I recently saw some test footage for a short film that knocked my socks off. It combines blacklight makeup and costumes to create an otherworldly, almost bio-luminescent visual effect unlike anything I’ve ever seen. And its all done in-camera!
The film is to be called “A Dimly Lit Room” and the writer/director/editor, Thad Nurski, is currently raising funds on IndieGogo to shoot the project. Check out the pitch video to see some of the stunning test footage:
I interviewed Thad via email about how he created the effect, his fundraising strategy and his cinematic influences. Read on…
Making the Movie: Tell me a little about who you are and how you came to filmmaking…
Thad Nurski: I was born and raised in Missouri. I had a big imagination as a kid, and I would dream up elaborate worlds when playing with my toys, drawing photos, or writing short stories. I loved to come up with these elaborate worlds and display them — some way, somehow — even if it was just talking to people about them. Film caught my imagination very early on. I remember as a kid watching the distinct visual worlds of Beetlejuice and Sleeping Beauty. They really stuck with me, and I was fascinated by them and what they were showing me. In Beetlejuice, the practical effects took me aback, and the gorgeous animation of Sleepy Beauty drew me in. I remember at the end when Aurora’s dress keeps changing from pink to blue and blue to pink. It was all so visual and I loved it. That type of storytelling was very visceral to me, it stuck with me. At a certain point I said very early on, “I want to do that, I want to make films,” and I’ve never looked back.
As people will see when they watch your Indiegogo video, the plot of “A Dimly Lit Room” is top secret. But what can you tell us about the project without spoiling anything?
I have been rather illusive about the specifics of our short, but I wouldn’t say it’s top secret. When people have reached out to me and wanted to know more, I have told them. However, a lot of people have told me they enjoy the mystery of it all and don’t want to know more, that they want to wait for the finished film. [If that’s you, reader, skip ahead. – JO] Without giving away too much, I can explain our story like this…
Our protagonist, Asher (John-Michael Carlton), meets our antagonist, Persephone (Jamie VanDyke), in a gloomy room where Asher learns that what surrounds him will directly affect his future. A simple conversation with Persephone teaches Asher that his existence is in jeopardy with grave consequences to follow if he does not solve his situation before it is too late.
The movie is based on a series of revelations; the more you get into the story, the more that is revealed, and all of these revelations lead to our final climatic moment.
Most people have compared the premise of our film to a very famous Ingmar Bergman film, which is a wonderful compliment, but our films are not at all alike. They just have some similar tropes. When people have read my script, the nicest feedback I receive is that they didn’t know where it was going and they were compelled to keep reading because they wanted to find out what was going to happen. So generally we like to sell the mysterious nature of our film, because that is what people enjoy when they read the script.
These makeup effects look amazing. Talk about your makeup and camera tests and how you arrived at these surreal, dramatic visuals.
Our early testing was done on the Canon 5D MkII because 1) that’s what we had available and 2) we knew we’d need the increased light sensitivity when dealing with blacklight. We tested at 2000 ISO with several fast prime lenses, a Canon 50mm/1.4 and a Takumar 85mm/1.8.
Again, we knew that for the actual shoot, we’d need a sensitive camera and fast lenses to get the most out of our makeup. The fundraising video was recorded with the same lenses and a 5DMk3 for a slightly cleaner image. For the actual film, we’re heavily considering low-light options like the Sony A7S.
Something else we found is that the colors that emit from fluorescing surfaces, items, makeup, and so forth look more saturated and accurate when recorded at a very high color temperature, around 8000K to 10,000K. This was important because everything else we lit had to conform to the needs of the blacklight. For the fundraising video, we had to gel our daylight LED units with two or three additional layers of CTB to end up with a neutral light source.
This isn’t often a concern in most narratives where blacklight is a part of the world and doesn’t mix with normal lighting. However, in “A Dimly Lit Room”, we are using it to achieve a practical makeup effect and have to work around its peculiarities.
Another element to our video was the rear projected rain and lightning. We considered compositing our window with green screen, however we wanted to be open to using smoke and haze on our sets and have the option of sheer curtains, so we went with a practical rear projection effect. We used a standard computer projector on a white sheet behind the window. To increase the throw distance of the projector and the size of the image, we shot the beam in a mirror to reflect back to our sheet. In instances where the image didn’t fill up the whole window, our sheer curtain caught some of the light and worked to carry the image the rest of the way.
Makeup was its own beast. From the beginning, I knew that ‘Persephone’ was going to be lit by blacklight, and I knew that I wanted her makeup to fluoresce under blacklight. When I first met with my makeup artist, Jessie [Ipolit “Jessie” Frahm], I told her I wanted the makeup to be elegant and not like body pant. So much blacklight makeup is applied in harsh, broad strokes. I wanted ‘Persephone’ to have an elegant, feminine look. My main instruction was that there could be no blocky, chunky-looking areas of makeup on ‘Persephone’s’ face. Jessie had worked with UV-reactive makeup before and told me what I wanted would be difficult. She warned me, and she was correct.
The UV-reactive makeup is incredibly difficult to work with. Only about four colors fluoresce well under blacklight: pink (which registers more red), yellow, green, and blue. There are powders and liquids, and none of them blend together well. If you apply it to the face, there is no way to softly blend the makeup into another color or add shape. All of the UV-reactive makeup goes on bold and has an uneven look to it. During our first test, Jessie treated the makeup as if it were traditional beauty makeup. This didn’t really work because the makeup wouldn’t blend; the makeup went on bold and chunky. Going into the next test, I suggested we find a way to accent the features of the face without actually applying it like regular makeup, a ‘dusting effect.’
To achieve this dusting effect, we tried powders on our next test. These powders were also difficult because once they hit the skin you couldn’t move or blend them and there was no real science to applying them. They fell on the face in a very haphazard way. I had wanted the powder to accent the features, but in applying it, I knew we had no control over it, so for this test I went bold and had Jessie apply the makeup all over our model’s face. This was not a good look, but it taught me a valuable lesson; less is more. The more makeup that we applied to the face, the less we could see the structure of the model’s face, so going into our next test, I knew we needed to limit our colors and the amount of makeup on the face.
In our third test, we achieved what we ultimately called “the galaxy effect.” Jessie used a liquid that was splattered on the face accenting our model’s facial structure and a powder was applied to the eyes. This splattered effect gave our model’s face a look that many thought resembled a starry constellation. Thus, “the galaxy effect” was born. I loved it, and moving into our next test, which was our Indiegogo teaser, we simplified the eye makeup and achieved our final result.
I have really condensed the process of the makeup here. It was truly one of the most complicated aspects that we had to figure out in preproduction. Much of it was trial-and-error, and lots of talking and hypothesizing in how we could achieve an interesting feminine look. I could write an essay on all that happened during our tests, but I hope these few paragraphs give some insight into how we ended up with our final look.
I hope you will write more once you’ve finished the project. You really went deep into it to create the effect!
Filmmakers always want to know about fundraising strategies. How did you settle on Indiegogo (over, say, Kickstarter) and how did you decide on the awards tiers? Backers have to pony up $75 for a digital download of the short. I presume there is a strategy there…
We chose Indiegogo simply because fundraising is never a sure thing. With Indiegogo, you can keep whatever you make, but with Kickstarter you have to raise all funds or you do not receive any of what you raised. We are going to make this film — in some form — regardless of the amount of funding we receive, but what we are asking for is really the amount we need to make our film appropriately. The goal was to go for what we need, but if we don’t get it, we will take what we got and regroup.
In regards to the perks, we just tried to give better perks as the donations got higher. The people who receive that digital download will get the first look at the film. They will get to see it before anyone else. It is really a preview before a festival run and before we put it online. That’s why we’re sharing the very first look of our passion project with you before anyone else. That’s a pretty special perk to me.
I love how transparent you are with budget costs on the Indiegogo page. Talk a bit about how you arrived at these figures. Your goal is $10,000 but the budget is $14,300. How do you plan to make up the shortfall?
We arrived at our figures simply by talking to the people we’d hire, the places we’d rent, and the equipment we’d need. We made a list of everything we needed, got our estimates, and tallied our final amount. How I plan to make the shortfall is simple; I’m going to use my own money. It’s sort of a “put your money where your mouth is.” This is my passion project. I want to make it, and I am willing to put my own money into it. I just can’t make it entirely on my own. That is why I have started my Indiegogo page and am asking for help.
You’re a working, experienced editor. And you’ve gathered a really talented team. Talk a bit about who else is involved and how you got them on board.
You can see full bios of my collaborators on our Indiegogo page, but I can talk briefly about everyone involved.
I have known my cinematographer, Tristan [Noelle], and my composer, Nathan [Towns], since college. We met at film school, had similar tastes in cinema, and started collaborating on projects together. They are my biggest supporters, and they have been involved in every project I have made since we met.
I also know my producer, Janice [Fung], from college. Janice did not start out in film, but she knew so many of us who were that she started helping us on our projects. This is the first time she’s produced one of my films, and I got her on board by simply asking her for her help. I have known my costumer, Aaron [Cassou], for a few years now, and we’re now good friends. Aaron is a professional stylist who occasionally works on film projects. We have wanted to work on a project for a while now, and “A Dimly Lit Room” was the perfect chance for us to start collaborating.
My actors, Jamie [VanDyke] and John-Michael [Carlton], are both working actors who have appeared on television and commercials. I was really fortunate in finding them. A friend recommended John-Michael to me, and I met with him and knew he was perfect for the part. He then recommended Jamie to me, and I met with her and knew instantly she was the right choice for the role. It was the perfect series of recommendations and really worked out.
Finally my friend Alan [Holt], who works in the industry doing practical effects and makeup, recommended my hair and makeup people. The first person he recommended was Jessie as my makeup artist. About halfway through the process, I knew I was going to have a wig custom made and he introduced me to my wig-maker, Mažena [Pukšto]. I got everyone involved because they were interested in the project and what I was trying to pull off visually. We are all interested in pushing ourselves and trying to create something visually striking, edgy and unique. I’m truly lucky and grateful to have all of my collaborators. They are so incredibly talented and wonderful to work with.
Who are some filmmakers that you admire?
I have always been most taken by filmmakers who create atmosphere with their movies. I’m most drawn to directors who tell their stories with striking visuals and interesting sound design. The more interesting and unique the atmosphere of the movie, the more it sticks with me. Stanley Kubrick, Robert Altman, David Lynch, the Coen brothers, David Fincher, P.T. Anderson, and Alfonso Cuarón are filmmakers that I really admire.
What is your advice for someone who wants to make movies?
Stick true to the stories you want to tell. I once met Walter Murch after he gave a speech, and he had this little box filled with tiny pieces of paper. On each piece of paper was a piece of advice about art. After we were done talking, he pull out the box and told me to take one. I reached in the box, pulled one out, and on the paper it said, “The public does not know what it wants. Impose on it your decisions, your delights.” I think it’s the truth. If you want to make movies, make the movies you’d like to see.
Where can people go to find out more about your work and to contribute to “A Dimly Lit Room”?
People can find more about my work by searching for me on Instagram, Twitter, or IMDb.
“A Dimly Lit Room” on social media: Twitter and Instagram @adimlylitroom
People can contribute to the film by visiting here:
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Thanks to Thad for the interview and the insight into his creative process! The film is nearly half-way funded with 16 days to go. It looks like a really groundbreaking project by an innovative filmmaker, so check it out.
EDIT Oct 2017: The full film can now be screened for free on YouTube:
Full disclosure: I’m a backer :)