DP Mike Staniforth on Familiar

Dec 16, 2020

Cinematographer Mike Staniforth kindly wrote in with details about his work on a 10-minute prelude to the “ultimate psychological horror” feature, entitled Familiar, for director David Ellison.

The story follows a private detective who finds himself trapped and caring for an horrific monster living beneath an old house. He struggles to keep his sanity, as he is forced to bring victims for it to feed on.

“I have worked with a lot of different types of directors – experienced, less-experienced, and some with little to no experience at all – each with their own strengths and weaknesses, and each with their own varying ways of working,” says Mike.

“In the past I’ve been given complete creative freedom with a script, or had to work to the director’s strict shot list and vision. I couldn’t tell you which is the best way of working, because they all seemed to get the job done well in one way or another.

I would say that David Ellison falls right in the middle of… ‘has a complete vision of the movie’, and ‘relies heavily on HoDs to translate the script to the screen’. Possibly leaning more to the former.

I met David more than five years ago, and he had a script for the film Familiar. Since then, it has been rejected and re-written a few times to the point that it is now ready for investment. Before doing that though, he wanted to shoot a 10-minute prelude introducing the protagonist, Mason, and his surroundings.

BTS photographs by Kat Hannon.

David is, and I mean this in the most endearing way, a stubborn-open-minded-visionary. He knows exactly what he wants, is relentless with his vision, but is also very open to suggestion and collaboration. He will genuinely take on board your suggestions, go away and mull them over before coming back with a response. Whether he changes his mind or not, you know he is going to properly consider things and always put the project before his ego.

David’s prep for the film was nothing like I have ever seen before, with  references upon references – films, photos, music, screen grabs – everything down to the title sequence and the fonts used. Understanding the vision that he had in his mind was the easiest part of this project. But despite all of this, there was still plenty of room for input from myself.

As we decided on building a set rather than shooting on location, David drew up some blueprints for how he saw the layout of the location. He was adamant about the placement of certain props and orientation of windows and furniture, but modified it as we discussed the lighting and what would look better if we moved a few things.

What was great was knowing he knew exactly what he wanted, and because we were so in-tune with the vision, I could suggest things which would help achieve exactly what he had in mind.

David’s experience with cameras is primarily with the Red system, mine is with ARRI. With David owning his own Red, I fully-understood it was the camera we would be using despite my own favouritism. That was until we did camera and lens tests.

We were offered the opportunity to use Cooke Anamorphics and with David’s Red camera being a S35 sensor (and the ARRI being 4:3) I suggested he consider moving to an ARRI workflow. Not just because of the Anamorphic look (which we could have got with a different Red camera, of course) but because of our side-by-side tests with skin renderings.

David went away with the tests, thought about it, did his own research and came back to me the next day saying he wanted to go with ARRI, which completely surprised me, yet only solidified that he wanted what was best for the film and for its particular look and feel.

Before the second round of tests, I had made a LUT on my iPad in Affinity Photo with TIFF files from the tests – a very simple curve which was exported and put through ARRI’s Look Tool and then sent to the cameras. This was our base look which everyone monitored on-set. It was very high contrast, but I knew if we kept the detail in the shadows with this LUT we would have a lot to play with in the grade.

The main source of light on the set was motivated by practical bulbs in wall sconces. We tested every available light bulb, LED to incandescent, cool to warm, and nothing could get close to old school incandescent bulbs. Although 40w wasn’t a great output, our fixtures allowed for two bulbs per fitting, so the corridor was completely lit by 14 bulbs all wired to a dimmer board.

We had some ambient moonlight through the windows and we supplemented the practicals in the bedroom by rigging 300w tungsten lamps above them and having a 2K tungsten gem ball boomed over to the centre of the room. This allowed me to increase the fill as and when I needed to, but also meant I could retain shape in the face with the 300w lamps.

Occasionally, for our lead’s close-up, I would bounce a 2K into some unbleached muslin to give a lovely soft wrap around the face. SkyPanels were used as moonlight, set to 5600k with 30 cyan, and we had them set to lightning mode during the final scene.

All the big camera moves were done on the 30ft Super TechnoCrane provided by Dean over at Panavision, Manchester. Jon Head and Dave Bardsley were the grips and I operated the Scorpio head with pan bars.

All lighting was provided by Panalux with Craig Cowper as my gaffer helped by his Dad, Vinny Cowper. Andrew McKee has done a wonderful job on the edit and the colour was done expertly by my friend, Jorge Ortiz, over at Deluxe in Barcelona.”

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