Unraveling the Cinematography of The Puppetman, Interview with Clayton Moore

Published on in ProductionHUB Exclusive

Cinematographer Clayton Moore has worked on everything from episodic television to feature length films. It’s his recent collaborations with director Brandon Christensen that have been garnering attention from both critics and moviegoers, his latest being Shudder’s The Puppetman. In case you aren’t familiar with the film, the synopsis reads: The Puppetman, a convicted killer on death row, always maintained his innocence and that it was an evil force controlling his body as he slaughtered his victims. Now Michal, the killer’s daughter, begins to suspect that there may be some truth to her father’s claim when those around her begin to die in brutal ways. She must try and break the curse of The Puppetman before all her loved ones are killed.

In the below exclusive interview, we spoke with Clayton about everything from the equipment he prefers to the happy accidents he had on The Puppetman.

PH: Can you share your production background? Can you tell us how you got into cinematography?

Clayton Moore: I started my career as a news photojournalist.  It was a great way to learn quickly; I would shoot and edit my own stories every week.  It was literally trial by fire.  After gaining a solid technical basis in the news business, I wanted the freedom to express myself more creatively, so I left journalism and got a job at a small production company where I got to shoot commercials, music videos, and corporate events.  During the financial crisis of 2008 I was laid off from the production company and from that moment decided I would become freelance.  I went back to school to finish my film degree with an emphasis in cinematography and ever since I have been a full-time freelance cinematographer.     

PH: What drew you to work on The Puppetman?

Clayton Moore: This was my second feature film with Director Brandon Christensen, so we began discussing it early in the process when he was first brought on board and began writing the script.  What drew me into the project the most was the larger scope of the film and the fact that we would be filming on location on the east coast.  The previous films I had done with Brandon were very small and all shot in Nevada, so I think we were both excited for a change of scenery.  The crazy brutal death scenes in the script were also an added bonus.  I was excited to be able to help bring some of them to life on screen.   

PH: What did preproduction look like for you on The Puppetman?

Clayton Moore: My unofficial pre-production began almost 3 months before principal photography when Brandon and I would watch films together or begin sharing ideas about the visual tone of the film, and storyboards about some of the death scenes.  Officially, my pre-production began only a week before we went to camera, when I flew to Buffalo and we hit the ground running with location scouts, meeting the local crew, and starting to create lighting plots and overheads for each scene once we had walked the actual locations.  We did a lot of things remotely at first of course, but it all sort of came together within that last week right before we went to camera.     

PH: Can you walk us through your creative process? How did you infuse your own creativity and personality on screen?

Clayton Moore: My process begins with reading the script.  I try to turn off my cinematographer brain and not overthink things and just enjoy experiencing the story for the first time ever.  I’ll make notes of my first impressions that come to mind as I read, be it words, thoughts, colors, emotions, memories, etc.  It's all very stream of consciousness, and I try to avoid notes relating to anything technical.  I’m trying to capture my initial visceral reaction to the story.  From there, I’ll usually wait a day or two and then go back over my notes and start to figure out how to convey my feelings and reactions to the story visually and technically.  I’ll start to put my style and personality on it at that point which all comes from experience both personal and professional.  

PH: Were there any happy accidents that happened with The Puppetman cinematography?

Clayton Moore: Although we were constantly battling the elements on the film, I think the weather was something that ended up working in our favor.  We were blessed with a lot of snow and even some freezing rain on some of our nights that were miserable to work in, but ended up looking incredible on screen. 

PH: Did you use any unique equipment for The Puppetman?

Our equipment package was pretty traditional and straightforward.  We had a 3 ton grip truck with some add ons, including a Fisher dolly which the camera lived on almost full time, and also allowed us to get some really great dolly shots (which we love!).  We lit the film mostly with smaller LED units but supplemented with some tungsten units from time to time.  Our largest lighting heads were a pair of Arri M18 HMI’s.  I did use a lot of Practical bulbs, specifically Aputure B7c’s.  My gaffer having wireless control of them via Sidus Link made it easy to dial in light levels on the fly.

PH: When it comes to the cinematographer/director relationship on set, what would you say is most Important?

Clayton Moore: Communication, and supporting a unified vision.  That's why a solid pre-production period is so important.  A lot of the conversations you have in pre-production will set the course for the shoot and save you time on set because you will have already discussed a lot of things beforehand.  Pens and paper are cheap, so shot listing is important, overheads, storyboards, just having a plan for the day even if it goes out the window.  Anything that can save you time on set, and give you more time with the actors is key.  Directors love having more time.     

PH: Are there any other important aspects of The Puppetman cinematography that we might not know about?

Clayton Moore: There are a ton of visual effects in the film, over 300 shots.  I would say that almost all of them go unnoticed which is ultimately the goal of good VFX!  Knowing we would have so many comps ahead of time added another layer of technicality to the film.  The bridge sequence in particular is one of the heaviest.  We had the luxury of shooting all the plate elements first so that when we got into the studio it made it a lot easier to line up the angles and the lighting for the green screen footage.  It's one of those scenes where everything comes together pretty seamlessly and I’m very happy with the results.   

PH: Did you learn anything on The Puppetman that you will use on future films?

Clayton Moore: I think there were a lot of lessons learned, although one that specifically stands out was how Anamorphic lenses rendered our film.  They brought such an amazing texture and clarity to the film that helped heighten production value and create an extra level of depth that you don’t get from spherical glass.  We had shot a few commercials with anamorphics previously, but we were really excited to finally get to use them on a long form narrative project and really utilize the scope of the lenses in our compositions.

Another lesson learned was how to work within a bigger production.  This was my biggest film yet so it was a good lesson in time management, and improving my communication and people skills, and all the other non-creative but essential jobs a DP has.  I feel like I grew a lot personally and professionally as a result of this project.     

PH: What are you working on next?

Clayton Moore: Brandon and I have just completed production on our 3rd feature film.  It is in post-production now and it is another thriller/horror type film with an interesting twist that I think people will be drawn to.  I’m also working on an outdoor travel show for PBS which is keeping me very busy and traveling a lot through the end of the year.  Of course, I’m always on the lookout for my next feature project as well!

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About the Author

Dan Moore
Dan Moore is a marketing specialist who works in the field of film, video game and tv production. Some of the projects he has worked on have been released by Gravitas Ventures, Cinedigm and IFC to name a few. In his free time, Dan enjoys going to the movies and hanging out at the beach in Santa Monica.

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