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Emily Elizabeth Thomas Dives into the Midnight Zone’s Depths



The ArtClass director speaks to LBB’s Ben Conway about her “one part horror, one part camp and one part whimsy” spot for VADA EYES eyewear, ‘The Midnight Zone’

Emily Elizabeth Thomas Dives into the Midnight Zone’s Depths

Collaborating with her fellow Austin, Texas native and founder/creative director of fashion line VADA, Katie Caplener, ArtClass’ director, Emily Elizabeth Thomas, envisioned and realised a psychedelic deep-sea dive into the darkness to promote the brand’s ‘Midnight Zone’ eyewear collection.

The ‘Midnight Zone’ is the largest ecosystem on planet earth, and exists - largely unexplored and mysterious - at depths so deep that sunlight can’t penetrate it. Swimming down there in the pitch black waters is over 70% of sea life, and thanks to its inaccessibility, these covert creatures are some of the least understood lifeforms in the world - rarely seen or studied by humans. Bizarre and monstrous creatures like the anglerfish are some of the more famous residents - which is why this frightening fish and its alluring light takes centre stage for Emily’s film.

Featuring two stylish, ’Beetlejuice’-esque punks, gory dismemberments and vibrant animations, the director captures the darkness of the Midnight Zone whilst playing up to the ‘campy, bloody fun’ of the horror films that have inspired her. Utilising some seriously stylised split diopter shots and slow shutter speeds - try saying that 10 times fast - Emily crafts an enchanting and spooky narrative with some beautiful lighting and set design that is sure to get viewers in the Halloween spirit.

LBB’s Ben Conway caught up with the director for a chat about how the project came together, her love for the horror genre, and how the crew built a makeshift ‘shitty rig’ for SnorriCam shots.

LBB> How did you get involved with VADA and this project? What was the brief for the spot like?

Emily> I’m an Austin, Texas girl, and so is the founder and CD of VADA, Katie Caplener. I’ve worn VADA eyewear for years. The design and silhouettes of VADA’s eyewear are so unique, playful, and chic at the same time. With my reverence for the brand, it was only a matter of time before Katie and I ran into each other in Austin – and we did through my frequent line producer Logan Gilmore! There was creative synergy and just an acknowledgement that we were both female entrepreneurs out here hustling.

My brief from Katie was immediately exciting. Her vision for this collection is really strong and creative. The new line is inspired by the Midnight Zone of the ocean - the darkest and deepest part of the sea that’s largely unexplored. The new eyewear is inspired by the colours and silhouettes of the creatures of the deep. That’s already such a fun premise. For the movie, she wanted campy, bloody, fun horror in the vein of Nobuhiko Obayashi’s 1977 film ‘House’. My mind immediately exploded. I mean come on… that’s a dream brief! 

LBB> What were some initial creative ideas that came to mind after seeing the brief and VADA’s ‘Midnight Zone’ eyewear?

Emily> My initial thought was: ‘time to get weird!’. It’s a unique tone to strike. It’s one part horror, one part camp and one part whimsy. But I wanted the base from which the movie stood to be about classic horror tropes. I wanted to keep that frenetic, spooky energy that makes viewers excited to go see horror movies. My thought process was: if an anglerfish is our villain, how do we frame him in a way that makes him scary, menacing, and spooky?

I conceptualised the gorgeous split diopter shots with a dutch angle, for a menacing effect. And the killer catfish that devours our lead talent’s hand was about subverting expectations. You’d think a little catfish would be innocent. But in the Midnight Zone, nothing is what it seems. 

The director - Emily Elizabeth Thomas

LBB> Are you a big Halloween fan? Where did you get your spooky inspirations from for this project? What are some of your favourite horror films and why?

Emily> I love Halloween! And I love the horror genre. My writing and directing style leans toward that genre. I’m always a little whimsical, a little fantastical and a little spooky. It’s a natural instinct I have that I’ve learned to lean into. It makes me a great director for October!

My favourite horror movie of all time is ‘The Shining’. Kubrick is the master of the genre, and I study him rather obsessively. And, of course, Dario Argento’s ‘Suspiria’ for its spooky, witchy, vibe. Lots of late ‘70s movies - which was right in the pocket for this project. ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ and ‘Beetlejuice’ also ended up being big inspirations for ‘Midnight Zone’ - the camp of it all, you know?

LBB> What was your camera/lens setup for this shoot? Did you use any fun techniques for the slow-mo shots or to play with the contrast of the darkness and the lights?

Emily> We went a little wild with the camera and lensing. We shot on a Mini LF with a dolly track, jib arm, and a Ronin. We shot on Cooke Anamorphics (my favourite lens) and utilised a slow shutter speed in select moments. But the split diopter shots were the hero of the project for me, and something I was super excited to execute. 

I’ll proudly admit that we built a ‘shitty rig’ for our Snorricam shots. I really wanted to build something that would bring a similar unbridled energy, without springing for the Snorricam rental fee. My DP, Alexander Mercado of Suite 650, and his team were up all hours after our pre-light, figuring out how to rig it. You do what you’ve got to do for the shot.

LBB> It looks like the shoot was a lot of fun! Did you have a strict shot list, or was there plenty of room to let the actors/models improvise and explore the space? How was your dynamic with them on the production?

Emily> I had a strict shot list. I do leave room for magic, but I run a tight ship. You gotta fix it in prep, not on set. My dynamic with the talent was wonderful! They were so gorgeous, weird, punk, energetic, and excited to do something unique. 

LBB> The anglerfish set design is so imaginative - who worked on the set and where/how was it built? And who created the great props and fake blood/limbs?

Emily> The anglerfish playscape was built by Malek Lazri at his studio, and at Suite 650 in Austin. I was on another job up until just a few days before we shot, so when I was finally able to see the anglerfish in person - after only seeing progress pictures - I was so blown away. [It’s] definitely one of the coolest set builds I’ve worked with. The fake blood and limbs were created by Hawgsfly, a super rad SFX shop also in Texas.

LBB> The lighting is super vibrant and stylish too - how did you work with the lighting and set design crews to create the atmosphere and visuals you wanted?

Emily> A lot of tinkering! We shot at Suite 650 and they have this rad, custom jumbo RGB sky panel ceiling. We tried a ton of different looks out with the board operator, before we settled on the spooky underwater look that’s in the movie. 

LBB> The animation and VFX add an extra splash of colour and life to the spot - how closely did you work with those teams on set and in the creative process?

Emily> How sick is the animation?! All those scary little fish were created by Kaiman Kazazian, a super-talented illustrator in LA. The superbly talented team at ArtClass Post took her illustrations and brought them to life through animation. We talked extensively about the kind of movement and presence we wanted them to have. It was a really important part of the tone, so that part was just so exciting. They did a killer job. 

LBB> Did you work on the edit at all? What direction did you give to the editor?

Emily> I worked rather tirelessly on the edit, which is always fun for me! I love the editorial process. I worked directly with editor James Boger and the team at ArtClass Post. I came in with a lot of experimental ideas and a lot of things I wanted to push. They were so game, and so hard-working. I’m an ArtClass director, so I’m grateful to have their support of my work through post as well. 

Shoutout to colourist, Ayumi Ashley at Rare Medium, who gave the movie the vibrant, punk flair it needed, and Tre Carden who did sound design and score. He made this hypnotic, spooky, Berlin club-inspired soundscape - a difficult tone once again, but he killed it. 

LBB> What was your favourite shot or moment from the shoot and why? And which was the most creatively challenging to capture?

Split diopters all the way! And the SFX with the severed hand. That was pretty fun. I am such a student of movies and of my job as a director. I have a running list of things I want to do - shots I need to have for my repertoire. A split diopter has been in there for a while. The list keeps getting longer though…  I’m not sure it will ever be finished! I consider a project a big success if I’m able to explore something as a director that I haven’t yet before. ‘Midnight Zone’ is a win for this reason - and many others!

The most creatively challenging part was just creating a sense of movement and exploration within a studio-based set. I told a full story - beginning, middle and end - in and around that anglerfish! We really pushed the cinematography and performance a lot to keep it dynamic, and to keep it moving in an interesting direction at every beat. 

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ArtClass, Fri, 28 Oct 2022 15:58:00 GMT