As the highest grossing sci-fi/horror Kickstarter project of their time, Harbinger Down is fun movie modeled after the likes of The Thing and Alien. One of its big talking points is the near exclusive use of practical effects. We spoke with the film’s Director of Photography (as well as editor, supervising sound editor, sound designer, and producer) Benjamin Brown on shooting practical effects, and how the Blackmagic Cinema Camera 2.5K affected the feature.
Harbinger Down started as an idea from special effects guru Alec Gillis (Aliens, Tremors) after he and fellow special effects artist Tom Woodruff Jr. (Terminator, Aliens) produced some BTS footage of their work on the remake of The Thing. The videos went on to receive some great fan response they sought to do a movie that showcased what practical effects could do. And, after a highly successful Kickstarter campaign Harbinger Down was born, marking Gillis’ first time as a director, and leading to Benjamin Brown’s first time as a Director Of Photography.
Harbinger was Brown’s first job as a cinematographer for a feature. Prior to operating camera, Brown worked in post production sound. While working for a composer, music composition jobs starting drying up as productions opted to use stock music libraries. The composer wanted to enter the realm of reality television, so he convinced Brown to run camera, and they eventually started doing corporate films. Brown’s sound work started to curtail, and he began to spend much of his time shooting. However, it was while Brown was doing sound work that he met Alec Gillis. The two hit it off, and the rest is history.
As a first time DP, it was tough for Benjamin Brown to sell the crew on the Blackmagic Cinema Camera. The camera was still seen by many as incapable of shooting a feature and had already seen a great deal of backlash regarding its workflow. However Brown loved the image he saw the camera produce: “I decided I wanted to shoot with the 2.5K. I loved the “filmic” look of it, I think it has a very beautiful and interesting quality about it”. Brown did meet some resistance in people saying they should shoot on a more “professional camera”, such as the RED Epic. However, after some thorough testing, Brown convinced Director Alec Gillis the Blackmagic Cinema Camera was the way to go. And so it became their A camera of choice, creating a slippery Blackmagic slope that led them to using the Pocket Cinema Camera, Blackmagic Cinema Camera 4K and Blackmagic URSA for various special effects shots.
“We used the cheapest things out there,” says Brown about his lens choice. Harbinger was shot almost exclusively with the Rokinon series. Not the DS, but the standard series, and they bought them because, as Brown states, “They were cheaper to buy than to rent for a month.” Price was the main consideration because the camera budget was, as Brown says, “About the same as if you took your family out to dinner”. The set for Harbinger was confined, hallways that were three foot wide halls with seven foot ceilings. And because of this Brown shot much of the film using the fourteen millimeter lens. They also used a Sigma eight to sixteen millimeter, but most of the film was shot with the fourteen millimeter Rokinon.
“Practical effects are sort of a gamble; you don’t know exactly what’s about to happen,” says Brown, despite all of the planning and rehearsal. According to Brown, you actually record rehearsals much of the time because you don’t know if you will have a second take. The rehearsal might be the best take, and there is the possibility something can break. However, the payoff with practical effects is gold according to Brown, “People react exactly how they would react if something happens”. Brown says he was actually more intimidated by the miniatures than the practical effects, “To make miniatures look realistic is big, otherwise it looks like you just have a toy boat floating in your bathtub.”
Brown says they lit much of the set using LEDs. Part of the reason was the actors were going to be in winter coats and hats so there was a concern to keep the set cool. Brown likes to light using practical lights, so they used color correct Cree TW (true white series) LEDs for the practicals and used a couple of lights for fill. The deck of the boat went through three stages. Initially they lit with four, ten inch Mole-Richardson JuniorLEDs. Then, for a more diffused look, they surrounded the ship with a grid of china balls, as the ship was supposed to be going through a storm. Brown also used two daylight and two tungsten Mole-Richardson TweenieLEDs for backlight and angular lights. Finally you’ll notice a lot of flashlight work in the film. Brown says that some of those were Mag lights, but some were from a company called Lens Light which carries high end flashlights with adjustable lenses which give a razor sharp beam. Brown then added over five hundred lens flares digitally using After Effects.
Harbinger Down is currently on Netflix, Amazon and Vudu. To find out more about the film you can visit HarbingerDown.com.
You can also visit StudioADI.com for a bunch of behind the scenes footage from Harbinger Down, including BTS of the creature effects.
For more on Benjamin Brown’s awesome work, visit OddioWorks.com