Drag Me to Hell: Visual Effects + Cinematography = Thrills

March 2, 2010

By David Heuring

During the mid-1980s, Peter Deming, ASC collaborated with Sam Raimi on Evil Dead II, the racier, funnier sequel to The Evil Dead, the film that launched the director’s career. It was Deming’s second feature credit. Since then, his eclectic career has included more horror films with Wes Craven (Scream 2 and 3), distinctive and willfully strange tales with David Lynch (Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive) and broad comedy starring Mike Myers (Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, Austin Powers in Goldmember, and The Love Guru).

After more than 20 years, Deming and Raimi have reteamed for Drag Me to Hell, which the cinematographer describes as a psychological horror film. “It’s not really blood and guts, which you might expect given Sam’s early career,” says Deming. “It’s more like a Poltergeist-type of movie, which I thought was an interesting choice.”

The film opens with a 20-something girl beginning a new job at a bank. An elderly woman comes in to ask for an extension on her loan. The girl’s boss leaves it to her to decide. She chooses foreclosure, a decision she comes to regret, to put it mildly. The woman confronts the girl in the parking lot. After a violent struggle, the woman puts a curse on the girl, who is given three days to live before her soul is taken to hell.

The budget and schedule were initially relatively modest compared to the director’s Spider-Man films, but the project grew and grew. Several dozen planned effects shots eventually expanded to 400. Principal photography was roughly split between built sets at 20th Century Fox and practical locations in and around Los Angeles, especially the Silver Lake area. Deming says the shoot was unusual in that the filmmakers weren’t making LA stand in for someplace else. They let the palm trees, architecture and general flavor of LA neighborhoods come through in the film.

True to his reputation for thorough preparation, Raimi had much of the film storyboarded before he brought Deming onboard. “Sam is very meticulous about making things clear for the audience, particularly in action sequences, where he prefers to get a lot of shots to make it exciting,” says Deming. “Prep is a very important part of his process. Some directors are specific on a few scenes but for the most part block it out on the shoot day. I think that the intricacy of some of the work that Sam has done has brought him to this place, where he wants to have everything worked out in advance. Also, this is an action film, so those scenes have to be approached in such a way that everyone who is contributing is on the same track from beginning to end.”

Early discussions centered on how stylized the film should be. Overall, Raimi wanted a naturalistic look, but certain scenes required “visual strengthening,” according to Deming. The stylization was often achieved through gelled or colored lighting and the frenetic nature of the camera movement and shot design. “Sam really wanted to take the audience on a roller-coaster ride with the girl, who becomes more and more desperate as the story goes on,” he says. “It’s not strictly subjective but we are often very close to her, letting her face tell the story.”

Raimi and Deming considered the anamorphic format but the right lenses weren’t available. That led them to a decision to produce Drag Me to Hell in Super 35 format coupled with digital intermediate timing.

“The widescreen frame was great for suspense,” says Deming. “You’re able to see peripherally, and even though it might be a medium shot or a close-up, you can still get a lot of the environment. I would call our framing anticipatory, and sometimes that pays off and sometimes it doesn’t but hopefully the audience is always sort of nervous about it.”

Deming says that the 2.4:1 aspect ratio was perfect for scenes that were filmed in a Century City parking garage sequence over six days. An underground lot was chosen so that time of day wasn’t an issue.

“That was great because we had total control,” he says. “We embraced the existing ceiling-mounted metal halide lighting, often leaving the fixtures in the shot, and flaring the lens. We added a few lights of our own, and made it sort of uncomfortable whenever possible. To some degree, we could design the action around the lights, which had a very intense reflector and a lens and were usually aimed straight down. The light fell off quickly, and I used that to maintain a certain amount of shadow. I took a lot of the blue out in the lab, and we ended up with an unsettling, slightly cool, greenish tone that Sam responded to.”
The parking garage scene was just one of many difficult sequences for Alison Lohman, who played Christine, the main character. She was in almost every scene, including many grueling stunts, fights and car crashes. She flew in a harness against greenscreen, spinning around and upside down, and she had to dig herself out of a muddy, rain-filled grave. At times, the set was so wet that Deming used a Hydroflex crane and camera rig designed for underwater work. “We sometime used a crane because the terrain or set design precluded the use of a dolly,” he says. “But for the most part, camera movement was fairly conventional, with a lot of Steadicam and some dolly work.”

The parking garage sequence was not the only one that required extensive greenscreen work. Other greenscreen sequences depict a séance in the “great room” of a mansion, a demonic presence in Christine’s bedroom, and the final, climactic scene where Christine is dragged to her hellish fate through railroad ties under a moving train. For the greenscreen and other effects work, Deming collaborated closely with veteran visual effects supervisor Bruce Jones.

“I really connected with Peter,” says Jones. “He knows his craft exceedingly well, but he is also very approachable. So much of what we do has to be shot very specifically in order to make it possible to integrate it with some other, often completely artificial element. Peter was very willing to let me drive those types of things but he also was a great problem solver, and someone I could try out ideas on. I don’t think I’ve ever worked with a director of photography that was better at lighting green screen shots. This project kept growing, and Peter and his crew – key grip Phillip Sloan, and gaffer Michael LaViolette – really helped make it all doable.”

Regarding his approach to shooting greenscreen elements, Deming says, “I tend to light the action or actors as if we were on location. I find that if the actors have something tangible and physical to work off of, it helps a lot. About 30 percent of the parking garage sequence required greenscreen work, and I think for Alison, to be able to be in the car, either by herself or with the other actress was very helpful. There was a sort of claustrophobia about the location and the vehicle that translated to the soundstage.”

Jones agrees. “We used a puzzle car, and every possible part of it could be taken off – the roof, the door, the front end, whatever,” he says. “We used a motorized camera cart called a Grip Trix to mount cameras and shoot the corresponding background plate for each shot. Pete set those green screen shots up perfectly. He is very clever in the way that he uses flags to prevent spill, which is crucial with all that chrome and high gloss paint on the cars.

“He also put together a rig of three lights that could be raised above the car and spun around to give the feeling of light traveling,” says Jones. “I could match my backgrounds going under the actual lights in the garage, and marry those two elements. I challenge anyone to discern that the scene was not shot entirely in a parking garage. It comes across so well, thanks in part to Pete’s skill in figuring those shots out.”

Jones had a small effects team on hand that could do a quick composite to make sure things were working. In some situations, the rough shot could even be edited into the sequence in FinalCut.

“It’s great to have that feedback for take two,” says Jones. “You see it and say, for example, ‘Maybe we should be panning into this shot rather than being static,’ or ‘Maybe we need a different dolly move here.’ Everybody gets to really see what we’re talking about. I think it’s going to be the way of the future.”

Near the end of the film, Christine is in a train station with her boyfriend. She realizes the curse is still on her. She starts to back away but falls on the tracks, which are about four feet below the platform. As the train bears down, arms burst through the railroad ties and grab her, pulling her down. As the train passes overhead, it throws a strobe light effect onto the action.
It’s a complicated sequence made up of about 20 shots. In addition to the train, the tracks and Lohman, the elements include flame, sparks, smoke and heat ripple. The filmmakers built a box on stage for the shots on the tracks. Actors below the set wore green suits that covered them except for their arms.

“Once the arms break through the ground plane, they create holes,” says Jones. “The script called for light beams to burst forth from these holes, shooting up into the scene. That kind underlighting in actual plate photography is very difficult to do using visual effects techniques. So we needed to build that into the filming. Peter aimed some high intensity lamps down below, and had his lighting team underneath, holding pieces of Mylar. That light reflected back up, creating an undulating, cascading firelight on her. It was a simple solution that didn’t take a lot of time or money, and it worked perfectly.”

Deming says that about 80 percent of the scenes were photographed on KODAK VISION3 500T 5219 film. He also used KODAK VISION2 250D 5205 and VISION2 200T 5217 film stocks.

“The 5219 is an amazing stock,” he says. “I had the opportunity here to use the strength of the film, which is its low light capability. I was comfortable rating it at and E.I. of 500, which I have never done with a Kodak stock – I always shoot at 400. And it was still printing in the high 30s and low 40s. The 5219 stock is so fine grained that I started shooting it for day interiors, and in a couple of cases, for shadowy day exteriors. That was pretty impressive.”

Deming plans to give a prologue sequence that takes place in 1966 a skip-bleach look. He experimented during preproduction with actual skip bleach processing, and plans to mimic the look he found using DI tools. The front-end lab work was done at Fotokem. Deming, Raimi and Jones oversaw a digital intermediate post workflow at Company 3 in Santa Monica. “Ironically, for the scenes with the most extreme color looks, we are matching the looks that we saw in dailies,” says Deming.

“The worlds of visual effects and cinematography are coming closer and close together,” says Jones. “Working with Peter on solving problems and figuring out the right way to shoot something is the part of my job I enjoy the most. Sam is one of the hardest-working directors I’ve ever met. He is able to focus 110 percent on the problem at hand. He is open to ideas, and even if he discards an idea, he is gracious and humorous about it. He is constantly working to make each shot, each performance, a little bit better, and if you take the aggregate of that, you have a much better movie.”