Spring cinematographer and co-director Aaron Moorhead
Spring is the rarest of horror film breeds – a genre effort that would function perfectly well shorn of all its macabre elements. It’s one of the few horror films I’d describe as thematically beautiful – a meditation on love and chemical attraction, faith and skepticism, science and magic. The film’s horror comes not from the Lovecraftian creature that belatedly makes its bow, but rather from the shared existential inevitabilities of the human condition.
Aaron Moorhead – who co-directed, co-edited, produced and served as cinematographer – talked to Deep Fried Movies about the making of the genre-bending Spring. He was joined by crew member Will Sampson, who, in keeping with Moorhead’s multi-hyphenate job description, served as 1st Assistant Camera, Steadicam and drone operator, and scorpion wrangler.
Spring is currently available on all the usual VOD platforms as well as in limited theatrical release. Check here to see where it’s playing on the big screen.
The Plot: Set adrift by the death of his mother, young American Evan (Evil Dead’s Lou Taylor Pucci) ventures to the coast of Italy on a whim and falls for Louise (German actress Nadia Hilker), a girl with a monstrous secret.
Where did the inspiration for Spring’s Italian setting come from?
Moorhead: (Screenwriter and co-director) Justin Benson had been to Italy quite a bit and had done the whole wanderlust backpacking thing there. The script was written without any thought of how difficult it would be to shoot there. Everybody – 100 percent of people we asked – said, “Do NOT shoot in Italy. It’s very expensive and there’s a lot of red tape.” Basically what they meant was don’t shoot an INDIE movie in Italy because you need a lot of time and money to get around those issues. But we found the right Italian producer and we ended up having a really smooth shoot. It was written for the Amalfi Coast, but we ended up shooting on the opposite coast in Apulia, which is a lot more film friendly but still very photogenic. It wasn’t particularly expensive or difficult and it was also Italy – so it was beautiful.
The film has been described as Linklater meets Lovecraft, and the cinematography shares the same dichotomy of naturalism and foreboding.
Moorhead: Justin and I developed this idea of a kind of “half naturalism,” where we used a very subjective camera but that camera wasn’t tethered to the perspective of a documentarian (observing) from the ground. The camera could go anywhere it wanted and that often meant a much more omniscient perspective that gives this feeling of the encroaching presence of nature in the film. So when the movie (turns toward the Lovecraftian) and we reveal this kind of evolutionary scientific idea that hopefully scares the hell out of people, (the audience) gets the impression that they’ve been sitting in its lap the whole time without realizing it.
One of the ways you visually express that threatening omniscience is through Spring’s use of drones, which hover God-like above the characters and the seaside town. Will, what type of equipment did you use to pull off those shots?
Sampson: We used the DJI Phantom with the two-axis gimbal – the three-axis gimbal hadn’t been released at that point nor had the DJI Phantom II. And we were shooting on the best GoPro at the time, which was the Hero 3 Black. I feel like GoPro’s get a bad rap. I really like them and I used the footage from Spring as a calling card to show people how it can mix with Red (Epic) footage when you have a good colorist like we had and are using the correct settings on the GoPro.
Did you have much experience flying drones before? Did you have any close calls on Spring as you zoomed through columns and alleyways and other assorted tight spaces.
Sampson: I had a little bit of experience before, but it was kind of a new toy. When Aaron called me to do the movie he asked me to come do Steadicam and I kind of threw (the drone) in as an afterthought. But we didn’t actually have any close calls (while flying the drone). It was an older drone though, so the battery life was about four or five minutes. So we had to really time out those high shots pretty closely. (laughs)
The film was pretty heavily shot-listed, yet the “half naturalism” you talked about earlier lends a sense of spontaneity. How did you balance being prepared with being open to finding moments on the day?
Moorhead: Without having actually seen all the locations yet, Justin and I wrote out a shot list. And all we ever do is write it out. We try not to storyboard because that locks us in a little too much unless we really need to communicate an idea visually to someone else besides the two of us, like the special effects artists. Normally how we think of it is, “How do we shoot this scene in the minimum number of shots?” Conservation of shots is really important to us when we’re shot-listing. So we built the shot list – it’s not rigid, it’s just a list of the shots that we know we must get – and then we’d put into the shot list “something grotesque” if we knew that emotionally we’d need something grotesque to open that scene. Ideally there was something already there on set already integrated into the environment, but if there wasn’t we made sure that the production designer had something like a box of worms to put into the scene. I would say about half the time there was already something there, like a skeleton of a dead bird. The shot of the spider in the film was actually shot with a DSLR in our apartment. We allowed enough room for jazz, but we also made sure that we knew we could shoot the scene if there was no jazz.
Sampson: And then sometimes you would find a scorpion in your Italian apartment. We got done with a day of filming and I came back to my beautiful little stone apartment in old Polignano and sat down a case and a scorpion ran up the wall. To my huge surprise, because I was unaware that Italy had scorpions at all. So after a few moments of freaking out I grabbed a cup and kind of shoed him into it and then the next day I said, “Hey Aaron, first of all, there’s scorpions in Italy, so start shaking out your clothes, and, secondly, we should definitely take this guy out and shoot him.” We just let him crawl around a little bit and filmed him. We used some very long spoons (to steer him where we wanted him to go). We had no idea how poisonous it was, to be honest.
Talk about the decision to shoot on the Red Epic and your choice of lenses?
The Red was a creative and financial decision, as it always is I suppose. In this case we wanted to use 4K quite a bit. We ended up punching in a decent amount in post, such as in the first big Steadicam shot through the village (where we meet the character of Louise). All the zooms in that shot are digital.
The main workhorse lens was a Cooke 20-100mm zoom lens with a Micro Force on it. That was a recommendation by a DP friend of mine who just happened by total coincidence to be shooting in that same tiny town in Italy while we were in preproduction. We used a lot of the same crew as he did and he said he was really digging the (Cooke zoom) lens and I tried it out and we ending up using it as well. And then for all our Steadicam work we had a set of (Zeiss) Super Speeds.
Where did the inspiration for Spring’s in-camera zooms come from?
Moorhead: It goes back in some ways to the naturalism. If you were to (push in or pull out) with a dolly, it feels too cinematic and not naturalistic like we wanted. And if we did those moves handheld and literally walked in, then we start breaking from our omniscience and start turning the camera into a person, a documentarian, and we didn’t want that either. So in order to kind of split the difference, to get that encroaching feeling of the walls closing in (when we pushed in) or the feeling of the walls opening up and realizing the characters are alone (when we pulled out), that perfect mix was an extremely creeping zoom. So on our Micro Force we’d always have it dialed between 0 and 1 in terms of speed – the slowest creep that we could possibly do. And unless it was on a drone or on a Steadicam, all the zooms and camera moves where done with the camera on my shoulder on an Easyrig.
What about your lighting package? What were a few of your hero lights?
Moorhead: For interiors, I really like lighting from above and then just filling in a little bit for an eyelight. What’s great about that is it gives you a lot of mobility, especially in small spaces, which we were mostly in for interiors. We almost always used a skirted china ball on a dimmer or several of them in a row and then we’d bring in a little something like a 1×1 (Litepanel) for filling in the eyelight. And then we tried to just have practical lights in frame as much as possible just to sweeten up the frame.
The biggest workhorse light on the film and my favorite discovery on this movie was the Arri 1.8K. I’d used it before, but Spring really solidified its place in my lighting package forever. That one light would light up an entire city square or the entire coastline of an Italian city. We only had one of them and anytime we needed to drench a huge area in light we used that.
Aaron and Will walk me through a few shots from Spring.
The Shot: The film begins with a scene of Lou Taylor Pucci’s character at his mother’s bedside as she passes away. Why was it important to you to begin the movie this way?
Moorhead: Spring actually bookends with events that can be seen as both a death and in other ways as a rebirth. So visually you can actually see a parallel between the wide shot of him and his mother that opens the film and the wide shot of Evan and Louise at the end of the movie. So in this opening scene there is a death – Evan’s mother passes away – but also in another way it’s a rebirth in that Evan’s been trapped for his entire life in the same tiny town he grew up in. He always wanted to take flight and now he gets to. In some ways he gets to come of age very, very late and become his own man.
The Shot: A slow zoom in as Pucci and Hilker’s characters share a romantic moment inside a cavern.
Moorhead: The cave scene is really interesting because, first off, there are two people in that scene that you can’t see. There’s a scuba diver for safety and then there’s a guy who can actually operate the boat – because it’s hard to steer – hiding inside the boat. We found this cave that just happened to be perfect. We could access the cave by walking and there was a shoreline right in front of where the camera is so we could actually see into the cave, but there was also a cave entrance for a boat. The only problem was that cave entrance is gigantic and it didn’t cause that glowing water effect you see in this shot. That glowing is a post-production effect. My gaffer (Leonardo Brocato) set up the Arri 1.8 and blasted it into the water so that it reflected up and around the cave and that gave us room in visual effects to use that information and all the reflectivity of it to shape the final shot. The entrance of the cave keys them from the left and if you look at it there’s kind of a vignette on the left side and that’s a completely artificial vignette done in post. The left side of this shot was actually very, very bright (on the day). That’s why the back of the boat is blown out. Unfortunately, we needed even more dynamic range (to keep that from happening). It was something like a 20-stop difference.
The Shot: A shaft of light pours into a cave where Louise performs a pagan ritual to try to rid herself of her curse.
Moorhead: Justin and I talked quite a bit about how exactly to do this cave ritual. This woman is a scientist and she believes in hard science, but here she is – when science seems to fail her – resorting to an arcane ritual. So we decided that this scene should break tone and almost become like a music video. We also used slow motion a lot here where we don’t really use it too much in the rest of the movie. That’s why we lit it with this very dramatic lighting and a lot of cuts, a lot of close-ups and the score is this kind of odd music. The intention here was to elevate this scene out of the realistic because she’s expecting something unrealistic to happen. Then when the ritual doesn’t work, that’s when we cut out the music and the close-ups and the slow-motion and very quickly, like a bucket of ice water, you’re back in the real world again.
The Shot: After discovering Louise’s secret, Evan wanders through the narrow streets of the town before ending up in the town square in a nearly five-minute Steadicam tracking shot set at night.
Sampson: We did the main take probably eight or nine times and then, because we weren’t sure if it really could play as a one-r either for performances or the move, we went ahead and got some individual coverage. But it turned out that we were able to play it as a single take in the movie. We had the streets locked up to some extent, but you can’t completely lock up all of those alleyways. So the fact that none of the takes were blown by somebody coming in or out was pretty incredible. The town was just so nice to us in general.
That was so much fun to operate. That’s the kind of shot that you hope to be able to do as an operator, something amazing like that. We were just holding our breath that nobody tripped because they were cobblestone streets – and in places rather rough cobblestone – so it was not exactly smooth footing as we were all running around. Aaron is actually spotting me for this shot because our wireless video transmitter definitely was not going to be able to (get a signal through) all these ancient stone walls. Aaron spotted me so he could look over my shoulder at the monitor, our sound guy is running backwards and then our AC is running backwards pulling focus mainly by eye, not off of any type of monitor, shooting wide open. It was a pretty intense shot and I think everyone was extremely happy with the end product.
This shot takes place over such a huge space. Did you have something like a 1×1 Litepanel or a China ball that traveled with the actors to light them?
Moorhead: We planned to do that and then we realized that we didn’t like it. As the actors were walking through without (any mobile light) rig, it looked great and we decided to just have them walk in and out of shadow. It felt so much more dynamic. Even though we couldn’t see their faces 100 percent of the time, we could see them 80 percent of the time and that was even more interesting.