Why Do We Watch Horror Films?

October is only a few days away, and you know what that means? People around the world are going to start watching more horror films than any other time of the year. I admit that I am not a fan of horror films. There are exceptions, of course. I love 1973’s “The Exorcist”, the original “Halloween”, “The Shining”, the original “Texas Chain Saw Massacre”, and pretty much anything by Alfred Hitchcock. It’s when it comes to more modern horror films that I tend to turn away. However, I have rule. The rule is: I will watch any movie at least once. So, maybe an exception will arise to this notion that I don’t like modern horror films. We shall see.

Today’s article, however, is not about why I like horror films or why I don’t. It’s about why we watch horror films. There’s a reason people love to get scared. It’s cathartic. As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, art is cathartic. Horror is too. What is the first thing we do after we’ve been scared? Usually, it’s to laugh. When we know we are not in any danger, the fear seems fun. I mean, why do people go to haunted houses and corn-mazes?

I am not a fan of jump scares. Personally, I think they are a cheap thrill when used gratuitously. It’s the equivalent to your dad jumping out from behind a door and yelling “boo”. It’s kind of scary, but not really. It’s definitely not fear. I tend to equate fear to the anticipation of a scare. You know something is going to happen, but you don’t know what. Fear could also be something that you have a phobia of. Clowns are a classic example. If you see a clown on-screen, and you’re legitimately scared of clowns, then you will be filled with fear. You don’t need any jump scares for that. I’m not saying jump scares don’t have a place in horror films. I think you need them if you want the payoff of the buildup. It’s when you base most a film around the jump scares that it becomes the cheap thrill I mentioned earlier.

I’ve always wanted to make a horror film with no payoff. Just all buildup. Every time you think something is going to happen…nothing ever does. Imagine how tense that audience would be! I suppose you’d have to have a payoff at the absolute end of the film. One big scare. It would work because, by that point in the film, the audience would believe no payoff is ever going to happen. I think it could work. I think that film would be scary. You’d have to do it right, though. Pull out all the tricks of building tension. Use the right music, set the right atmosphere with lighting, use the right camera movements, and you could have a real horror film on your hands. Although, there is always the chance someone would see right through it and leave before the final scare. In any case, it may be a good experiment.

Anyway, back to horror films that actually exist. I know I’ll be watching some horror films this October, I always do. If not horror films, I at least watch creepy films. I’m not one to get scared at films, but I appreciate the workmanship that goes into them. In October, these films just set the right atmosphere for the season, and that is one reason I watch them. To each their own.

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Experimental Films: A Good Starting Point

I know that many young filmmakers don’t know where to start. It can seem like a daunting task to make your first film. Sometimes we feel like maybe we can’t do it. When I wanted to start making films back in high school, every project fell through. It seemed as though I would never make my first movie. I was forgetting one thing, however. I could’ve just went out with a camera and filmed anything at all and edit whatever footage I got into a short film.

It would be highly experimental, but that’s what I eventually did one evening while at college. I was a sophomore. I had just had a semester working on someone else’s project. I wanted to make my own though, but every project I had tried to work on before had always fallen through. So, I took my crappy little camcorder and just filmed random stuff in my dorm room. Really bizarre stuff. My foot. My eye. Several different shots of the same desk. My hand writing something. All sorts of stuff that made no apparent sense.

I then imported the footage and put them into some sort of order. In the end it turned into a two-minute experimental film. Not quite sure what the final project meant, but it seemed to have some semblance. Experimental films can be a good starting point for your film career. It still requires a high level of work and professionalism, but at the same time, you can get away with not having actors and a small or non-existent crew.

Making that short gave me confidence to try again. Next, I just filmed a bunch of footage when I went for a hike and edited them into a short little film about the woods. It was giving me some experience behind the camera, and also experience editing. When the time came to make my first “real” short film, I was ready. I spoke about that film on an earlier post. I at least went into that production with a little experience under my belt.

If you are wondering how you are going to make your first film, just do it. Get a camcorder and film something. You can even use your phone! You’ll get a feel for filmmaking and you don’t even need to coordinate with actors or a film crew. Eventually you’ll find others who share your passion and will help you make larger projects. Projects that are more story oriented. For now, if you’re just starting out, film anything you can. It may sound like it won’t help, but trust me, it does.

 

The Importance of Audio in Beginner Filmmaking

Audio. In my opinion, this is the most important component of your early films other than story and characters. Next time you watch a film, close your eyes. You’ll be able to tell how much of a budget the film has just by listening to the audio. You can get away with bad video. You can’t get away with bad audio. Just look at all these found footage films. Horrible video quality. Decent audio.

One of the worst things you can do is believe in the quality of your built-in microphone. Big mistake. All built-in microphones are horrible. You can pick up an external microphone, for under $100, which can plug directly into your camera. It will automatically improve your audio situation. I recommend also getting an external audio recorder as well. Something like a Tascam or a Zoom recorder works great. You can get small ones for around $99 and work your way up to spending several hundred dollars. This is your best bet for sound. This way you can get nice and close to your subject without worrying about being attached to the camera. A boom pole can also help a ton.

I’d say for your first film to just stick with the external microphone plugged directly into the camera. This will work fine to start with, and it won’t break the bank either. Be careful, however, as some camcorders don’t have the jack for a mic. However, if you are willing to spend an extra hundred dollars or so then you should definitely pick up an external audio recorder as well. Your film will become much more professional. You have to have the story and characters to make people want to watch your film. That is a given. If you also have the audio to deliver the goods to your audience? Golden.

Learning from Your Filmmaking Mistakes

I remember when I made my first film with an actual crew of like-minded people. Other people who shared a passion, or at the very least an interest, in filmmaking. I was a sophomore in college.

It all came together. I got my crew and my actors and we got to set early one morning and worked all day long to get the right shots. We filmed another day for exterior shots and also had a couple of sessions of voiceover work. My editor and I worked many hours in a small cramped dorm room. Then came the day when we screened the filmed. I was very proud of the piece. It had all come together and now I had an audience.

At the time of the screening I thought the film was great. In retrospect and further reflection I have come to the conclusion that it was not. It is filled with continuity errors and poor direction from myself. I take full responsibility with how the final product came out. Why? I was trying to do too much at once. I was the camera operator and the director. Now since this experience I have gotten better at multi-tasking, but at the time I had no idea how to do both at the same time. I wasn’t paying attention to the actors’ performances. Instead I was paying more attention to how I was framing the shot or how I was moving the camera. I neglected the important things. I was neglecting what was actually happening in the shot. The result? Errors. Lots of errors.

Despite the fact that I can no longer watch my first film, (I cringe too much at my rookie mistakes), I am happy I made those mistakes. I learned from them. Each film I’ve made since then have gotten better. That is what every beginning filmmaker should grasp. You’re going to make mistakes right out of the gate. Expect it. Don’t dwell on it. I could’ve easily thrown in the towel after that first short film. I didn’t. I saw it as a challenge to keep going, to make more films and to get better. I realized that I had to pay just as much attention to what was going on in the scene as I was to how the framing was. A couple of films later I even had someone else operate the camera. In fact, I highly recommend you get someone else to operate the camera for you so you can focus most of your attention onto the actors.

Even if you’re not multi-tasking on your first film like I was, you will make mistakes. I still make them and I am still learning. The mistakes are of a lesser extent now and I am growing as a filmmaker. Take each mistake as a learning opportunity and move forward. Correct the mistakes and progress forward as a filmmaker. Don’t expect to be perfect right away. Of course there is a possibility, anything is possible. The likelihood, however, is that you’re going to screw up some aspect of your first few films. The great thing about screwing up? It gives you a reason to keep creating, to keep trying to top yourself and to keep getting better. That should be every filmmaker’s goal.

 

What Inspires Art and Why?

One of my absolute favorite filmmakers, and a great inspiration to me, is Andrei Tarkovsky. For me, he created film with a kind of spirituality unlike anything else I’ve seen. His view on film is an almost complete departure from what we are accustomed to. Although, many of the modern films I enjoy have distinct elements from Tarkovsky’s films or at least it seems that way to me. Long takes, the silence, and visual symbolism are all elements of his films. However, moving beyond objectively looking at art we must see where it comes from and why. Andrei Tarkovsky has a quote that comes to mind that I will present here. I believe it reflects what inspires all artists of any medium. Whether you are a painter, a photographer, a filmmaker, a writer etc. It is as follows:

“An artist never works under ideal conditions. If they existed, his work wouldn’t exist, for the artist doesn’t live in a vacuum. Some sort of pressure must exist. The artist exists because the world is not perfect. Art would be useless if the world were perfect, as man wouldn’t look for harmony but simply live in it. Art is born out of an ill designed world”

  • Andrei Tarkovsky

In my opinion this quote holds great importance to any artist. We do what we do because we have to. I know, for me as a filmmaker and a writer, I create to understand the world around me. I make my films and I write my stories to deconstruct the world and the society I live in. Art serves a very particular role in our lives. If the world was perfect, as Tarkovsky brilliantly describes, what would be the use of art? If the world was perfect we would not need an escape from reality. We wouldn’t need to deconstruct the world around us to understand it better. It would already suffice.

The world is not perfect. I am sure we can all agree on that. Therefore we need some outlet to help us understand or at least grasp why the world is the way it is. All we have to do is look around ourselves to be inspired. It’s the imperfections in the world that can inspire great things.

Think of how many atrocities have inspired countless works of art. Take for example my favorite historical time period: The Great War. World War One inspired many great works of art. Novels such as All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque and Storm of Steel by Ernst Jünger and countless poems, films, and paintings. Another novel that comes to mind is Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo recounts a man so badly injured by the war that he can’t communicate and therefore is trapped inside his own mind. What do these pieces have in common other than the fact they were inspired by World War One? They were all created by the people who partook in one of the most horrific conflicts in human history as a way to understand and reflect on what had happened.

I remember taking an acting class in college and our professor talked about how beautiful art can come from dark places. All artists have something in their life that propels them forward. In that same class we talked about how the same is true in nature. Think of a diamond. It’s beautiful. How was it created though? Where did it come from? It is created from high temperatures and heavy pressure from the earth. A more visual example is childbirth. Think about it. There is blood, there is screaming, and large amounts of excruciating pain. It sounds like a nightmarish scene from a horror story. The end result, however, is the most beautiful thing that can exist: life. The examples are endlessly found in nature and also found in art. Sometimes it’s the most disturbing reality that creates the most beautiful art. The most tortured artist can create the most loving artwork. While this last part may not always be the case, (the idea of the tortured artist is up for debate), it is definitely a reality for some.

We don’t need to look at war to see how artists are inspired, however. Look at a simple love song, for example. The song is not necessarily inspired by a person the composer is head over heels for. Rather, it is inspired by a feeling the artist has. A feeling of longing or of love, perhaps even lust. The feeling within the artist has inspired the work which many people will listen to and hopefully be able to relate to a similar feeling. Perhaps the person hearing this tune will be inspired to write their own and the cycle continues.

What is the purpose of art? Why be inspired? Why create? In my opinion, and I touched on it earlier in this article, the reason is twofold. First, I am inspired by the imperfections in my life and the world around me. I have an impulse when I am inspired that forces me to create. It is in my blood to do so. I must follow this impulse and not just let it wallow within me to be forgotten. I need to understand what’s going on in reality and by creating some piece of artwork, whatever it may be, I am able to see the final product and take a step back and observe it. When a project is very personal it allows me to truly look at myself or at a specific situation and digest it and dissect it to create the final product. In the process I gain some insight and some understanding.

In addition, the second part would be because it is cathartic. Creating art is a release. Take certain thoughts and ideas and create a piece of artwork with them and get them out of your system. If you’re feeling down and depressed, create something to help eliminate those thoughts of sadness. I am sure many artists create to feel better. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. Perhaps it helps the viewer rather than the artist.

Art has the ability to make this world and society we live in more bearable. Art has the ability to bring people together and it has the ability to heal. I am reminded of how Alzheimer’s patients are sometimes treated by having them listen to music. It helps them. It truly does.

We must continue to be inspired and for artists this is a part of our lives. It happens and will continue to happen because it is in our blood. Sometimes that is all the explanation there is. Those who view the art will know the reason it exists. It exists to help us live and to us help us cope. It exists to make this world a better place even if only momentarily.

Having a Personal Connection with your Artwork

If you are a filmmaker (or any other type of artist) then you must be connected to your work. In other words; there should be some personal connection between you and the film you are making. Even if it is something very small like an emotion you’ve felt recently or a small slice of your life. Anything really. I say this because if you are connected to your film on a personal level, however small that connection may be, you will make a better product as a result. It also adds to the idea that art is cathartic.

Art in any form can help us when we need it most. It can help us through the difficult times in our lives. It can make us forget, at least temporarily, about hardships we are facing in our life. It can also be a beautiful outlet for our own inner struggles. Some people keep journals and they write their feelings and what’s happening in their lives to get it out of their system. Filmmakers do the same thing. The more personal your film the better it will be.

Now I’m not saying to hit your audience over the head with your autobiography. Besides, after a film or two you’d just be telling the same story again anyway. You could make a fantasy film and still have a personal connection to it. Even if that connection is just the relationship one character has with another. Or maybe you hide your personal connection to the film even deeper by having visual symbolism take hold. If you lose all personal connection with whatever you are making then the film becomes empty, even just a little bit.

This is not to say you can’t make a great film if you have no personal connection but just think how great it would be if you did have that connection. Even when you adapt a novel or short story into a film you can still add elements of your own life to the story. One simple way to add a personal connection is a location or a name that is close to you. You’ve added part of yourself to the film. You will then have that connection with your work.

This is true of any art form. Many paintings are the artist’s view on the world around them. Sometimes they paint a picture that reminds them of something in their life. Writers do it all the time when they write novels that have semi-autobiographical content hidden within the text. It’ll bring your piece of art to the next level. Just make sure there is some personal connection with your work and others will surely see the love and hard work you put into making it your own.

I’m sure others may have different opinions regarding the importance of a personal connection with your artwork. I know for me that I always add something that I can connect with. Sometimes it’s just some idea or theory I believe and sometimes something that relates back to things happening in my life. Of course this is my opinion but I also believe we should always keep our minds open and try to see the possibilities of doing something new. Otherwise we’d be doing the same thing over and over again. Where’s the fun in that?

 

 

Another Way to See the World

I often find myself seeing the world through the camera’s lens. My dreams tend to play out like movies rather than nonsensical experiences. In fact, I have often dreamt of movies that don’t exist, titles and all. One included a sequel to 1996’s “Fargo” entitled “Idaho”. If only I could make sense of them and actually make them a reality. I digress.

Going back to my original point, I often look at the world around me and imagine certain moments as scenes and segments from films that don’t exist. This is not to say I don’t experience life as it is in reality. Rather, I tend to see certain moments differently than others. I see certain moments in life as great scenes in movies I wish were real. It inspires me to keep writing and it inspires me to keep creating new works, film or literature. There is not a day that goes by where I don’t think of at least two or three ideas for new films or pieces of literature. Perhaps they aren’t complete ideas but they are the seeds of more complete ones. I know that for sure. If you are ever stuck in writer’s block just take a look around you. Little moments that seem to be meaningless often carry with them great potential. It’s these little moments that often make the best stories. It doesn’t always have to be some big dramatic happening in our lives that inspires the best stories, although they do tend to lend themselves to exciting works of art.

When I read a short story or a novel I often find myself picturing everything I am reading as a movie in my head. Each page is filled with imagery that fills my creative imagination. I always picture how a certain story could be adapted for the screen. It’s part of what makes reading so fun for me. The possibilities are endless. The next time you pick up a book or a short story, even an article from a newspaper, picture it as a film in your mind’s eye. It will elevate the story that much more.

This is just another way to see the world. To see the world not as a boring repetitive routine but instead as a creative goldmine just waiting to be excavated.