I like Aaron Dries work, and was specifically drawn to it due to his book trailers as mentioned in my review for The Fallen Boys. It turns out he has made them himself. This is my second prerequisite for a horror fiction trailer I want to review. The first is that they be good, so here we are!
This one begins innocuously enough. I like the mix of the brooding voice-over, highway shots and live action. By the time the tension and mystery build, the soundscape warps. Some may be turned off by the high pitch tone used, but I love this. Nothing says terror like your hearing giving out, no? It’s at just about that point that this trailer rears up and snaps at you – literally!
Anyone out there looking to release a book trailer can learn a lot from these reviews. And remember, there is a larger life for these videos outside of YouTube. They are far more fun to share than a static image. They make great entries to horror and Halloween film festivals. With a little added audio, most can do well as radio spots and the like. So, to not keep you waiting, here is some conversation with horror author Aaron Dries about the trailer for And The Night Growled Back.
Typicallydia: I want to ask about the technical side. What camera did you use?
Aaron Dries: No grade A camera in use here, sadly. My book trailer budget was miniscule—which is a polite way of saying absolutely bloody nothing—so the bulk of this production was shot on my partner’s DSLR with an HD video capture function. The one problem is that it’s so lightweight. Lightweight cameras are great if you’ve got a tripod but can be problematic because they capture every shake of your hand. And no, I didn’t have a tripod. The camera had no image stability feature. I actually had more dolly/tracking shots in my shotlist, but my arm just wasn’t steady enough. Not a gliding THE SHINING-esque push in to be found in any of my footage. Oh, and let’s not forget that I didn’t have any dolly tracks laid out or anything. The interior shots were all done in my one bedroom Canberra (Australia) loft. So I cleared away my coffee table and rolled up my shag rug so I had the open floorboards to work on; then I sat on my wheel-based swivel chair and had my partner push me around, back and forth, front-ways and sideways. I’m glad we’re on the third floor of our apartment building. The people on the street would have thought us insane otherwise. But then again, maybe we are.
I used a secondary camera for the ‘highway’ shots, an old Bloggie cam, which is USB powered and is about the size of a small TV remote. We’ll get to how I used this one later…
TL: What sort of lighting was needed? I know how important good light is…
AD: For all of these interior shots, the only lighting I had available was that I could source from around my apartment. I accumulated every lamp and torch I could find and strategically placed them around the limited space, just out of shot. I bounced light off the walls to give the background some definition and to try to cast some shadows over the actor’s faces, where appropriate (especially at the dining table). I used a floor lamp to light their faces, and angled the lamp shade in a particular direction to diffuse the brightness. I would alternate which ceiling lights I’d use depending on which direction I was shooting in, but this was often problematic, as it let too much light into the scene, breaking the mood. Lighting, for the record, was the hardest part of the shoot. You can have a good camera, or a really simple one, and shoot something that looks great—but if it’s not lit well, you might as well have shot your masterpiece in a shoebox. Lighting is critical. It was a challenge, but it worked. Eventually.
TL: Where is that highway, and was the lighting there a challenge as well?
AD: That highway was actually just a road, which kind of looked like an eerie and abandoned highway when shot from a low angle. I tried shooting on an actual highway, but there was too much traffic—highways are well lit, too. I didn’t want that. I only wanted the glare off the tarmac and the blare of the dividing lines, really. I was really going for a David Lynchian LOST HIGHWAY kind of thing. I just wasn’t going to get that on your average Australian highway… So these exterior shots were taken on Mount Ainsle in Canberra, about a five minute drive from my apartment. I waited until the middle of the night so there wouldn’t be any other cars and did it all in one shot.
To capture this image, which to me was crucial (I even considered just using this one shot, unbroken and complete, without any of the interior inserts, just a voice over), I took my little Bloogie cam and used electrical tape to fasten it to the number plate of my car! In order to do this, I had to set the camera to record first and then attach it, crossing my fingers as I did so. I then got back in my car and … sped and swerved up that mountain and then down again. I’m sure if the police had seen me I would have been pulled over for sure. I wasn’t terribly proud, but I was careful. The only real danger up there was all the wildlife bounding about. At one point a Kangaroo leapt out in front of me.
[That, right there, is why I like interviewing Aaron Dries]
So I drove, and the whole time I was praying to the low-budget filmmaking gods out there, “please-please-please don’t let the sticky tape break, please don’t let the camera hit the ground and shatter into a million pieces. After all, the damn thing doesn’t even belong to me. It’s my partner’s as well! I took it without permission because there’s no way I’d get the green light if I’d actually said what I planned to use it for!” (I mean, who would?)
As for the lighting, I knew that the majority of the shot would be in shadow. The night was pitch black. By putting my blinders on I knew I was guaranteed to get the road glare, if nothing else. And that was enough. My problem was focus! This is a low-fi camera we’re talking about here, with no manual focus feature. I just had to luck it. There was also no way of checking the footage until after I’d gone up and then back down the mountain. I pulled over, jumped out of the car and pretty much screamed Hallelujah when I saw that a) the camera was there in place, and b) the footage was useable. Eureka! David Lynch, eat your heart out. In post-production I desaturated the shots and put a slight blue/green filter on it. All of the camera shake was digitally simulated in Final Cut Pro.
TL: There is a wonderful growl at the end… where did you collect that sound?
AD: It’s a good growl, don’t you think? So monstrous and evil sounding… Sorry to disappoint you kind folks out there, but this noise isn’t the roar of some Australian creature in the outback, which I coincidentally captured whilst going up Mount Ainslie. Nope… It’s me. I did multiple takes, ran the sound at 50% speed and overdubbed the tracks. I dropped a couple of audio filters on it, thus upping the bass. I cranked the sound so it would really blare. Done. Easy as pie—only cheaper than your average pie.
All of the sound was done by me, including the score. Not that I can play any instruments, mind you. There’s an out of tune piano at my work (I work in a nursing home), so I went into the room on my lunch break and recorded myself just striking random keys. At home, I changed the footage into MP3 files. I imported the audio clip into Final Cut Pro, dropped the speed a little and played the sequence backwards. The wind sounds and the scratchy record effect were sourced from a generic sound-effects CD that I borrowed from my local library. These worked a treat. Finally, I asked my friend, Leigh, who has a wonderfully laconic voice, to do the narration.
TL: So, you mention a tiny budget of $25. What was that spent on?
AD: The number one expenditure for the entire trailer was the monster at the end. I really wanted to find a bear mask, or something wolfish. But I couldn’t find a single mask that fit that description in all of Canberra. I considered sourcing something via Ebay, but everything was so overpriced. Remember, sadly, we don’t celebrate Halloween in Australia (please let that change, and soon!), so there isn’t the huge market for these kind of novelties like there is overseas, especially mid-year. I went to a costume shop wedged between two XXX adult stores on the outskirts of the city (go figure) and found a zombie mask that I thought would work. Not because it looked like a bear or wolf (I’m not that lucky), but it had these great teeth on it. I also knew it was something I could operate with my hand. I knew the shot I wanted, and I knew that the monster would only be seen for a moment. All I needed was the suggestion of jaws. I also bought a kid’s ‘tiger snout’ (which goes over your nose and is attached with elastic). I went home, widened the zombie’s jaws with a pair of scissors and stitched the snout to the zombie’s nose, thus extending the face. I masked the stitches by cutting off the zombie’s hair and sticking it to the divide with chewing gum!
I remember looking at it and thinking to myself, “there’s no way on earth that this is going to work.” Turns out it did. I knew if this bastard mask was shot from the exact right angle, with the exact right amount of camera shake, it’d at least look threatening. In the end, this composition ended up being my ‘money shot’. So, in the end, I guess getting that mask from the little store between the two XXX adult stores was … well … apt.
The rest of my grand expenditures went towards buying the electrical tape used to fasten my camera to my number plate, and towards a small packet of sewing needles that I got at the local dollar store (for, you guess it, a whole buck), so I could stitch the mask together.
So here’s the budget.
Tiger snout: $3.00
Sewing needles: $1.00
TL: Two bottles of wine were also listed in the budget. Did it cost more than $25 and, most importantly, what kind of wine?
AD: The wine! To thank my wonderful actors (my friends Beth and Harrison, who are very good sports, indeed), my partner and I cooked dinner for them (Malaysian red curry, rice and vegetables—from ingredients all in our pantry) I dusted off two bottles of wines that I found under my staircase. I thought a couple of drinks would ease their nerves. We cracked open a bottle of Shiraz (from the Barossa Valley) and Semillon (from the Hunter Valley, my old stomping grounds) and they were delicious. We didn’t overdo it, though. We shot this book trailer on a Wednesday night. A school night. Hardcore, right? Yep, that’s how I roll.
(Before I could get to additional questions about making trailers, Dries beat me to the punch. You can tell he is as passionate about film as he is about writing. There is little I can add to his perfect addendum with tips on making a good short video.)
AD: There are a lot of book trailers out there. 99% of them are god awful. That’s not to say they haven’t been made with love, and often exorbitant amounts of money (and for many of us authors, anything more than a hundred bucks can—and usually is—be considered very expensive). There are many things you can do to make your trailer better, without breaking the budget.
Here are some helpful tips.
- Don’t put over-dramatic stock music in your trailer. This only ends up making your cheap visuals look cheaper. Scale it all back. Make your music complementary to your images, not dominant. Go for minimalism. Also, all stock music has been heard before. It diminishes the effect. You’re better off just having atmospheric sounds and narration.
- If you’re going to have any text in your video, choose it well. Make sure it’s appropriate for the material you’re advertising. Don’t use a font that looks like it was written by a fifteen year old girl daydreaming about her first school crush when your content is about blood-and-guts murder. It just doesn’t work. I see this all the time. Keep it simple. Less is always more.
- Don’t have an amazing camera to shoot your trailer on, as was the case with me? That’s okay. Shoot it on your phone. Shoot it on anything. But whatever you do, light your compositions well. Anything less than really good lighting will make your trailer look as cheap as it really is. But lights don’t need to be something you hire. You can go a long way with lamps and headlights.
- Don’t have professional actors to work with? That’s totally fine! Use your friends … Just don’t get them to deliver any lines. Getting your friends to pose on camera is very different from having them read a script poorly on camera. Just get them to look in the right direction and create the drama out of the film techniques you’re employing — and you should employ them. Get a book on simple filmic techniques, or model your setups after sequences in the movies you like. Hell, Youtube how to shoot basic conversations.
- Don’t make your book trailer too long and don’t give too much away. I’ve seen five minute long trailers. I usually turn off about 3 minutes in. Two minutes max, unless it’s really good. Like, really REALLY good.
- Get creative. Don’t settle for mediocrity.
- You can download free editing software online, or you can dish out the $200 to buy a copy of the new Final Cut Pro. There’s iMovie, there’s all sorts of stuff out there… But whatever you use, remember this: just because there are effects and transitions in the toolbox doesn’t mean you have to put them all in your book trailer. So, no star wipes, scrolling text, or any of those other awful 3D simulators. If you do, watch out. The night really will growl back at you.
- When it comes to editing, you want your finished product to look as much like film as possible. You’ll never reach this height, trust me. But you CAN get closer by doing the following: desaturate your footage, increase the grain and color-grade every shot. Make the blacks look really black. Contrast is good. Contrast looks like money has been spent on lighting. And yes, I know it’s cheating, but changing everything to widescreen instantly makes everything look more cinematic. But if you’re going to do this, make sure you allow extra space above and below every shot when you’re filming live, otherwise you’ll end up with chopped off heads when you go to edit. And not the ‘good kind’ of chopped off heads.
This list isn’t exhaustive, but it’s a start. So what are you waiting for? Get filming now! In the immortal lines of the Wicked Witch of the West, “Fly my pretties. Fly!”
There we have it. I certainly hope I can find more scary book trailers out there with authors willing to share the production experience with Dreadful Tales. Huge thanks to Aaron for giving us a front-seat view of his project. You can pick up this short story, And The Night Growled Back, at Samhain for $2.50 while you wait for him to wrap up his next novel. I’ll be writing up a review on this in the near future too!