Magazine article American Cinematographer

Creepy Crawlers

Magazine article American Cinematographer

Creepy Crawlers

Article excerpt

British director of photography Sam McCurdy felt a chill run down his spine when he first saw his name stenciled on a parking space at Pinewood Studios. "I'd started out 15 years ago working the floor at Pinewood, reloading magazines while learning as much as I could," he remembers, "so to return there as a director of photography to shoot a feature film was bizarre."

It was January of 2005, and McCurdy had arrived at the venerable complex to shoot The Descent, a horror/action movie written and directed by Neil Marshall, with whom McCurdy had worked on the cult horror hit Dog Soldiers (2002). Similar in setup to that film, which featured British recruits lost in the wilderness and attacked by ferocious werewolves, The Descent tracks a group of female spelunkers who must fight for their lives against a mutant strain of blind, cave-dwelling humanoids dubbed "crawlers."

McCurdy says the spare-yet-atmospheric look of late-1970s fright films informed his approach to The Descent. "Neil and I grew up on the same kinds of movies," says the cameraman, who cites The Goonies (shot by Nick McLean) and Halloween (shot by Dean Cundey, ASC) as the films that sparked his interest in cinematography. " The Goonies is amazing because of the compositions and camera placement, and Halloween has this graphic simplicity. Neil and I wanted that same feeling, that simplicity. We didn't want any visual clutter, just a straight-ahead look that delivered the story. There was a quality to the horror films of the late 1970s largely based on suspense; they didn't use gore, fancy lighting or overly clever camera moves, just strong images.

"Neil and have a good shorthand," he adds, "and on The Descent, we'd often describe our scenes in terms of what Cundey and John Carpenter had done in Halloween, The Fog, Escape from New York and The Thing, which are all beautiful anamorphic pictures. Years from now, they will still be considered some of the most beautifully shot horror movies ever made."

True to their influences, McCurdy and Marshall chose to shoot The Descent m a widescreen format, opting for Super 35mm 2.35:1. "Given the lowlight conditions we'd be shooting in, we had to shoot in Super 35, otherwise my focus pullerwould have killed me," says McCurdy.

Properly lighting the creepy albino crawlers - whose makeup was designed by Paul Hyett and executed by Neil Morrill - was a concern. "We did two days of camera tests with different prosthetics," recalls McCurdy. "They started off more wide-eyed and creature-like, but we evolved away from that look to something more human. At first their skin was pure white, but Neil and I immediately decided they had to have a grubbier, 'underground' look. They needed that filth. Plus, their skin would have had an improbably stark look if we hadn't brought it down. They'd look almost phosphorescent, and although that was the original idea, we could see in the tests that as soon as we put the crawlers in a dark environment, they were far too bright, too reflective. For the story, we needed them to blend into the shadows at times."

These camera tests also determined McCurdy's selection of film stocks. "Finances do influence how a cinematographer has to shoot a picture, and on the modest budgets we often work with in the U.K., it can mean the difference between shooting 35mm or Super 16mm, or even high-definition video," he says. "Fortunately, there was no doubt we'd shoot The Descent on 35mm, but there was a financial question of whether we'd shoot on Kodak or Fuji stocks. So we did tests, and I found that Fuji Eterna 500 [8573] looked absolutely fantastic in our low-light conditions. The contrast in the Fuji was much better than in the Kodak stocks, in that it dropped right off in the shadows while the Kodak seemed to be searching for things in the darkness. Kodak just didn't have the contrast we wanted too much latitude for our use. So we ended up using Eterna 500 for the entire picture. …

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