Guest Blog by James Burt

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February 11, 2014 by spinechillers

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Simi has a thing about hairballs.

The first time I was allowed to peer through the window of her life she showed me a photograph of clump of thick matted black hair that she had been building for several months. A few weeks later a short film emerged: a scrag of that same black hair dragging itself out of a plug hole in crude stop motion. I suppose it was only natural that this fascination would lead to Newborn; a nightmarish vision of discarded human hair reforming itself into a creature to then eat the woman who shed it.

The Plug

The original screenplay had spectacular vision in some key scenes promising ambitious special effects and wrought emotion. But what it had in pure horror it lacked in dramatic cohesion, so Simi and I sought to first re-format the document to read as shooting script (it originally resembled a short story) before tackling its themes.

It became clear that this monster should represent Marris (the protagonist)’s trauma after the loss of her grandmother, who house she now lives in. Her alopecia has become aggravated by this trauma, which in turn makes her feel disgusting and worthless. The coincidence of the magical bowl Marris acquires by stealing a wrongly directed parcel was Simi’s idea – a key device to work as a supernatural catalyst for the transformation of her monster.

Though I provided help with redrafting and working on the central theme and character building of Newborn, I was determined that Simi not lose her vision to mine and so tried my best to respect the nuances of her style and character decisions, while sticking by my guns on the importance of theme.

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The shooting of Newborn was really exciting for me. I wasn’t tired or stressed one bit by the long working hours and each day seemed to fly by quite magically.

This may have partly been down to the fact that I wasn’t actually there… but there I was in spirit! And from my distance I enjoyed imagining what demented creations Simi and her crew were committing to film (or… hard drive we should call it now?) and my heart rose with every following blog post detailing the struggle to create this intense monster story.

The behind the scenes photographs were of particular interest to me… for it was these images that would give me a window into quite what kind of rushes I was to receive.

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Two weeks later when the director dropped off the hard drives at my house she was handing to me the second chapter in the story-writing process….

The edit!

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I’m always hungry to cut narrative, but when I get the opportunity to cut a bold-as-brass horror like Newborn that’s when my job gets a bit more exciting.

Simi had teased with the BTS photographs from the shoot  giving me tantalising glimpses of the monster suit that she had worked on with Sammm. It wasn’t until the rushes landed on my desk that I could look through all of the files and feast my eyes on what the crew had achieved.

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My first impressions were good. They had pulled it together and created some sometimes lovely, sometimes grotesque shots. Of course, I couldn’t ascertain anything about the scenes themselves until I could get stuck in and properly review the footage, but it was a good positive start to see the way that some of these scenes had been tackled visually. Marris’s opening scene appeared on my screen in a lovely wide with soft light filtering behind her through the windows; a long take as she sadly brushes her hair then lifts a muffin to her dead grandmother. A touching performance.

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Unfortunately, editing isn’t always fun. When working independently you have to organise all of the footage and sound and everything yourself before you can start watching with a creative eye. There was a lot of footage from different days which was shot both in RAW and in PRORES and several folders containing all of the sound files, which were recorded separately. In any case when sound is recorded separately you have to go through the process of syncing sound to picture. Usually this can be achieved through a program called Pluraleyes, which matches the guide audio track recorded in camera to the waveform of the external higher-quality sound. For some reason, for probably about 80% of the footage, there was no audio guide track on the video files. The camera simply had no sound. This meant that I would have to sync every single sound file manually. At least, I thought, I can match the clapperboard to the reading aloud on the audio track and then work through each video file sequentially with the audio files which should be the right order. Not the case. With the fast-paced nature of the shoot the other guys were unfortunately unable to clapperboard every shot. This meant that I would actually have to just listen to sounds within the audio clip, figure out what these little sounds were (a knock, a closing of a door etc) and figure out which visual they corresponded to. No metadata could tell me which video file was which. It took a long time and I was unable to actually find every audio clip for every video clip, but I think that all of the important ones have been covered! The missing sounds will be replaced using foley found on the amazing FREESOUND.ORG. Fortunately, I’m already quite used to solving this problem from my day job!

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Once everything was organised I started work on each scene sequentially. The first step was to watch every take of every shot in the scene and write log notes describing key moments in the performance and camera movements- then I would make a rough cut and move on.

11Some scenes came together really easily because Mairead, the lead actor, put everything into her performance as Marris. I initially wanted her early scenes to simply just play out in their entirety in a master wide because I could really connect with her that way, but it was only later into the process that Simi and I found ourselves with a film that was too long and had to cut into these wides and move things along for the sake of the plot, trying our best not to sacrifice the audience’s connection to the character. The second long scene- in which Marris combs her hair in front of the mirror and sadly pulls out chunks of loose hair- has always been the heart of the film for me and has remained barely changed through the process. This is where I feel we truly connect to Marris’s character and need to follow her in a long take as she goes through her emotional journey.

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After the first assembly I began working together with Simi to really find her vision for Newborn and allow the film to become what it wants to be. We were using our instincts to find the emotional path of each scene and connect with the more poetic sequences, like Marris’s final encounter with the monster, which she wanted to be simultaneously sensual (even erotic) and horrifying.

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Up until about the third cut of the film we were working mostly visually, without music and barely any sound effects (there is little dialogue). This allowed us to find the true visual rhythm of each scene. I feel this technique has worked particularly well with the bathroom attack scene which uses a long sequence of tension that builds up to a quick, violent climax. It is so important here that we found the right pace- and I now think that through working at the scene as much as we have that it is the strongest ‘horror’ element of the film. This is great testament to the amount of coverage Simi and the crew got of what is technically the hardest and most ambitious sequence.

Right now the film is still running at about twelve minutes, which we know is too long. Soon, after further cutting, we shall start work on the sound design, which will probably inform changes to the cut. Then we’ll look to introducing the score (the director has an ace up her sleeve here) before moving on to online, where I’ll be doing the final grade.

Soon Newborn will be a lean beast with claws to bear – and we can’t wait to let it rip your face off!

edit scare

2 thoughts on “Guest Blog by James Burt

  1. Appreciating the hard work you put into your blog and in depth information you provide.
    It’s good to come across a blog every once in a while that isn’t the
    same old rehashed material. Wonderful read! I’ve saved your site and I’m adding your RSS feeds to my Google account.

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