A Christmas Horror Story: Midnight Clear

December 28, 2017
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Not all Christmas movies have to be warm and fuzzy. In fact, some consider the holiday season to be anything but that. Crowded airports, bad weather and endless Christmas shopping. ShareGrid member, Joe Russo, definitely see's Christmas in a similar, horrific light. Enter Joe's new short, Midnight Clear. The eight and a half minute film is about an unstable husband who forces his family to celebrate a macabre and deadly Christmas.

Jessica Morris (Role Models). Photo by Ryan Hartford.

With a budget of only $10K and two days to shoot, Joe's ambition wasn't just evident in his unique script. Midnight Clear was shot over the course of a weekend in a North Hollywood apartment during the blistering month of September.

However, shot with the RED Epic-W Helium 8K on Cineovision Anamorphics, Joe's vision already sounded promising on paper alone. Lucky for us, I had the opportunity to ask both Joe Russo (Director) and Andrew Russo (Cinematographer) a few questions about their process!

What's the genesis of this film?

Joe Russo: "While in post-production on Nightmare Cinema, the horror anthology feature I produced earlier this year, I had lunch with one of our directors, David Slade. I told him about a short film idea my childhood friend turned go-to composer, John Jesensky, and I were kicking around. David agreed that it was a universal story about a fear that was lurking in the back of everyone’s minds right now, and encouraged me to tell it. The only problem... Our story, Midnight Clear, took place at Christmas and it was already mid-September.

David, played by Kurt Kubicek.

Miraculously, a talented cast and crew, many returning from Nightmare Cinema, came together inspired by the chance to tell a story that we hope will serve as an important reminder this holiday season. After getting some invaluable directing advice from two other Nightmare Cinema filmmakers, genre legends Mick Garris and Joe Dante, we dove into production. Racing to beat our holiday deadline, we turned a white-walled North Hollywood apartment into the visual definition of Christmas."

What was your visual style? 

Joe Russo: "To help give the film a very classic look, it was important to try and keep the camera movement as smooth as possible. Given our two lead actors' mental states, it would have been easy to try and go handheld in an attempt to ratchet up the tension, but by keeping the camera locked onto a tripod, dolly and jib we were able to let the lenses, lighting and the performances create a sense of beautiful unease.

Jessica Morris lit by a LiteMat LED. Photo by Ryan Hartford.

When everything is too perfect, there’s an inescapable sense of dread. It was a huge production design challenge to try to make an old North Hollywood apartment feel bigger on our limited budget. Thanks to brilliant cheats, like cleverly placed curtains to create faux windows and positioning couches so we only see just a piece of them, our production designer Lauren Fitzsimmons made the space feel so much bigger than it actually was."

Why did you shoot with anamorphic lenses?

Andrew Russo: "We wanted to create a vintage look that was warm and inviting, like a Norman Rockwell painting, but also off-putting and eerie.The Cineovisions unique geometry blends aesthetic beauty with non-linear distortion to create a very distinctive look. This was a crucial element to encapsulate, our lead, Kurt Kubicek's madness at Christmas time.

Cineovision anamorphic lens. Photo by Ryan Hartford.

There are not many anamorphic lens sets that carry a focal length as wide as a 25mm because they are very difficult to design. The 25mm can get a little funky when you start panning the camera around, but it came in handy with the spacial limitations of the location. It makes the short feel much bigger and more cinematic than it would’ve otherwise.

With such a wide image, we were really able to fill the frame with all the amazing detail our production designer, Lauren Fitzsimmons, gave us to work with. We wanted anamorphic on a budget, which can be a challenge."

Why did you shoot on RED?

Joe Russo: "We shot on the RED Helium in 8K primarily for the VFX benefits. We knew going in that the last scene was going to be very VFX heavy, and we wanted to make sure we gave our VFX Supervisor as much to work with as we possible could, especially since we'd be losing some of the sensor's scope by using vintage anamorphic glass." 

First AC Richard Garcia. Photo by Ryan Hartford.

What are some of the challenges you faced? 

Joe Russo: "While it may have looked like winter, the unseasonably warm October made it feel like anything but. Trapped inside a 90 degree hot-box for two days straight, we all persevered to make Midnight Clear a reality."

Aside from spacial limitations, the biggest downside to any location shoot, though, is not being able to control neighboring elements. Because our location only had so many rooms we could shoot in, we had to shoot the final scene with the balcony door open to allow room for the camera, actors and a surprisingly effective lighting gag. 

‍Photo by Ryan Hartford.

The only problem? A Sunday night party was raging right down the street. Since we needed darkness, it was the last scene on our shooting schedule, and because we were running behind, there was no waiting it out — we had to shoot through the thumping bass. I was sure we’d have to try to recreate these powerful performances in ADR, but luckily our on-set mixer, Oliver Perkov, and our sound designer / mixer, Steve Harrison, salvaged just the right moments to make the scene work. In fact, there was only one line we recorded during post, and it was one we added!"

Any helpful tips for filmmakers that you learned from this experience?

Joe Russo: "For budgetary reasons, my previous shorts have seen money going into the camera department, while costume and production design had been allocated to what's been easily and cheaply available. On this one, diverting more resources to these departments paid off in a big way. From a storytelling standpoint, it was vital in visually defining our "Norman Rockwell" look, but from a practical one, these elements help make Midnight Clear feel like a much more expensive project than it was. It really is amazing what a coat of paint can do to a white-walled apartment production value-wise... 

‍Photo by Ryan Hartford.

On my last short film, a digital Valentine's Day project for Crypt TV called Be Mine, due to limited resources, we were without a director's monitor, and the Script Supervisor's feed was too far away from the actors to be practical. It was the first time I had to stay right by the camera lens to see what was going on, and, surprisingly, it was an extremely liberating experience being monitor free. 

Sometimes monitors can be so far away from the action, it can be a time suck running back-and-forth, and barking orders from afar makes directing more difficult than it already is. It can be scary at first, not seeing every little detail on screen in front of you, but if you put a good crew together and put your faith in them, it can really allow you to get in there and mix it up with your actors in exciting new ways. 

Even though we had a monitor closer to the action on Midnight Clear, I still found myself staying by camera with a newfound confidence and excitement, and I couldn't be more proud of the performances across the board as a result. "

Director, Joe Russo (left) and the cast. Photo by Ryan Hartford.

Why did you choose to rent from ShareGrid for your project?

Joe Russo: "We wanted anamorphic on a budget, which can be a challenge. ShareGrid crosses access and affordability, and takes a lot of the legwork out of trying to locate hard to find glass. ShareGrid member, Mark LaFleur, was instrumental in making the process painless and easy."

Be sure to check out the full film below!


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Brent Barbano

I have been a freelance Cinematographer in Los Angeles for over 12 years. Hailing from Syracuse, NY, I also studied at Syracuse University’s film program. I am a proud member of IATSE Local 600 International Cinematographers Guild.

I am the Co-Founder of ShareGrid and I happily contribute my findings, ideas and news on ShareGrid with all of you.

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