Traditional Horror Cinematography Excelled in Supermassive’s Until Dawn

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Until Dawn is an interactive narrative survival horror game that is heavily influenced and inspired by classic horror film clichés from the 1980’s. It’s gameplay and story shares elements from various movies like Scream, Halloween, Friday the 13th, Saw, Evil Dead, My Bloody Valentine, Psycho, The Shining, and many more. In fact, the game’s cinematography is heavily inspired by these types of films, allowing the player to feel like they are taking part in their own horror movie.

Low Key Lighting

Throughout the entire game, Until Dawn consistently uses a dark colour scheme, complimented with low key lightning. This is commonly used in the horror genre to always keep their atmosphere in the dark, and also make the enemy appear scarier. Low key darkens their shadows and brightens their highlights, giving it more contrast allowing the audience to see them clearly as they lurk through the dark.

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A wendigo in Until Dawn (2015).

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Xenomorph queen in Aliens (1986).


Killer’s Point of View

A technique that many slasher films used is showing the viewer the killer’s point of view. These are usually recorded hand-held to give an idea to the audience about what they see.

Jessica Robinson mentions in her book Life Lessons from Slasher Films that these shots “forces the audience to identify with the killer. Because they are allowed to see what the killer sees, they, in effect, become complicit with the murderer: stalking victim with the killer, peering through trees and windows, the audience members become voyeurs”.

In Until Dawn, whenever a wendigo is present, it will go to their point of view, with a first-person rig. They have movement-sensing vision with contrasting colours; red for their environment and light flashing blue for potential victims who are moving. At the beginning of the game, they are seen watching from afar behind trees, but eventually, they’ll start to chase after their victims, causing their point of view first-person camera to be more aggressive. After Mike and Jessica witness the attack of a moose, they are then being chased by the horrifying creature.

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Another time this has occurred besides wendigoes, was when the game wanted give the player a test-run (literally) by running away from a false enemy. Chris puts on a dark robe and hockey mask (possibly paying tribute to Friday the 13th) and starts chasing Sam and Josh. As the player is running away, there is a brief handheld shot of Chris’s perspective. If the player successfully executes a quick time, they’ll drop a mattress to trip Chris, as well as the camera.

Bonus: If Ashley finds the psycho’s hidden camera, it’ll be shot in the camera’s perspective:

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The killer’s POV shows great inspiration from Halloween. The intro to John Carpenter’s Halloween from 1978, filmed entirely in the perspective of Michael Myers as a child:


Enemy is Out of Focus

One of the most memorable shots is while Sam is enjoying her bath listening to classical music, the psycho is seen in the background not in focus, as Sam is the focal point. With the enemy remaining out of focus, it’ll taunt the audience when they noticed their presence. Since the victim is in focus and the killer is not, it gives the illusion that even the camera does not even notice him, freaking out the audience. The close up shot pivots around Sam to balance a rule of thirds composition between her and the psycho. Sam in remains in a brighter and vivid lighting compared to the psycho behind her in a dark palette, with one very faint light source.

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During some hiding scenes, the shots first have the killer out of focus to see the victim’s reaction. But eventually it will switch focus, since the player wants to keep their eye on the killer in order to wait for him to leave.

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Keeping the enemy out of focused happens in numerous films, such as My Bloody Valentine (2009). Even though one of the characters is not in focus, the audience are still able to view the two subject’s actions/reactions, thanks to using the rule of thirds.

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Sarah encounters the miner in My Bloody Valentine (2009).


Enemy Enters the Shot

After the camera has tracked outwards during the very first establishing shot, the camera starts to pivot around the lodge. Eventually, a man with a machete will enter the shot from the right, and quickly rack focus on him, indicating his presence to the player. The man will slash his weapon, quickly transitioning to the next shot.

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Through a long shot, Sam is roaming through the corridors, the psycho’s leg comes into focus in the composition from the right. Thus, scaring the player and alerting them that he is about to do something horrible very soon.

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Distortion

An exclusive cinematic technique the horror genre loves using is the dolly-zoom. It was first implemented by Irmin Roberts in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo released back in 1958, thus giving it the popular nickname of “Hitchcock zoom” and the “Vertigo effect”.

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Dolly-zoom complimented with a high-angle using a wide-angle lens portrays a distorted and uneasy shot.

Later on when Sam and Mike find Josh tripping, a dolly-zoom is used to warp his shot, reminding the player that he is uncomfortable and terrified of something the others cannot see. The camera is tracking towards Josh, while the camera is zooming out, causing this unsettling perspective. The camera has a wide-angle lenses, almost fish-eye like, to make Josh look even more distorted when near the camera. It is also at a high-angle, causing the subject to look weak and defenseless to his nightmare. Wide angle lenses, high-angles and dolly zooms work very well together to create the perfect unpleasant feeling for an audience to witness.


Isolation

Many horror films and games place their subjects in remote and isolated areas, so no one can hear their cry for help. Isolation can be interpreted by taking advantage of establishing shots. Until Dawn‘s establish shot trucks in towards cabin, the primary location of the game. It then dissolves to another establish shot, pivoting towards a certain area of the cabin, where the characters are located inside.

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Stanley Kubrick, who is known for his camera shots lasting long durations, uses many different shots in his film The Shining to establish where the film will take place; a far away remote hotel on a mountain.


Close-ups of the Recently Deceased

In Hitchcock’s Psycho, after Marion’s iconic death of being stabbed in a shower, she has a very long shot of herself dead on the floor, starting from an extreme close up of her eye, to a normal close up of her motionless face. Showing the lifeless eye of a recently deceased victim is a popular technique. Until Dawn uses this cinematic approach if Matt falls down a cliff. A side-by-side comparison illustrates their similarities easily:

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Marion’s death in Psycho (1960).

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One of Matt’s possible deaths in Until Dawn (2015).

And of course, the famous close up of someone screaming when they are about to die:

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Jessica being taken by a wendigo.

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Mrs. Kettlewell being killed by Chucky in Child’s Play (1988).


Over-the-shoulder Attacks

Since horror films require a subject to be attacked, one way of recording it is the approach of record it over the shoulder. That way, it seem like the killer is not only attacking the victim, but the audience as well.

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Robbie getting stabbed by Ghostface in Scream 4 (2011).

In Until Dawn, a wolverine attacks towards Chris but instead of going right his face, the wolverine slightly turns away from him to aim towards the camera, as if it were actually lashing at the player.

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Chris startled by a wolverine lashing from the cupboard.


In conclusion, without these famous traditional horror camera techniques, Until Dawn would have not been the great immersive experience it truly is. If games want to succeed at cinematics, looking for their certain genre’s aspects through film, and even television, can help establish a helpful guide to use as a reference. Games should always take into consideration what films have to teach. That way, games can use it to their advantage to create brilliant and engaging experiences.


Works Cited

Robinson, Jessica. Life Lessons from Slasher Films. Scarecrow Press, 2012. Google Books.

Verma, Esha. Techniques To Shoot A Horror Sequence. Pandolin, 2013. Web. 12 Oct. 2015. < http://pandolin.com/techniques-to-shoot-a-horror-sequence/ >

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