With Annabelle: Creation still making waves in recent weeks and paving the way for IT to dominate this past week’s box office, we posed some questions to the sequel’s cinematographer Maxime Alexandre, as he discussed his approach to creating the feel of a great horror and much more…
With Annabelle: Creation being set in the ’50s, how did you set out looking to maintain an authentic feeling that we, an audience, are indeed in that time period?
The light concept I’ve worked on, after discussing David Sandberg’s vision, was based on Dutch School Painting; if you look at works like The Woman with a Child in a Pantry by Pieter De Hooch you may feel a similarity of depth true the prospective outlined with sources of lights, or in a more classic way The Geographer by Vermeer in the confession scenes with Sister Charlotte (Stephanie Sigman) and Janice (Talitha Bateman). Of course, by comparing giant artists to my work it is not my intention to seem pretenious, but cinematography is also like a paint pot, where you find light and colors inside it, those classic works are there to offer a first light approach, then we, the crew, would add his or her own artistic expression. The exterior dry color palette we had outside the house was the key to our choice of lenses (Leica), then we imported those colors transitioning through the windows and layers of different atmospheres (smoke, dust) to manage the interior contrast from what was suppose to be – the most beautiful house the girls ever had – to then – worst nightmare. It is important to add that our production designer, Jennifer Spencer’s, research and work was key to recreating the 50’s mood, including the amazing work of our costume designer Leah Butler.
As well as the time period, horror is very much driven by child characters and Creation is no different. How, from your perspective as a cinematographer, did you look to utilize the talented child actors to create the vision the crew was ultimately looking for?
I think what makes the presence of children the most efficient in a horror movie is probably the vulnerability so the best way is to put them in an ambience. In a cinematographic point of view, it is to manage the appropriate depth of field and space into the frame, the angle will variate with the size or entity of danger around them. The childrens’ point of view, by being lower, is enhancing their helplessness, but the key of those points is much more simple, a child is more vulnerable and what puts the audience in high tension is that the childrens’ reaction is unpredictable, this is the reason I personally think the audience becomes absolutely scared, the childrens’ unpredictability.
It has to be said that the best scenes have no rules, “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.” – Pablo Picasso
There is also a subtle use of a changing color palette through the film that is really impressive, can you describe that from your working perspective?
As a cinematographer those kinds of questions are like a little reward, I’m glad you noticed it! We had several different approaches to get into the second and then third act. First of all, as I was saying before, the transition of lights through the widows was managed by atmosphere elements like smoke and dust, the smoke by itself will give you more diffusion from the light and break the contrast, and at the same time, in the appropriate quantity it becomes a different option to manage the depth of field. When you take out those elements of atmosphere without alternating the light at all, everything becomes more directional, and blacks (shadows) becomes denser, colors start to change density too. Now with manipulating the depth of field in an optical point of view the surrounding becomes more and more claustrophobic. There is also another subtle point I am pretty proud of and that makes the Annabelle Creation darks unique, which is the mechanical approach we gave in David’s intention of having darks moving, the choice of doing it on stage and not through VFX (except one) made the results absolutely beautiful.
Horror often has a bad time for appearing predictable and a lot of films appearing very similar; how do you set out to make something authentic and original when you’re involved in these projects?
The tone is given by the director’s vision and intentions, and the result in the cinematographic aspect is my interpretation of those visions. I’ve never followed rules, and who does? It probably makes beautiful things but somehow already seen. I’m not shy to say that I am constantly scared of what I’m doing, even so, if today we can have pictures on set that look very close to what will be the ending result. It is a matter of passion and I think a good cinematographer has to be brave enough to accept the craziest director ideas… and always think that those ideas are amazing because you’ve never done it before.
You’ve also recently been working on another of the extended Conjuring universe films, The Nun, can you give us a little teaser of what we can expect from that film?
Unfortunately, I can’t say a lot about it, but I can promise you that Corin Hardy has brought a vision and a strength into Gary Dauberman’s script that will make The Nun something very special.
With The Conjuring and Annabelle gaining a great following since their releases, what do you think it is about these films that ultimately audiences are engaged with?
The unpredictability, there will always be a more powerful entity and the heroes will always be more scared of them, because they will always open the door that you would keep closed!
Finally, if you could save three horror films from the apocalypse which would they be and why?
If it really happens, I would probably save the one I worked on, just to remember how tasteful it was playing with the audience before finding myself in a post-apocalypse situation; You made your bed, now lie in it! In the opposite way, if I needed something to make me believe there is worse than what I’m living-on then it would probably be Jacob’s Ladder, The Shining and Rosemary’s Baby as the only way to keep you away from your own craziness is to watch it from outside.