Magazine article American Cinematographer

Pop-Up Horror

Magazine article American Cinematographer

Pop-Up Horror

Article excerpt

The death of her husband years ago has left Amelia (Essie Davis) psychologically paralyzed and her young son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman), emotionally stunted. One night before bed, Samuel presents his mother with a mysterious, rather frightening pop-up book to read, titled Mr. Babadook. Doing so doesn't just leave Samuel sleepless with night terrors; it unleashes a sinister presence that forces Amelia and Samuel to confront their anguish.

This is the premise of writer-director Jennifer Kent's stylish horror film The Babadook, shot by cinematographer Radek Ladczuk. Israeli director Tali Shalom-Ezer introduced Kent to the work of her friend Ladczuk while the two directors were in Amsterdam developing screenplays at the Binger Filmlab. Kent became fascinated with Ladczuk's Suicide Room, and the two had a meeting via Skype. Soon after, the director of photography was in Australia for a week of preproduction meetings and, after a short break, six more weeks of prep.

Ladczuk, who studied at the famed National Film School in Lodz, Poland, became a cinematographer not through any sense of predestination - he just did it. "One day I passed the exam to film school, and this adventure started," he says matterof-factly from Poland, where he was shooting the feature Princess. "I don't know why! I don't have any family connection or tradition. I just followed my emotions. It is an amazing job."

Kent gave Ladczuk a list of some 20 features to watch, including old movies from Georges Méliès' body of work, German Expressionism films like Murnau's Faust, and American horror films from the 1920s and '30s. "She was inspired by old movies," Ladczuk says. "She wanted to have all effects in camera and no CGI."

In fact, Kent originally envisioned shooting The Babadook in black-and-white, but ultimately decided she wanted to create something different from the old, silent horror films. Instead, she went with a limited color palette - particularly in the house - of steel blue, burgundy and some teal. "We had an amazing Australian production designer in A lex Holmes, " says Ladczuk. "In this movie, Jennifer saw more of a psychological story than horror, though we added many horror elements in the design and camerawork. We understood that it was a mix of psychological drama and horror. It really is a story about a woman and her relationship with her son. Everything came from the mother's perspective."

The production was the first feature film to occupy the new Adelaide Studios sound stages in South Australia, The Babadook's main set, comprising the interiors of Amelia's Victorian-style house, was built on stage. With its muted hues, the house reflects Amelia's mental state and, on a deeper level, serves as a metaphor for her mind. Initially slated to shoot the project over 30 days, the filmmakers realized that the number of in-camera special-effects shots caused too much of a crunch, so a few more days were added and paid for - along with elements of the design budget - by a small, online Kickstarter campaign. Ladczuk and camera assistant Maxx Corkindale also worked a few weekends with Kent to shoot some additional shots in the house for editing purposes. "It was lowbudget for an Australian production," the cinematographer says.

Ladczuk, who also served as the camera operator, shot with a base-model Arri Alexa with a set of Arri/Zeiss Master Prime lenses. He recorded HD 1920x1080 ProRes 4:2:2 HQ files to SxS cards.

Kent and Ladczuk were precise in devising the camera movements and composition. "We divided our movie into five chapters: anxiety, fear, terror, possession and courage," he says. "Each had different elements of camerawork. At the beginning we had a very static camera where Amelia often was situated in the center of the frame. Usually, we shot her on a 32mm lens to be able to see her emotions. Then we added a handheld style to emphasize her emotions, and then Steadicam, which we called 'floating camera.' For the movie's ending, we wanted to create very chaotic and uncoordinated movement, reflecting the Babadook's point of view. …

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