun shooting the script. It was self-aware and even had a line that read, “This is like out of a SyFy Channel movie!” The director Mike Mendez knew why he was making this movie – “to have fun killing as many people on screen as possible.” It sounded like my 13-year-old backyard filmmaking dream come true. So people would ask me what I was shooting, and I got to tell them “a 50 foot spider rampaging through LA.”
Big Ass Spider! was shot in 17 days for what I’m assuming was not a lot of money. What were some of the tricks you used to make the movie seem so much more polished than other recent films of this kind?
BB: Our budget wasn’t any bigger than any (other movie of this type), so the challenge was firstly, “What do we want this movie to feel like?” And secondly, “What are some broad decisions that will guide the look?” We really had to break down the scenes and derive what tone would work best. Sometimes we decided to go dark and creepy with slow camera moves, and some were bright, wide-angle with people screaming to camera and cutting fast and, of course, shaking the camera. There was a conscious decision to keep the film lighthearted and not too serious.
On day one of shooting on some standing sets, we didn’t have enough cable to get (electricity) from the truck to the shooting set. That’s the kind of limitations we were under! A key factor in the energy of the film was (our use of) Steadicam, which was performed by my longtime “bro” and collaborator Ben Semanoff (SOC). Big Ass Spider! has a plot that is constantly pushing forward and the main characters are always on the move. The camera had to follow their energy and sometimes create it for them.
I am a big fan of atmosphere (ed. note: fog or smoke pumped into the air) and that often helped the film feel more cinematic. The choice to use atmosphere informs the lighting style because you see the actual directionality of light sources in camera through beams and halos, so you tend to use less “special” accent lights and more bigger, directional sources. This was good because it meant we could light more economically. The lighting style I tried to keep as dramatic and contrasty as possible within the tone of the scene. Some scenes were comedic and high key, but I was always looking for ways to carve out some separation. Of course we were always pushing against the barrier of time and resources. We had a small crew and often had to light based on what we had, not what we wanted. But we did the best we could.
Lastly, knowing the cutting pattern and the storyboards were a very important part of getting the movie shot. There were a lot of action sequences and we had to know what we were doing. A lot of the “fun” of the movie comes from what the camera is seeing – (from) revealing the comedy or monster at the right time. In all reality, the scripted movie shouldn’t have been able to be made for the budget we had. Somehow we got a lot of favors and everything came together. It’s had a fruitful festival run from South By Southwest to Fantastic Fest and beyond and did a theatrical release, so it ended up being the little movie that could. They threw “spider parties” at all the festivals and it was good fun. If anyone is going to watch this movie as a result of this blog, know what movie you are in for. It’s a lot of fun, don’t take it too seriously, and it should probably not be viewed sober. It’s a genre flick that’s not trying to be anything but.
The movie has over 600 digital visual effects shots. What lessons did you learn working so extensively in the VFX realm?
BB: I already had pretty extensive experience working with (visual effects) and greenscreens on commercials and such. Thankfully our VFX supervisor Asif Iqbal didn’t require a lot of greenscreen. We had our moments where it was (20’x20′ greenscreens) and actors pretending to be scared of an invisible monster, but often the VFX were added as layers on top of our footage. As long as Asif and I were in sync, we could get what everyone needed. It was frustrating at times for both of us because we couldn’t take the time to perfect or get reference passes, or VFX elements, etc. Normally a lot of work goes into shooting photo-real assets for the VFX department. Had we had a unit specializing in generating that footage, the VFX would have been able to blend even better with the footage and that’s what you want.
What would you tell a DP about to embark on their first visual effects movie NOT to do?
BB: What you don’t want to do on your first VFX-heavy project is be uncollaborative. When the FX are bad, everything is bad. Don’t operate in a bubble. No one will notice the difference between great shooting and bad VFX. So the VFX supervisor is your ally just like the production designer is – you are all working together to make visuals. Asif would sometimes tell me, “Make that corner brighter, we’re going to add a bank of CG monitors over there.” What would normally look too flat or muddy to me, I let go because in the end the image was going to look different than it looked on set. That being said, in Big Ass Spider! there are stronger and weaker VFX sequences which I think had a lot to do with complexity and render time. Unfortunately render time equals money.
What camera and lens package did you use and what were some factors behind those decisions?
BB: We shot on the Red One MX. It was old school even for 2011 when we shot (the movie). That was strictly due to budget and the fact that the filmmaking team was aiming for TV distribution and wanted the ability to punch in to aid the edit and give VFX ample resolution. And there was about a week of two-camera shooting which had to fit the budget. It ended up being a necessary choice given the constraints, though I wish we captured on a camera with greater latitude for day exteriors.
We got the camera and lens package from Panavision Hollywood. Mike Carter was (and is) my rep there and he really enabled me to do better work than I could have otherwise. Our lens package consisted of a set of Panavision Speed primes and Lightweight zooms. We didn’t have any of the newer, cleaner glass.
This seems like a movie made by people with great affection for the genre.
BB: (Director) Mike Mendez is definitely a creature/horror buff. He lives for the stuff. The script dictated its own tone and our job was to follow that with the visuals. It’s tricky to know what’s going to make the movie work the best for the audience. Had we put a more serious look on the film, some of the comedy might not have played. And had we made everything bright and open, there would be no intensity to contrast the lightness.
Big Ass Spider! was storyboarded, but were there other types of PreVis for the effects sequences? And does having to stick so closely to a preconceived idea because of the effects stifle spontaneity on the set?
BB: There were some VFX PreVis renders of the main spider destruction sequences like the opening and ending city scenes. They were more like possibilities than approved storyboards, so we always made room to adapt on set. I’m always a fan of storyboards. More than a shotlist, they help all the departments understand the structure of a shot and what’s involved. For a movie where lots of shit is happening on screen all the time, this was crucial. Improvisation and instincts were never stifled by being prepared. I feel like you can never be too prepared. And if you have a better idea once you see it come to life on set, great!
Because of the questionable quality of so many recent CG monster movies, Big Ass Spider! really needs to grab people immediately to reinforce that the movie is going to be different. The slow motion sequence that opens the film certainly does that.
BB: The opening sequence was a big attraction for me to do the movie. I wanted this sequence to feel like the cinematics of a video game. In some ways I think the opening tries a little too hard to be “awesome” when there could have been a little more humor interspersed, but it does seem to succeed in grabbing peoples’ attention. After seeing it, you’re ready to invest the next 90 minutes in seeing what happens.
We shot most of the sequence at 96 (frames per second) at 2K resolution. I tend to shoot slow motion in multiples of 24fps in case they want to re-time it in post, which they did for some of it. Ben Semanoff flew the camera (on the Steadicam) all day getting the walking sequences. We timed the day shooting into backlight as much as possible. The ending real-time sequences were bright and front-lit which seemed appropriate considering everything narratively was exposed and out in the open. I was hoping for two days to shoot all these city street scenes but we only got one due to budget. There were a lot of (darlings) we had to kill due to that tight schedule, but that’s not unique to this movie.
Below, Bakshi walks us through a host of shots from Big Ass Spider!
A tracking shot of Big Ass Spider! hero Grug Grunberg from the opening scene.
BB: This was a Steadicam pull back at 96fps. We shot into backlight and bounce back from a gold lame frame. I bounced warm light back onto Greg for this sequence so we could slightly cool off the background to separate him. A lot of the background was embellished by VFX. Like that car wasn’t burned out, it looked brand new.
Also from the opening sequence, a “Michael Bay” shot in which the camera moves in a half-circle around Greg Grunberg for the film’s first reveal of the Big Ass Spider!
BB: This was shot against greenscreen on a different day (than the rest of the opening sequence) in matching light. We used Steadicam for the Greg Grunberg part and VFX tracked him onto still background plates which I believe they collected (the day the rest of the opening sequence was shot). This shot was done at 24fps which made it feel like you snap out of the slow motion confusion and into reality. I believe it was a 27mm lens.
Greg Grunberg’s exterminator crawls Alien-style through a hospital’s ventilation system.
BB: This shot was lit only with the practical (flashlight). I used a 50mm T1.0 lens and I think I even opened the camera shutter to 360 degrees. The aluminum vent was so incredibly reflective that using any real amount of additional light looked fake to my eye. So we kept it authentic and went for practical light. The light on his face is mostly from the flashlight bouncing off the white spider web (out of frame in front of him).
A classic monster movie gag. The creature crawls out for the audience to see, but slinks away when a hospital morgue attendant turns around.
BB: It’s all about not showing the monster. Fear is inherently the unknown. I wish the movie showed it less. This scene was another balance of keeping things “movie dark”. How humorous was the scene intended to be? How dark could we go without feeling like we were breaking the genre or the language?
One of the spider’s early victims wanders down a dimly lit corridor.
BB: I liked this scene visually. Single sources are fun and with atmosphere, you can play silhouettes nicely, which we did. On one side we put source 4s with steel blue gel, on the other we had a 1.2K HMI. That’s about all we worked with because we had limited power. That’s the kind of challenges we were always working with. We wet down the floor to catch some of the natural reflection.
The shadow of the spider’s legs move across the face of a victim played by horror director Adam Gierasch.
BB: Those leg shadows are CG. We lit our guy with a kino flo and steel blue (gel) and VFX put in the legs. Classic horror.
Greg Grunberg and Clare Kramer, who plays a soldier and serves as the love interest, hunt for the still-growing spider in a hospital’s machine room.
BB: The “big light” you see from above is a 1.2K HMI poking through a natural hole in one of the windows. There is a little fill light coming from the right side. There is natural window light bleeding in from the large windows at the top of frame. We had to see what was already happening with the available light and add to it where we could.
A slow-motion, low-angle dolly move as the leaping spider soars over the head of a soldier.
BB: The muzzle flashes (from the gun) are CG. There was a natural lens flare from the sun and I think VFX tried to add one of their own on top of it to sell the blend. Somehow I think the digital flare could have been stronger so it blended more. It was really odd to do this shot on set without anything flying overhead. You have to use a lot of imagining.
Soldiers search for the spider.
BB: This scene was lit entirely with the military operatives’ flashlights. There was a big discussion about what flashlights to get. When you are planning to use a flashlight as a lighting source, it needs to be substantial. We ended up getting the “most expensive” options on our list (still not that expensive), which I think paid off. The few green lasers were my and my crew’s laser pointers with the buttons taped down in the on position. The flashlights were then gaff taped to the helmets.
The still-growing spider crawls under the blanket of a hospital patient before leaping out. What’s under those covers creating the appearance of the creature before the CG version takes over?
BB: Everything is practical except the actual spider. Under the covers is someone’s hand. If I recall they may have wrapped their hand in something to avoid obvious knuckle shapes. This was another single source look. We pushed light through the window and bounced some back and that’s it.
A shot from inside the military command center.
BB: You can really feel the smoke in here. This was a tiny set. We put kinos underneath the map table and you can see a practical flourescent on the wall to the right. There was a lot of blue screen work in here with all the monitors. I prefer to shoot on-set playback (ed. note: putting an actual image on the monitors rather than replacing a blue screen image during post-production) whenever possible – because it looks better having interactive light on people and it’s a lot less work for post.
Big Ass Spiders’ heroes take to the street to battle the giant arachnid.
BB: At this point in the movie we are in full sunlight. There is a subtle backlight on all the characters which is simply a mirror board about 30 feet away on the left side. Sometimes a good hard light is all you need.
One of Big Ass Spider’s final images – a push-in that travels past the smooching leads.
BB: This kiss shot was one of those “let’s do a big flare” moments. To me, the issue of flares and how they render on different cameras, lenses, etc is a long conversation. I was not happy with how flares from low sun angles rendered on the Red One MX. There’s something about it reflecting off the actual sensor and back into the lens that makes the ghosting unacceptable combined with a lack of highlight detail. This flare was pretty explosive. Considering a huge spider just blew up all over everyone, I guess it’s OK.
We did this ending shot as one take, but we kept having issues and then we were about to lose the sun behind a building, so I pushed the whole operation about 100 meters down the street and we got about 20 more minutes of sun and got the shot.