With fuzzy images that behave more like memories or nightmares and less like a straight-up depiction of a haunted house, “Skinamarink” doesn’t make it easy to tell what’s happening onscreen. Kyle Edward Ball’s micro-budget horror sensation makes audiences peer through a swirling fog of simulated film grain at unexpected, sometimes jarring angles, and we can’t help but imagine the worst for the two small siblings who suddenly realize they’re trapped inside their own home. Ball and his collaborators strategically chose a small number of fairly simple tools to achieve the film’s lo-fi look, where sometimes even the image noise itself seems haunted.
Low Light, High ISO
“Skinamarink” was shot on location in Ball’s parents’ house, where the windows were blacked out and a flickering TV set was often cinematographer Jamie McRae’s only lighting source. In such an environment, the measure of the camera sensor’s light sensitivity, ISO, proved crucial: The higher the ISO, the brighter the image captured in the dark — though at the expense of that image’s clarity and crispness. Depending on the camera, an ISO of 800 or higher can introduce digital interference (or “noise”) to the picture; McRae told IndieWire that the entirety of “Skinamarink” was shot at ISOs between 5,100 to 10,200, ideal for a film whose director is enamored with the haze of obsolete video formats.
To handle that load, McRae chose the Sony FX 6. “The FX 6 performs really well in low light and actually contributes a lot to the look because of the natural – I don’t wanna say grain, it’s the noise of the camera, but it works,” McRae said. “It performs way better at an ISO that high than other cameras that I tested,”
That look was also shaped in camera by McRae and Ball’s choice of lenses — a set of Arri Ultra Primes (or at least the widest lenses in that kit) — and some supplemental lighting mounted to the FX 6. “We are not lugging a TV around,” McRae said. “I used a small LED panel just to give a bit of color in areas where we needed to. We were trying to light it for exactly how Kyle imagined he wanted it to look.” Working without the crew or the electrical equipment of a bigger shoot, McRae said, “The only power I needed was to charge batteries.”
Mock Infrared, Digital Grain
The “Skinamarink” team developed a couple of tricks to make very dark images look even more pitch black. “We had developed this mock half-infrared thing where we just had a sun gun on the camera, tilted a little bit down with a blue filter on it,” Ball said. “We had developed it in camera testing, and then just color graded it a little bit, desaturated it a little bit, and it reads as, ‘Oh, they’re in the dark.’”
After the shoot, Ball took charge of shaping the film’s look in post-production. He used digital filters to transform the images into ones that look much more like the vintage home movies and VHS transfers that Ball loves. “Sometimes it pays to buy assets,” the director said of the estimated 40 overlays he’s purchased to mimic certain films stocks and colors. “Some of them are purply, some of them are just plain white, some are black, and I use those throughout the movie,” he said.
“It wasn’t as simple as just using one and doing it over and over again,” Ball added. “For each individual shot, sometimes I used different filters in the same shot, sometimes I played with and changed filters based on mood and how it worked with the color grading.
“I just like the way [the grain] looks and more importantly, I like the way it feels.”
How it feels is often a combination of mysterious and nostalgic: the sense of something hidden, waiting to be discovered; the familiarity that mirrors the childlike and dreamlike perspective “Skinamarink” takes on its story. It’s a perspective that Ball developed on his YouTube channel, Bitesized Nightmares, where the constraints of recreating someone else’s bad dream in under six minutes led him to use sound and imagery in unexpected, experimental ways. It also provided extensive practice in creating evocative moments of horror that isn’t really possible outside of the internet. Based on Bitesized Nightmares and his short film “Heck,” Ball was confident that sparse dialogue, arresting and sometimes abstract imagery, and an evocative soundscape could tell an entire story.
It’s a kind of confidence in nontraditional storytelling techniques and tools and filters available online that McRae is proud seems to be infecting audiences, too. “People message me on Instagram or you know, email me through my website and say they love the look of the film and they’ve been wanting to try something like this for so long,” McRae said. “If we can inspire one person to make a really weird film, then I’m stoked. Personally, I just hope that people try to make more weird, experimental art.”
“Skinamarink” is now streaming on Shudder and in select theaters from IFC.
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