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Horror streaming platform Shudder released a bundle of films early in February, including A Nightmare Wakes, an adaptation of the novel "Frankenstein," as told through the life of Mary Shelley. We talked to cinematographer Oren Soffer and his work capturing the cinematic, yet minimalistic look that the director wanted to achieve in this period film. He worked with a team of 4 and carried only 4 lights the entire shoot, so a ton of the work relied on the use of natural light and lenses.
PH: Can you talk about how you got started in production?
Oren Soffer: For as long as I can remember, I've loved movies, and wanted to get involved in making them. My core during childhood was Star Wars, Jurassic Park, Back to the Future, and Indiana Jones, but it wasn't until the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and specifically the Special Edition DVDs with 30 hours of bonus material came out that I fully realized that I wanted to work in production, and started gaining an interest in cinematography specifically. Eventually, I attended NYU film school with a focus on cinematography, shooting dozens of student films and was also lucky enough to be able to intern for Reed Morano on a number of feature shoots, where I got my first taste of what professional productions looked like. After graduating, I would take whatever gigs I could get (by responding to listings on Production Hub, among others!) until I was able to establish a foothold with enough regular directors and clients to keep me busy, and that brings us to where we are today.
PH: What have been some of your most memorable experiences?
Oren Soffer: My favorite part about working in production is the opportunity to travel to all sorts of places I probably would never have made it to otherwise. Though I'm not quite as well-traveled on productions as I'd like to be yet, I've had the fortune of being able to shoot projects in the United Arab Emirates, Honduras, as well as all over the United States, being able to work in, explore and take in some amazing places and meet some incredible people. Those travel jobs are always the most memorable.
PH: How have you been managing / what's your experience been like during the pandemic?
Oren Soffer: I'll be honest, it has not been easy. I think the general state of the world has set in a sort of baseline of general malaise and anxiety that is just constantly there, and it's definitely been challenging to stay motivated, particularly when combined with the overall lack of work and the financial and creative burdens that stem from not working for extended periods of time. However, I've done my best to make the most of it: I've made a conscious effort to be more social and spend more time (virtually) with friends and family, or going on socially-distanced hikes; I've been able to put a real dent in my movie and TV show watchlists and to be able to get inspired by movies and shows that I'd been meaning to watch for a long time; been able to dedicate some time to self-education and studying to advance and develop my cinematography skills; and I was finally able to take the time to learn how to cook!
PH: How did you become involved with A Nightmare Wakes?
Oren Soffer: In Freshman year of NYU film school, the director and I, Nora Unkel, sat next to each other in the front row of our intro to film history class, and subsequently both spent a lot of time volunteering as crew on upperclassmen films, where we would constantly annoy everyone with our lengthy nerdy discussions about films and just our general excitement to be there and to be making movies. We ended up working on a number of projects together throughout film school, so we already had a rapport and a familiarity when I was offered to shoot the film. One of our producers, Devin Shepherd, also went to NYU with us and she and Nora founded a production company after graduating; I had done a couple of projects with them through that company as well. I was also fortunate to have been familiar with the feature from early on in the script stages as Nora had been working on it for years before we went into production.
PH: What are some of the challenges filming a period piece like this? How did you tackle them?
Oren Soffer: Our biggest challenge on this film was our limited budget, but luckily, we had many elements already in place to work around that limitation and set ourselves up for success. The main asset working in our favor was our incredible location: Hyde Hall, a historic manor home in upstate New York. We shot the entire film inside or on the grounds and woods surrounding this house, which also already came fully furnished with period-accurate furnishings and details. They were still placed and designed by our incredible production designer Maddie Wall, but the broad strokes were already there which helped us immensely. I'll go into this in further detail later on, but another major advantage this location lended us was the ability to really lean into shooting the film with as much natural and available light as possible - as historical homes like this one were designed to harness natural light in the best way that they could (since they predated electricity), complete with big, south-facing windows and other architectural flourishes that made the available light at the location look incredible without requiring much manipulation or adjustment. In addition, with the help of technological advances in digital camera sensors and fast lenses, we were able to light the night scenes in the film entirely with candle light, which only further lent to our ability to embrace our budgetary limitations and design our visual approach to the film around them.
PH: How did you work with the director to visualize the look of the film?
Oren Soffer: I liken the prep process to carving a statue out of marble. We start the process early on by exchanging references and coming up with a document we call a "show bible," that lays out the topline rules of how we want to shoot the film and what we want it to look and feel like overall. This is where we worked out the different approaches to differentiate between the "reality" scenes and what we referred to as the "nightmare" scenes. Some of the references we looked at early on included Cary Fukunaga’s “Jane Eyre,” “Lady Macbeth," “Barry Lyndon”, “Bright Star,” “The Beguiled,” “The Witch,” The Crown,” “Game of Thrones,” and other dark movies and shows with period settings. We also looked at “Alias Grace” and “The Handmaid’s Tale” quite a bit for inspiration for subjective framing, and we also looked at “Black Swan” and “Mother” for how to integrate surreal, nightmare imagery and have it blend into the world of the film. After setting the overall look, we start to get more precise and specific by creating a scene-by-scene shot list, using our "show bible" as a guide to inspire our decisions on camera placement, movement, and shot coverage. Of course, all of this is just a blueprint and is subject to change on set, but I find that it helps a lot to work out as much of a plan and a design in advance, to work off of once you're on set and which serves as a guide for all decisions made down the road, including ones that have to be made on the fly. Overall, we designed a dark and moody visual that felt appropriate for the subject matter, genre, as well as the period setting; and a look that also dovetailed perfectly with our minimalistic, budget-conscious approach.
PH: You only carried 4 lights the entire shoot! What role did natural light play?
Oren Soffer: I estimate about 85% of the film was shot entirely with natural or available light (including candlelight). As I detailed earlier, our location did a lot of the heavy lifting for us, as well as our digital sensor (we shot on the Arri Alexa) and our fast lenses (Ultra Speeds from Panavision). Our four lights covered different bases for when we needed to augment or just give a little extra wrap or precision to any of the naturally-occurring lighting; they were almost exclusively used to enhance, as we simply did not have the tools, crew or time to artificially build any of the lighting from the ground up. But in the end, counter-intuitively, I found this approach to be incredibly liberating; the location and the placement of windows and other architectural elements ended up dictating many of our decisions with regards to camera placement and blocking in terms of where things looked the best or where we had pockets of beautiful natural light to work with. It ended up making our jobs even easier.
PH: Do you have a favorite scene or most memorable experience on set? What was it and why?
Oren Soffer: My favorite scene would probably be what we referred to as the “dark and stormy night” scene. It takes place early on in the film at Byron’s manor where our characters are all having dinner and, due to inclement weather forcing them to stay indoors, Byron comes up with the contest to write scary stories that ended up inspiring so many literary classics, including the Vampyr as well as Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. The room this scene took place in was probably my favorite in our entire location: There was just something about the quality of the pieces of furniture that were in it, the layout, and the way the windows interacted with the space that I just really loved. It also came adorned with two period-accurate oil lamp chandeliers that actually still worked as they did nearly 200 years ago; so it was really fun to be able to integrate those into the scene as well. It was also nice being able to shoot a scene that was a little lighter, and seeing the characters in a little bit of a looser setting than the darkness that comes later. We shot in a way that allowed each of the characters their moment to shine. Overall, I’m so happy with how that scene turned out and how it looks. And everybody was having fun during that scene, including the actors.
PH: What are you looking forward to this year?
Oren Soffer: I'm looking forward to a hopeful return to some semblance of new normalcy; hopeful that work gets back to normal and that I'll have more opportunities to be able to create images, and more than anything, I'm looking forward to going back to the movie theater. I don't think I've missed anything more than that during this past year.