The CW has officially unveiled their new anthology series, TWO SENTENCE HORROR STORIES with episodes titled “Squirm” and “Gentleman”. With each episode being less than 30 minutes, the creators waste no time getting straight to the point with a source sentence opening each episode. If the rest of the season is anything like the first two chilling tales, horror fans are in for a real treat. Helmed by Vera Miao, the series stars Nicole Kang (Batwoman), Jim Parrack (Suicide Squad) and Aleyse Shannon (Charmed), among others. Also leading the list of creatives involved with the project is cinematographer Guy Pooles. Pooles’ use of color and shadows is definitely noted, successfully contributing to the overall unnerving vibe of the series. In the below exclusive interview Pooles goes more in depth about working on the series.
How do you find the balance making sure objects in a scene are not over powering the character? Was there a time in the episodes that have already been available on CW Seed that this happened and you had to modify something?
Guy Pooles: When you line up a shot, it’s of paramount importance to scrutinize every single item within the frame. You have to make sure that everything visible makes sense for the world of the story you are telling, and that your eye is naturally drawn to the elements of the frame that are most important in that moment.
Lighting, composition, depth of field, set dressing and careful control of your color-palette are all tools that you must utilize to ensure that your shot is always conveying the information and emotion that you intend. It’s when objective scrutiny has not been applied to every aspect of each frame that the story you’re trying to tell has the chance of getting away from you. For example, a bottle of liquor might feel like justified set-dressing for a character’s home in one shot, but create a frame where that bottle draws too much attention to itself, and you may be inadvertently suggesting to a viewer that the character has a drinking problem.
Thankfully, from the director, to the production designer & set dresser, from the script supervisor to the cinematographer, there are plenty of eyes to scrutinize every frame. It’s quite remarkable to think about how much time is spent, discussing every item visible in each shot, especially when time is your most valuable resource on set; but that just speaks to how important that part of the filmmaking process is.
Now, despite this, occasionally things might slip through the cracks that aren’t noticed until post production. A crew-members bottle of water, or a stray apple box are occasionally found to be hiding in a dark corner of the frame; or sometimes writing on a sign or the label on a product are deemed to be too distracting. When this happens, if the budget allows for it, a visual effects artist can usually remove the offending item rather seamlessly. This has happened to me on productions occasionally, and usually occurs in the shots when we were most rushed on set.
I don’t remember a specific example of that occurring during the production of the digital series incarnation of TWO SENTENCE HORROR STORIES. Honestly, if an item was deemed to be unwarranted, it will still probably be there in the frame, as our visual effects budget on that early incarnation of the show was very slim indeed, as I remember.
What was your production schedule like on this show? How long did you have for each episode?
Guy Pooles: On this new season, it was still a rather tight schedule. We knew going in that it was going to be a very fast paced shoot, and we collectively did our best in prep to plan for that. The script for each episode was around 25 pages, and initially we had four days of photography to complete each episode. This did eventually expand to five days per episode, and that gave us a little more breathing room, but it was still an intense shoot and it’s a real testament to the entire crew and everyone involved that we achieved what we set out to do. I was really blessed to work with the crew that I had on this show.
When working on horror titles, such as TWO SENTENCE HORROR STORIES, how is your approach different than non-horror titles?
Guy Pooles: Honestly, I try to keep my approach exactly the same. Despite there potentially being similarities in genre or subject matter, every single film or show you work on is its own story. When I approach a new project, I try to leave behind everything I utilized from productions past, and work with the director to build the visual language of the project from scratch.
I really don’t believe that there’s a specific way one has to photograph Horror, or Comedy, or a film of any genre. All that matters is that your cinematography serves the story and the vision of the director.
TWO SENTENCE HORROR STORIES is an anthology series, so no two episodes are the same. I would imagine you would really like this because you get to experiment with new things each episode?
Guy Pooles: Yes, I really love that aspect of the show. Nothing ever has a chance to become stale and, each episode brings a whole host of new opportunities to tell a story in different ways.
It is something of a trade-off though. You have the shooting schedule of an independent feature film, but you never quite have a chance to fall fully into the shooting rhythm of that kind of production, because every few days the director, the cast, the locations and the narrative all change. The entire crew had to be on their toes to continuously adapt to slightly different ways of working.
You are one of two cinematographers on the show. How did you decide who was going to work on which episodes?
Guy Pooles: I actually wasn’t a part of that decision process, the production had been designed as two simultaneous shooting units, that were each to photograph four episodes. Showrunner Vera Miao hired me on as the Cinematographer of one of those units. I would imagine she made a choice based on my work on the earlier digital series incarnation of the show.
What were some of your sources of visual inspiration for TWO SENTENCE HORROR STORIES?
Guy Pooles: Vera brought a lot of still photography to the table as visual references. The focus tended to be on imagery that was unsettling to look at, but in ways that often took you a moment to dissect where that feeling came from.
We looked at examples of images that seemed to naturally want to be framed symmetrically, but were composed in a slightly unbalanced manner. Paul Schrader’s film First Reformed had a few examples of this, as well as a color-palette that felt unsettlingly muted and designed. Not to mention that almost all of the directors I worked with, at some point referenced the breathtaking work of Lynne Ramsay. Specifically, her eye for inexplicably disconcerting inserts and details.
Are you a fan of horror film/TV yourself? What are some of your favorite films, cinematography wise?
Guy Pooles: I’m a fan of every genre of narrative film and TV. Though, few viewing experiences stay with you quite like the feeling of watching a brilliantly made horror film.
Honestly, the cinematographer whose work I most admire is Tak Fujimoto. He’s such a great example of a cinematographer that always puts the story first; far beyond any personal taste or inherent style that he might enjoy. His work is so visually arresting and terrifying in films like The Sixth Sense and The Silence of the Lambs, yet those two films feel so visually distinct from each other. He’s also a man who shot Pretty in Pink, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and some of Terrence Malicks’ Badlands. There’s such a versatility to his work that often the only common trait you can notice is how the camera is always in the perfect place.
What would be your dream type of horror film/show to work on?
Guy Pooles: When it comes to horror, I feel it’s incredibly important to design a film that tries to tap deep into an interior pain or insecurity; whether that pain comes from within a single character or from society as a whole. Sometimes a horror film is interested in little more than it’s creepy visuals or a terrifying mechanic that might have been thought up, but if your monster or your antagonistic force isn’t speaking to something deeper, then you’re really wasting an opportunity to connect with an audience on a level that other genres rarely have a chance to.
I think that TWO SENTENCE HORROR STORIES is a great example of a show that uses horror to examine its characters, and invites a viewer to also look inwards. That’s what I crave from the horror projects that I work on, and what I will continue to seek going forwards.