Five Frames with The Final Girls cinematographer Elie Smolkin
The Film: The Final Girls
The Cinematographer: Elie Smolkin
The Tools: Shot on the Red Epic with short Angenieux zooms and Cooke S4 lenses
The Plot: On the one-year anniversary of her Scream Queen mother’s death, a young woman (Taissa Farmiga) and her friends are transported into her mom’s most famous movie – a campy camp slasher à la The Burning.
The deconstruction of the 1980s slasher film began before the corpse of the short-lived subgenre was even cold. Student Bodies (1981) started digging the grave. Scream (1996) and The Cabin in the Woods (2012) disinterred the body and scattered the pieces.
So why tune in for another poke at the carcass of the stalk-and-slash flick? Because The Final Girls is more than just another mocking of the slasher film’s “sin equals death” conservatism.
It’s a PG-13 comedy that captures the spirit of the “dead teenager” movie without the gruesomeness. It’s a visually inventive delight that, rather than emulating the look of Friday the 13th, presents its alternative reality as a Technicolor world awash in purples and hyper-saturated greens. And, most importantly, it has a heart at its center thanks to an emotional turn from Farmiga as the grieving daughter.
The Final Girls cinematographer, Elie Smolkin, broke down a few shots from the film for us.
Check out other interviews in the Five Frames series here.
How did you get involved with The Final Girls?
(Director Todd Strauss-Schulson) and I have been friends for a while. We’ve made a bunch of short films and commercials together and we’re actually neighbors. So when this movie was starting to move forward, he brought me in to interview with producers Michael London and Janice Williams at Groundswell. The way that Todd and I work is that we shot-list basically the whole movie way in advance. So before The Final Girls was even officially greenlit, we had the whole thing shot-listed. It changed a bit once we saw the actual locations, but 80 percent of the movie is exactly what we (shot-listed). So I was really prepared for that interview and thankfully they hired me.
That friendly atmosphere continued through the whole production. The shoot was a really fun experience because the entire cast and crew were stuck in a very small part of Louisiana at a summer camp, so it actually felt like camp.
When you were shot-listing all the crazy motion control sequences in The Final Girls, how certain were you that you’d actually be able to pull them off?
The truth is that the best part of working with Todd is he doesn’t really understand the limitations of physics. (laughs) He’ll have this insane thought and he won’t accept “no” or that there is no money for it. It’s what makes him a good director and what makes him insanely fun to work with.
Todd and I have had some experience before working with motion control and we’ve used a bunch of different rigs. For a lot of the more complicated sequences we did a lot of previs work. Operation Booby Trap [Ed. Note – A sequence in the film in which the killer stumbles into an assortment of booby traps, photographed in a series acrobatic camera moves] was completely mapped out with our previs in advance of shooting. That sequence was really hard because we were in a practical cabin set that our art team built. We had a limit on the budget so they wanted the cabin to be as small as possible, but a motion control rig is quite large so we had to do the math to fit those moves in there with basically inches (to spare).
When you are working with a limited budget, what sacrifices do you have to make in order to afford the motion control rig or a few crane days? Did you have to give up shoot days or body count on the crew?
We had very few days to shoot this movie so there was no way to cut out days. And we had a very small crew for what we were trying to do so it couldn’t really get any smaller. The trade off was that a lot of (our other camera) moves are actually super lo-fi. We had a five-foot speed rail slider that was just skateboard wheels and a cheese plate and we would do a lot of those quick slide-over-and-pans where somebody is close in the foreground. That’s the trade off. We get a motion control day, but then we get a speed rail slider. And that’s fine. When we work together, Todd and I move so fast and we know exactly what we want that it doesn’t matter (what tools we use) as long as we achieve our goal. I knew I liked working with Todd when we were on a show and instead of waiting for a wedge to level the high-hat he just pulled his wallet out and stuck it under there.
You opted to use the Red Epic for the film. Talk a little bit about that choice. Did you shoot 5K?
Yeah, we ended up shooting 5k Full Frame and framed for widescreen so that we’d have room on the top and bottom in case we needed a minor reframe. We had I think 350 VFX shots, so the resolution was important for post. We also did a lot of sky replacements as well.
The Dragon had just come out and we considered it, but Joe Lomba at Alternative Rentals told us about some issues with the Dragon that hadn’t been sorted out yet. They were having grain issues, which are now fixed, but at the time they weren’t. Joe recommended sticking with the Epic and for our budget it just made sense. Our camera also has to be really small on a Todd movie because we are constantly in tiny corners doing extensive camera moves and we could make the Epic very small.
The Shot: Shafts of light pour into a camp cabin to silhouette the film’s slasher during a black-and-white flashback sequence.
This was basically just atmosphere, one light, and a bounce card. Most of our light beams in this movie are from a light that I really like to use called a Molebeam, which is an old light from Mole-Richardson that a lot of people don’t use anymore. The beam is so concentrated it’s almost like a Xenon light. But for this specific shot, because we were in black and white and because we were moving all over that day, we pre-rigged this shot with just one large HMI. I think it was an 18K. There are a few shots in the flashback sequence – and this is one of them – that felt a little bit more like classic horror than the rest of the movie. It was important to both Todd and I to make that (sequence) a little bit more dark and menacing.
The Shot: A montage of the gang’s Operation Booby Trap preparation ends with a pullout beginning inside the cabin and traveling out to a wide exterior frame.
I really love that whole montage sequence and it goes back to what we were talking about earlier about sacrifices. When we did our motion control sequence, we did six shots that entire day. On a feature with our shooting schedule to only shoot a page (of the script) in a day, the compromise is that for this montage sequence Todd, the crew, and I had to run around like crazy people setting up 1,000 quick shots in like 30 minutes.
The shot (above) was difficult because you’re going from inside in a really dark cabin and pulling out to a massive wide where you’re in broad daylight. What I like to do is I’ll start with one (lighting) idea and try to simplify it and simplify it until it hopefully gets down to just a single light. So finally I just took the biggest light we had, which was an Arrimax (18k HMI), and put it behind the kitchen wall, blasted it, and filled the room with a bit of atmosphere. It made those two giant shafts and brought enough exposure that a minor iris rack got us outside with proper exposure. We couldn’t afford a crane that day so we were actually going back on a dolly and we had to do a small track replacement (in post) because at the very end you saw a little bit of the track in the shot. And we also did a sky replacement in post to get that sunset.
Did you actually dolly through that doorway?
No. One thing that Todd and I do a lot – and if you really look for it, I think you can see it – is we hide our zooms in our dolly moves to make them feel bigger. We started on the long end of our short zoom lens – I think it was a 42mm – just outside the door, and then (camera operator Adam Bricker) matched his zoom speed to our pullout speed and we ended I think on a 15mm. So it made it feel like an even bigger move.
The Shot: The aforementioned Operation Booby Trap.
(Todd and I) have been practicing using motion control for a while. We’ve used it in a couple of short films and we’ve been waiting for the right scene to use it in a feature. We were trying to figure out how to thread that whole booby trap sequence into six shots or less for the entire scene, partially because it would be really cool and partially because it takes about two hours per shot to do motion control so six shots would be our 12-hour day.
The motion control rig we used is a Genuflex Mark III, which came from a company called General Lift. Normally these rigs are used for a VFX shot where you need to repeat the same move so you can layer (different shots together). But we don’t normally use it for that at all. We use it to create camera moves that a human can’t do. For us, it is a lot about the speed of the move. A lot of the motion control rigs aren’t that fast so we’re always pushing them to the limit. When you go past that limit, the rig freaks out and shuts down. It’s also incredibly challenging for the A-camera focus puller Stephen Early, who nailed it. The camera moves so fast and so close to the actors that his focus pulls need to be perfect. We couldn’t have done this sequence on a Technocrane. We couldn’t have done it on a dolly. The moves are too precise, they’re too fast, and they’re too complex. This was the only way to do it.
The Shot: As the film shifts to night and a more traditional horror look, Malin Akerman’s character confronts the killer in an abandoned, swamp-adjacent cabin.
That set was awesome. We shot at a Girl Scouts camp and the cabin we used for this was actually really nice, but it happened to be next to kind of a swamp. So the (art department) brought in all of those slats of wood and they brought in all this disgusting stuff (to dress the set). One idea we originally had, but we didn’t end up doing, was to play this whole sequence with just lightning strikes. So it would go from black to lightning and black to lightning and that’s all you’d see. But there were concerns about doing it that way because it was such a long scene.
We wanted to create something that felt different than the rest of the movie because this is our transition into our night look. We just poured as much hard light in and used as much atmosphere as we could. The fight sequence (that follows this frame) feels a lot more raw and gritty than the rest of the movie. It’s a little bit more Texas Chainsaw Massacre. We didn’t go handheld very much, but we did for that scene.
Did you use the Molebeam to punch through the slats?
I wanted originally to use the Molebeams for this shot because I think they’re the right tool for the job, but unfortunately they were being used a mile away on the other side of the camp (for scenes set in the day) and then we had to run over and jump right into our night work and already be lit for it. So basically whatever lights we had left that we weren’t being used for the daytime shots were thrown in (to pre-light the night scenes).
We used the Molebeams for our day cabin interiors. I really love tungsten light and I think it looks great on skin tones. What I often do is, in the daytime, I’ll mix the ambient cold light and then pour tungsten light in with the Molebeams to warm it up and I’ll shoot it at 4300 (degrees Kelvin). What that does is make the fill side a little bit cold and the key side warm.
The Shot: Heroine Max Cartwright (Taissa Farmiga) marches toward the film’s climactic showdown.
That field was massive – like two football fields. When we talked about this sequence, I don’t think that I ever pictured it in a place so big because it’s a night fight sequence with slow-motion in a lightning storm and we had no money. So I wasn’t thinking a giant field would be the most economical idea, but that’s what everybody liked. Then came the task of lighting something that big when I think we had something like $200 budgeted for additional equipment or something ridiculous like that. One of the ideas I had was that if we create a bunch of atmosphere then it becomes less about lighting the characters and more about lighting the atmosphere and that will separate them (from the background). We had a couple Condors for some backlight and I think they were 125-foot condors, but you would look at them and they looked like they were 3-inches tall because they were so far away.
Did you gel the lights to get that purple?
We did a lot of gel tests in prep with the gaffer Bob Bates. We found this really awesome color called Perfect Lavender, which is Lee filter (700). We put a bunch of HPL Maxi Brute 12-lights just below the horizon, all gelled with Perfect Lavender, and pointed them up at the atmosphere while trying to keep the light off the trees.
The Shot: The killer’s leap through a second-story widow kicks off a slow-mo chase sequence through the woods.
That night was crazy. That was our last night at the camp. The first thing we did was a propane popper where the gasoline can falls and the explosion happens. For a bunch of reasons, the propane popper was much bigger than special effects thought it would be and it ended up catching a part of the cabin on fire and a bunch of the fire extinguishers that were (intended) for the chase scene had to be used to put out the fire. It wasn’t a big fire, but the curtains caught on fire.
What that meant was we could only do so many burns (with the stunt man because we only so many fire extinguishers to put him out with). We had enough left for the stunt man to jump out of the window, do that close-up shot (of his feet engulfed in flame), and then we had two takes (worth of fire extinguishers) left for him running through the woods. Initially we wanted to shoot the (chase sequence) in three different directions, and in classic Todd fashion, he still wanted all his shots. So he said, “Well, we’ll just shoot all three directions at once.” The only way we could light to shoot in three directions at once was to wait for dawn because we needed that ambient light. We rehearsed the moves and the timing and then waited for the sun to just start coming up. And then we shot all of the coverage for that chase sequence in one take right before the sun came up and it worked out. It’s my favorite sequence. After that take everybody was ecstatic. Peter Roome, our B-camera 1st AC, was on a 300mm lens wide open and got one take of a guy running towards him on fire and he nailed the whole shot, completely sharp. It was one of those magical movie moments where everybody is excited and invested in the moment. And somehow the whole crew pulls off the impossible. It was a fantastic feeling. And then as we are wrapping everything up, Girl Scouts started to flood in because it was their first day of camp. The cabin was still smoldering. (laughs) It was a pretty surreal moment.
A few more frames from The Final Girls.