What horror can teach us about creating content on a budget
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What horror can teach us about creating content on a budget

Author: James Cresswell | Posted on: 30 October 2019

There's a good reason why the horror genre is often the first port of call for debut filmmakers. It's a genre that has long offered to young filmmakers a vast sandbox of fairly low-cost opportunities to creatively experiment with both the technical and narrative sides of film production.

The genre's effectiveness in this regard can be seen in the amount of low-budget horror films that have been met with comparatively huge amounts of critical and commercial success — such as Paranormal Activity, which according to Investopedia made a 539,336.3% return-on-investment; and The Blair Witch Project, which gave its studio a 20,591% ROI.

And then look at how many major directors’ careers have evolved out of low-level horror beginnings. James Cameron, for example: the director of some of the highest-grossing films in history, debuted with Piranha II: The Spawning; and Peter Jackson cut his teeth directing gore-filled horror-comedies like Bad Taste and Braindead.

A key priority for any video project is being able to work efficiently within budgetary and time constraints; so even if your content isn’t designed to chill and horrify your audience, there’s still a lot to be learned from those who push against their own limitations to do so.


The inventive solutions of The Evil Dead

One of the most famous examples of horror creativity on a shoestring is Sam Raimi’s film The Evil Dead. A big contributor to the film’s lasting cult appeal is the ambitiously inventive spirit in which the film was made. As is noted in Little White Lies’ retrospective appraisal of The Evil Dead’s effects work:

“Unwilling to restrict himself to tripod or handheld shots — the default for low-budget filmmaking — Raimi improvised cheap alternatives to expensive rigs, all in the service of ensuring that The Evil Dead looked a whole lot better than its modest budget promised.”

One such example is the film’s makeshift Steadicam alternative, which involved the camera being mounted onto a plank of wood with two camera operators positioned either side carrying it, in order to achieve the fluid, gliding camera movements that Raimi was looking for.

Even though digital technology, and the easier accessibility of many tools, has expanded the horizons of what can be accomplished on a small video shoot; so much of video production is about problem solving — working to achieve specific shots with what you have, and making the most out of what is available to you.

Whatever your project’s aim: inventiveness, careful planning, and a readiness to experiment creatively are all valuable skills when it comes to solving the problems that any production can place in your path.

Eraserhead and the importance of good audio

David Lynch’s singularly unsettling and absurdist debut Eraserhead is essentially his student film — produced by Lynch and his skeleton crew, working with a tight budget and filming late into the night in an abandoned property owned by the American Film Institute.

It’s a film full of inspiringly inventive low-budget set design and visual artistry, but the element that most elevates the film beyond its modest origins is the attention paid to audio. The meticulously-designed industrial creaks, wheezes, and alien squeals lend so much to the uneasy, otherworldly atmosphere of the film. Reviewing the vinyl issue of the film’s soundtrack, Pitchfork’s Mark Richardson, acknowledges its unique sonic personality when he writes:

“[This] is a sound track (two words) in the literal sense … When you are listening to this LP, you are hearing a movie. And it works, because Lynch and his late collaborator, Alan Splet, had a rare ear for the immersive and emotional possibilities of sound … Despite its origins as the sound component of a film, it works terrifically well as music.”

Sound is something that can often get overlooked on beginner productions: working with scant resources, the temptation can be to compensate by paying loads of attention on achieving a professional “look”. However, it’s often regarded that the most significant differentiator between a polished production and an amateurish effort is sound — ensuring that background noise isn’t obtrusive, making sure that interviewees’ voices are consistently audible, paying attention to how the sound is cut together and mixed in the final edit.

Making light of your limitations

The role that sound plays as a marker of quality can be seen in a very different way in the cult comedy-horror TV series Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace — a series which mines a great deal of its comedy from exaggerating and parodying the low-end production values of ‘80s television. Dissecting the show on the Rule of Three podcast, co-host Jason Hazeley talks about asking the show’s co-creator and lead actor about the series’ sound design:

“I asked Matt [Holness] about the sound because I was so blown away by it … it’s just incredible the amount of damage that’s been done to the soundtrack … and he said there was a point at which Nigel [Heath, sound designer] pulled an entire reel of tape off, slung it all over the studio, walked all over it, stamped on it, and then wound it back into the reel again.”

The comic mileage that Darkplace gets from signposting the hallmarks of low production values — deliberately below-par acting, awkward sound editing, and shonky visual effects — show that one creative response to being faced with limitations can be to simply make light of them.

Although taking it to the absurd extremes of Darkplace would probably be unwise for marketers; an element of self-deprecating humour can be an effective marketing technique, especially when it comes to humanising your brand. Social Media Today’s Jose Angelo Gallegos even suggests that it’s an ideal means of engaging with a more media-saturated, skeptical generation:

“Increasingly ‘ad agnostic’ Millennials are, for the most part, skeptical of brands. They tend to give their loyalty to brands that are transparent and align with their core values … [and] when brands openly laugh at themselves, they’re breaking that barrier between ‘consumer’ and ‘business’ and are instead creating a more human relationship.”

One example from Skoda — a brand who themselves are no stranger to self-deprecation — is their “Ugly in the ‘90s” ad, described by The Drum's Katie Deighton as being a “genius comeback to those who still reference the ugliness of [Skoda’s] 90s car designs”. The ad uses garish colours and VHS effects to suggest that, despite their reputation, their aesthetic sense was no worse than anyone else’s in the 1990s.

Though horror and marketing content may have very little in common at first glance, they both face the challenge of engaging their audiences on an emotional level. The effectiveness of any horror film depends on being able to get the viewer emotionally invested in the story and its characters; and marketers, similarly, must appeal to a viewer’s emotions in order to show them how the product or service being sold can bring value to their lives.

When it comes to achieving that aim, the deep canon of horror film and television is full of interesting (and often cheap) creative ideas that can be applied to the problems faced by any content creator.

At Ember, we're highly experienced in producting engaging video content that gets to the heart of what our clients are trying to say. Check out a few examples on our portfolio page and, if you think we can help you, why not get in touch?

Author: James Cresswell

James Cresswell gravatar avitar
James is our copywriter and social media manager here at Ember Television. He joined us after studying an MA programme in Film and Television: Research and Production at the University of Birmingham.
What horror can teach us about creating content on a budget



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