bear (2021): experiments in sound
Creating my own (badly-made) short horror film
It has been a while since I sent out a new issue of this newsletter, but unfortunately, the spring semester was rather hectic for me and I felt especially constrained by the fact that I would have to maintain my blog and my newsletter separately. So I have decided to merge the content on my blog and my newsletter, and you can find all my future newsletter posts on my blog.
With that said, in this issue/post I will be talking about my experience with 21L.011: The Film Experience, an amazing class I had the opportunity of taking at MIT last semester. Content warning: there will be some discussion of horror films, although mostly from a somewhat academic perspective.
With that said, enjoy reading the post!
Note: This post was written on April 16, 2021, but I couldn't edit it until very recently. So some of the days/activities/timings mentioned here may be a bit off, as the spring semester concluded a few weeks ago. For example, I no longer have any assignments to do, and nor am I living in New House any longer.
So it is 11 PM on a Tuesday night. You have an assignment due Thursday at 9 PM. What do you decide to do?
Why, make your own badly-made short horror film with your mobile phone camera, of course!
Welcome to 21L.011: The Film Experience at MIT!
Note: Due to MIT's policy forbidding sharing of assignment work submitted for a class, I will not be posting the actual film itself, and will be rather vague about the assignment itself. However, I will spend this blog describing the zany stuff I ended up doing for the class.
Why horror, you may ask?
It starts with the length limit my film assignment had—it was supposed to be about a minute in length, and I couldn't really think of anything narrative-driven other than horror I would be able to show in a minute, given that I had neither any actors nor any film crew in a world of COVID restrictions. An effective horror short film, in my experience, often focused on one single element that built tension throughout the film, so often it would be just one prolonged narrative sequence leading to a jumpscare. But on the other end, I could just shorten the sequence to the minute just before the jumpscare, and thereby create a somewhat effective horror film (side note: it ended up being a lot less effective than I had envisioned it to be, but it still worked to some degree).
So what sequence am I talking about? As a horror movie buff, there is one sequence that I feel is fairly common in most movies of the genre. The character is in a random spooky setting (doesn't matter where, it could be an abandoned forest, an empty school building, their own bedroom, anywhere as long as they are alone), and the character sees or hears something. They go to investigate, they find nothing, they dismiss it thinking it might have been a random animal or wind or something. Then, as soon as they turn around, boom, the Horror Movie Villain (or HMV) will be right there to jumpscare the audience, and death and destruction shall ensue! The character gets punished for their overconfidence, as they believed they had solved the mystery, and the HMV claims another victim.
Every successful horror film that involves the aforementioned sequence has an HMV. In some cases, the HMV may be abstract, such as the shadows, or it may be a collective, such as a swarm of gross humongous mosquitoes or a cult of evil. In either case, HMVs tend to require either highly skilled actors or extremely good (or bad, depending on the movie's era and budget) CGI for the horror jumpscare moment to be actually effective. It suffices to say that I had neither of them, so I was stuck trying to find the spookiest object I could use as an HMV, given that I was planning to play the role of the protagonist of the film.
One technique that I find particularly interesting is when ordinary things tend to gain a supernatural aura in horror movies. In this case, we don't have our usual fair of eight-foot-tall monstrosities or masked horrors, but some commonplace object which seems to be the root cause of all evil. Some examples include (spoilers ahead! be warned!) the mirror in Oculus (2013), dolls in the Child's Play series (1988-present), and the ventriloquist dummy in Dead Silence (2007). So I decided to take a nice, simple object, and make it the HMV by shrouding it in darkness and playing dramatic music when it is revealed.
So, without further ado, here's my HMV in one of the shots from the film:
Yep, it is a polar bear plushie, courtesy of the MIT Medlinks1 in New House2, who ordered a hundred of these as keepsakes for New House residents. Goodness knows what they would think if they knew what I did with their gift.
Here is the HMV in a more sinister shot, sitting on a tangle of wires in red lighting courtesy of a lamp I got off Amazon:
To be fair, I don't I was going for anything super professional in terms of either the plot or shooting for this film.
Here's the synopsis, as evidence: A boy (me) walks into his dorm room, sits down to work, gets up, and sees his bear plushie has moved from where it was present earlier. He puts it back and sits down to work again, only to hear the plushie move again...
For shooting, I opted for a shaky-cam/found footage approach where I am basically filming everything from the point of view of the protagonist (me). So you see things as I would have seen them, and hence you never see my face, although my hands make cameo appearances whenever doors need to be opened/actions need to be performed. It is basically shot in a first-person POV similar to many video games, although most films opt to shoot in a different manner.
However, the reasoning behind the film is to treat it as an experiment in sound, to see what sounds can make the silly seem sinister, and as a result, most of the film process was tinkering with different sounds to see how I could make things seem more intense/haunting.
Here is a selection of some pretty cool ideas I tried out to make a somewhat cohesive soundtrack:
Haunting Piano Melody: I absolutely love the sound of a slightly out-of-tune piano playing a melody that doesn't quite sit right. I love it when I hear a slow, creepy piano melody in any horror film or game soundtrack. Although several composers use faster strings and brass notes to build tension, I feel a good piano melody does the job just as well, so I found a creepy-sounding melody to play as the title and end credits rolled.
Heartbeats: This one is a clear homage to video games, and not necessarily horror video games at that. Plenty of video games have pulsing red screens which show up whenever you are low on health, and these are often accompanied by the thumping sounds of a heartbeat. A couple of video games even use heartbeat as a game mechanic where you have to stay quiet or maintain a steady heartbeat to escape. So naturally, whenever my protagonist faced the dreaded HMV (a.k.a. my lovely plushie), his heartbeat shot up, and the audience could hear it thumping through their speakers.
Whispers: These tend to pretty effective, especially when you cannot tell what is being said. Is that reversed Latin? Is that a conversation about tonight's dinner? Who knows? Adding more reverb/delay gives an otherworldly feel to the audio, so I had fun tinkering with that too.
Growl: A pretty cliche sound effect, but I had the bear growl menacingly at the end, signaling that it is about to attack right before the end credits rolled. I particularly loved what Annihilation (2018) did with the audio in their bear scene, although there are so many other iconic growls and roars that have accompanied terrifying monsters through many decades of filmmaking.
And that's a wrap!
Finally, I added the opening title card and the ending credits, which I suppose were pretty brief. They followed the format used by many of the short horror films I have seen online. The tricky part was finding a sufficiently creepy font, but I think I managed to make a fairly close replica of the type of title cards I was going for.
Here's the opening title card:
All-in-all, I do feel the film ended up becoming slightly more comedic than I intended it to, especially because it is hard to make a cute polar bear plushie threatening without any make-up or special effects of any kind. As a side effect, however, I must say, I do not feel quite as comfortable cuddling with my plushie now given what it is supposed to have done to my character in the film…
MIT Medlinks serve as liaisons between MIT students and MIT Medical and help provide over-the-counter medications, first-aid materials, and more to MIT students. Visit https://medlinks.mit.edu to learn more!
New House is the MIT dorm where I am living for the spring semester.