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“Using Negative Fill to Create Unease”: DP Tom Comerford on The Hole in the Ground

James Quinn Markey in The Hole in the Ground (courtesy of Sundance Institute)

The feature directorial debut from Irish filmmaker Lee Cronin, The Hole in the Ground follows the ominous goings-on after a couple and their young child move to a new cottage in rural Ireland (where their neighbors include Aki Kaurismäki regular Kati Outinen). Next to the cottage is the titular hole in the ground, and that causes all kinds of problems as their child is possibly possessed. Via email, DP Tom Comerford discussed the challenges of creating a visual atmosphere of unease on a budget.

Filmmaker: How and why did you wind up being the cinematographer of your film? What were the factors and attributes that led to your being hired for this job

Comerford: I’ve worked with Lee for years on different projects, including his horror short Ghost Train, so it felt pretty natural to continue that collaboration with The Hole In The Ground. I’d already shot four features for Savage Productions, who produced THITG, so that probably didn’t hurt either.

Filmmaker: What were your artistic goals on this film, and how did you realize them?

Comerford: The aim (as it always is) was to create a visual style that aided the film’s story, but also for the film to feel bigger than its budget. We wanted to create something unnerving but also cinematic, so I spent a lot of time with Lee scouting locations, looking for the places that would work for the story and play well on camera, storyboarding and shotlisting. When you don’t have a lot of time, it’s good to have a plan to fall back on.

Filmmaker: How did you want your cinematography to enhance the film’s storytelling and treatment of its characters?

Comerford: The film revolves around the relationship between mother and child. As she begins to suspect something may be different about her son I tried to find moments where he could be side lit or in shadow, little things that might suggest something sinister. As the film progresses we frame him from a lower angle and let his back dominate the frame when shooting her close-ups. Whenever possible, I kept a healthy amount of darkness in the frame, using negative fill to create unease. We also used central framing throughout the film to echo the shape of hole and based the color palette around earthy tones.

Filmmaker: Were there any specific influences on your cinematography, whether they be other films, or visual art, of photography, or something else?

Comerford; We wanted something of a classic controlled look, I’d done a few handheld films before this one, so I was glad to get back on the dolly for a change. Lee shared a few images he had in mind from different sources, films, photography—some images from Gregory Crewdson were pretty helpful in getting an idea of the kind of atmosphere he wanted.

Filmmaker; What were the biggest challenges posed by production to those goals?

Comerford: Time is always short when you’re working on a tight budget. For example, we didn’t have the money for night shoots, so we had to get our night exterior scenes in the hour or two after sunset. The majority of night interiors were shot on location during the day with blacked out windows.

Filmmaker: What camera did you shoot on? Why did you choose the camera that you did? What lenses did you use?

Comerford: We shot on the Alexa Mini with Cooke anamorphic lenses. I’ve used the Mini for a few jobs and always been happy with the result.

Filmmaker: Describe your approach to lighting.

Comerford: I tried to keep it motivated and feeling natural, just pushed. A little softer, a little more contrasty, a little darker than reality.

Filmmaker: What was the most difficult scene to realize and why? And how did you do it?

Comerford: The most difficult scene comes toward the end of the film and to go into it would involve spoilers, but basically the question posed was “what can/should you see when there’s no light?” We created a very soft warm top light that gives you a sense of the environment without really being able to make out details.

Filmmaker: Finally, describe the finishing of the film. How much of your look was “baked in” versus realized in the DI?

Comerford: The DI polished the look that had been established in the dailies. We had LUT’s on set, but our colorist, Olivier Ogneux, really helped refine the palette and give an edge to the shadowy areas in the frame.

Tech Box

Film Title: The Hole in the Ground

Camera: Arri Alexa Mini

Lenses: Cooke anamorphic

Lighting: available light, Arri HMIs, Skypanels, LEDs

Processing: Digital

Color Grading: DaVinci Resolve

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