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“And For The Real Hero Close Ups… You Wanna Use The Stuff You Find Inside Baby Diapers.”: D.P Mark Schwartzbard on the Practical Snow, Fire, and Black Goo Blood of Black Christmas

Black Christmas

DPs don’t often rank up to their title linearly. Mark Schwartzbard did. Trying to break into the industry after film school, he sent letters to productions but never heard back. He got an internship where he cold-called companies like Coca Cola and offered them product placement in return for Cola. Eventually, the production company he interned for offered him his first loader gig for deferred pay. He loaded and A.C’ed for years on features and commercials and eventually bumped up to camera operator. He pulled focus for the length of Borat and operated on Bruno. Dayplaying, he experienced such New York exoticisms as Chazz Palminteri’s Christmas movie Noel; the only film Rishi Kapoor ever directed,  Aa Ab Laut Chalen; The Departed; etc. 

As often as he could he DP’d in between. Rebecca Miller’s Personal Velocity released and made it viable to shoot successful credit card movies on a digital camera. After he cleared the debt he accrued as an intern, he bought a Sony PD150 and shot low=budget films in between his bigger=budget loader and assistant gigs.

From a career spanning every size of movie at every rank, Schwartzbard has stories. He understands the film industry and its hub cities with a level of detail most people don’t have the discipline to learn. He can seemingly describe how anything works. Working under him on my first feature film in New York, Brian Wizemann’s (to be released) You Mean Everything To Me, I’d ask him why he chose a low-con filter and he’d concentrate his answer down to its design. 

Discussing his photography on Black Christmas, his third collaboration with director Sophia Takal, he educated me on the film’s use of practical snow, fire, and black goo blood in characteristic detail.  

Filmmaker: Did you have fun on Black Christmas? 

Schwartzbard: Yeah it was great. We were off in this remote south island of New Zealand making this kind of strange political slasher movie. 

Filmmaker: I did not know you guys shot this in New Zealand.

Schwartzbard: We were in New Zealand, because this whole movie was very quickly put together. It was like January or February when Blumhouse decided to do it and they called Sophia and she wrote the thing with April Wolfe in like March or April. The whole idea was to get it into theaters by Friday the 13th in December. That’s when you should do a Christmas slasher movie. So we had to shoot Christmas in July. In New Zealand it’s the Winter in July. Then someone found this great southern town called Dunedin, where there’s an old gothic-looking university. 

So we all shipped out over there, and then it turns out it doesn’t snow there. And there’s no crew or actors there. It’s on the opposite end of the country as Auckland, which is the production center. So we ended up importing a bunch of people from Auckland, Wellington and Queensland, which is on the South Island — think Aspen, it’s a resort town. So we got this great grip electric team that’s used to climbing up and down the mountains

Effects guys from Wellington are spraying basically firefighting foam everywhere to make snow.

Filmmaker: I was going to ask about the snow. It fooled me. Was it all practical?

Schwartzbard: There’s some VFX in there. There’s enhancement in the wide shots on the ground and some of the falling snow is VFX. We tried to do practical as much as we could. There’s a lot of challenges with practical snow on the location side — the wind, doing a wide shot with falling snow is a tricky thing. Especially on our budget. It was a very low-budget horror movie, and there were like five different kinds of snow we used.

There’s the spray foam stuff. For the falling snow you use these machines that spew out some kind of bubble bath bits. When it falls on your clothes it looks like you got this little mound of loogie on you. So that makes the best falling snow. We didn’t have the real powerful ones that shoot super far, so we had these things that looked like foggers up on stands and we were constantly trying to move them around as the wind shifted to get the snow in the right place.

Then there’s a driving sequence that was done on stage, and that’s like a potato starch. Things that you blow around. When you spray that firefighter foam everywhere it sucks to run through because it sticks to your pants and shoes. It looks like you got all of this —foam— on you. 

Filmmaker: [laughs] So you’re resetting a lot.

Schwartzbard: Yeah the resets suck. So then you use salt. We had a lot of salt. Truck loads of salt. And for the real hero close ups you wanna use this, uh, they tell me it’s the stuff you find inside baby diapers. Some kind of plasticy, absorbent stuff you know. 

Filmmaker: All sorts of ingredients. Is snow exposure  less of a problem when it’s controlled like that? 

Schwartzbard: Snow’s pretty great to shoot at night because it just bounces the light. Adding a bunch of white stuff to the ground on a night exterior is not a terrible thing from an exposure point of view. The problem is sometimes we’d have a big wide shot with someone running through it and the foam would be spread out everywhere and then we’d also have a pathway of salt for her to run through. At that boundary, there’s sort of a color difference, different shades of white. That’s what a lot of the VFX work went into. Cleaning up those borders.

Filmmaker: Were most of these interiors shot on location at the University?

Schwartzbard: Yeah, well, not all at the University. It turns out that the architecture in New Zealand is kind of different. There’s this opening sequence in the movie that should have been all of these like old Victorian houses where the deans are, but in New Zealand it’s kind of like English architecture where they don’t have big front yards with Christmas displays. Those houses have a hedgerow in the front, a small front yard, and bigger backyards. We couldn’t find anywhere that had a block with the kind of architecture we were looking for. 

Also, if you want to do this sequence that goes up and down the whole block with street stuff, snow, and Christmas decorations you need the cooperation of everyone up and down the street. That’s a challenge from a locations department point of view. Especially if you’re dealing with fancy houses. Now you’re dealing with rich people. 

Ideally this frat house and sorority house would be an old Victorian in a University town. That kind of thing didn’t really exist either. Oh, and finally there’s a big house that has to be lit on fire with effects. So we ended up spending a couple of weeks in Dunedin, we shot the University stuff there, we found like an old warehouse space where we built an interior for this mainroom and this frat house’s hallway where we had to do a lot of fighting and fire stuff. We needed a safe place to do that so we had to build that whole set. Then we went to another town where there was this sort of abandoned old mansion for about a week. We used that as an exterior for the frat house that we could rig with flame because it was a brick building. We still had to protect it, it was a historical building, but we were able to do our exteriors with fire.

Then we spent another two weeks in another town that was kind of in the middle of nowhere. There was this place that had been a farm, and then at some point around the turn of the century some guy had built this big stone house. Then it had become a home for wayward boys and they built this whole campus. That was all sort of abandoned, so we used that house for the interior and exterior of the sorority house, and because there was kind of a street with campus housing, we could use that for our street exteriors. So it was kind of our backlot. There was no hotel. There’s no town really. The crew was spread out across three or four other hamlets in the area. 

Filmmaker: I can’t get over the New Zealand situation on this. Crazy.

Schwartzbard: Yes. It was crazy to all of us. But it was a rush. The whole thing was very rushed. That’s what happens. 

Filmmaker: Do you think shooting there lent anything beneficial to the film?

Schwartzbard: I think the strange DNA of where you’re doing a movie always becomes a part of the thing. And in this case it probably lent to a sort of strange vibe. There are a couple of things that are wrong. The door knobs are at the wrong height for American door knobs. Windows don’t look the same. Oh, and Christmas lights were a disaster. I read somewhere that incandescent Christmas lights had been banned in the EU for reasons of efficiency. New Zealand isn’t in the EU but it’s a 220 Volt country and no one’s making 220 volt incandescent Christmas lights. The only Christmas lights they have are LED, and they way they’re driven in their power supplies tend to make them flicker to a rolling shutter camera. We tested a bunch of them and the flicker was all over the place. We couldn’t dial it out with the shutter unless we got professional grade LED, and we did get some of those but we couldn’t get all the shapes and colors — like, we couldn’t get the big colorful old-timey bulbs.

So we ended up shipping a bunch of Christmas lights from the US, which are 110 Volt, and now the electricians had to run 110 Volt for all the Christmas lights plus the 220 for all of their equipment. So now there are transformers everywhere and we have two different sets of power distribution so that we can use Christmas lights. 

Filmmaker: Endless complications.

Schwartzbard: Yeah, and remember they drive on the wrong side of the road. So if you’re doing a night driving scene on a road where traffic is, the amount of road you’d need to close down is — well you need a full closure because you’re on the wrong side of the road.

Sophia wanted the boyfriend character to drive an old minivan. And we just couldn’t find a left-hand-drive minivan in New Zealand. It’d be super easy to find an old muscle car. Any cool car people are bringing over, you could rent that. But a shitty Dodge Caravan from the ‘90s? No one’s importing a left-hand-drive Dodge Caravan into New Zealand. And there just weren’t enough picture cars available. Eventually someone had Jeep Cherokees left over from Pete’s Dragon that were supposed to be like the US Park Service vehicles, and so we repainted and reused some of those. 

The campus security guard has a car. That was a right-hand-drive car. So we had to stage that scene where he gets into the car from behind. The guy gets in the car as he would in an American car, but we have our art director in the real driver seat crouched down to drive away. All kinds of silliness. 

Filmmaker: You use the old architecture and interiors of the frat house, embodiments of the archaic patriarchy, as chief elements of the film’s horror atmosphere in a really fun way.

Schwartzbard: I guess when you start talking about traditional ideas of the patriarchy you imagine the architecture of masculine power: these dark woods, high-ceiling rooms where men smoke cigars. And then you add to that a little bit of the New Zealand of it all. So this southern part of New Zealand was colonized by a lot of Scottish. There’s a lot of Scotch influence, and it had come to real prominence as a gold mining area. One of the early locations we were going to use for the frat house, which we didn’t end up using but was a big influence on the design of it, was the Dunedin Club, built in the 1860s. But it felt to me like a gentlemen’s club — there was a kind of westernness to it, but also this like Victorian English. There was a weird point when those two things collided — like when they were building the fanciest hotel in Telluride. So there’s that kind of thing in this area. In fact the buildings we were using for the exteriors and interiors dated to that. The guy that built the house we used for the sorority house was Scottish so he imported a bunch of Scotsmen over to build it for his wife.

So I guess that all being jumbled into it, and then our production designer Mark Robbins is trying to bridge the exteriors we had with the ideas we referenced for the interiors. 

Filmmaker: When we worked together on You Mean Everything To Me you were stacking a lot of filtration. Are you able to get away with something like that on a bigger production?

Schwartzbard: We didn’t use as much filtration on Black Christmas but we did use older lenses. When we did You Mean Everything To Me it was just my still lenses, so they were relatively clean modern glass. I was filtering the hell out of them to get some character in them. For this we went to Panavision and got some PVintage lenses and we used some old zooms that Sophia and I were really into. And this one old zoom that she bought for Always Shine that I ended up with. That was my payment for that movie, a zoom lens.  

Filmmaker: Which zoom?

Schwartzbard: A first-generation Angenieux 25-250 T3.9 lens. That lens is like the first long range 10:1 motion picture zoom ever. It came out in 1962, and it was kind of the lens that all the zooms of the 60s and most the zooms of the 70s were made on. So that has a really groovy feel. That was kind of our big one, we tried to make all of the other lenses look like it with filtering. I guess where the similarity would be [to You Mean Everything To Me] is the Panasonic Varicam. On You Mean Everything To Me, it was such a low-budget thing that we just wanted a camera that could see in the dark, which made it easier to shoot location stuff. For Black Christmas we used it because we wanted this long sequence where the killer turned off the lights in the house and only the Christmas lights are working. Cranking up the ISO we could really just use the Christmas lights. Even off camera we weren’t doing much real lighting, we’d tape a bunch of Christmas lights to a beadboard and use that as a light. 

Also that camera let us use that old zoom lens which is so slow. That speed helps us there. And it has a relatively small sensor. That old Angenieux doesn’t even really cover super 35, but it will cover a Varicam at 2.39 extraction. 

Filmmaker: Camera bodies are pretty homogenized. Did you have to do any convincing to use the Varicam? 

Schwartzbard: Yeah, not a ton. It was kind of hard to get them. You’re right that it’s not really a standard camera, so Panavision had to bring some of them in. I don’t know that there were any in New Zealand when we started, but they brought something from Australia. And the crew wasn’t familiar with it. But that just means it took them an extra hour to learn the menus.

Filmmaker: I’ve loved the grain structure of everything you shot on the Varicam, is that something inherent to the Varicam’s sensor, or have you been pushing grain into it afterwards?

Schwartzbard: No. When you crank the ISO it gets a little grainy and we liked that. Sometimes it was a little too grainy, when I pushed it too far and underexposed it a little too much. In the end we did a little bit of degrain in some sections. We were working with a great colorist in Technicolor LA, Pankaj Bajpai. He ran it through this crazy sophisticated degrain process that they had. We cleaned it up so much sometimes that we had to add grain back into it. That was only a couple of sequences. He also built us a very groovy LUT. Technicolor was testing this real time remote viewing iPad thing so Sophia and I could watch as Pankaj was coloring in LA. We came up with a recipe that we all liked and that became our LUT. 

Filmmaker: You’ve worked at every budget range, how comfortable were you here?

Schwartzbard: The budget was around $5 Million,, which is kind of the standard Blumhouse movie. They kind of have a pattern for these things, which is a good pattern for a home invasion horror movie where everything’s in one location. 

It’s not a great pattern when you have to fly your principals to the other side of the world, when even on the other side of the world you have to fly in and put up every single cast and crew member, with the sole exception of Gil the security guard. That was like the only guy who was cast locally. He was an actor who happened to work as a security guard at the University that we were shooting. He does a good American accent. He’s great. And actually there may have been one or two of the other girls. One of the sorority girls, not one of the main four, but someone appears throughout, [who we found in] a coffee shop across the hotel in Dunedin. There was an American working in the coffee shop. She ended up being awesome too, she did all this fighting and stage combat stuff. 

So there’s an enormous housing budget. There’s a lot of fighting in this movie, a lot of action sequences, guys getting set on fire, a lot of snow to be made, we’re moving between like three different cities. It was ambitious for the budget. 

Filmmaker: How do you fake a location fire?

Schwartzbard: It’s flame bars. A flame bar is pretty much like the thing you get in a gas fireplace. It’s a gas pipe with a bunch of holes in it. You run gas into it and light it up and you can kind of make flame go wherever you want. We had flame bars billowing out of the windows and big flame bars on the roof. On the upstairs windows, to protect the building, they pulled out the existing windows, put their own windows into it, built fireproof boxes behind the windows with fans in them blowing into the flame bars so you had fire whipping out of these things. 

We also had flame bars in the interiors and we used this gel, which is kind of like a fuel. I’m not sure what’s in it actually. You can smear it onto something and it will burn.

Filmmaker: Is that the same gel you apply to stunt people before you light them on fire?

Schwartzbard: No, but there’s that too. We did light someone on fire. Although we didn’t end up using that shot because of the PG-13 thing. The MPAA doesn’t like seeing people get set on fire. So that stuff got cut. So you’ve got this protective layer of thermal gel to protect them from the heat of the flames. “Now it’s time to gel up the stunt guy,” by which you mean the fire retardant gel, and “Now it’s time to gel up the walls,” by which you mean the flammable stuff. Hopefully no one gets confused.

Filmmaker: I’ve seen you get creative with nothing more than a couple of Quasars and paper tape. What kind of lights were you using here?

Schwartzbard: Well the battery powered Quasars worked here too. I hand carried all the Quasars in my carry on luggage because you’re not supposed to put those things in the cargo hold. We did have a whole lighting crew. Again, an amazing grip electric crew from Queenstown. We had a very small truck full of everything. HMIs up to 18Ks, all the toys you’d expect at this budget. Two dollies, a couple of crane days. 

Filmmaker: Any workhorse LEDs?

Schwartzbard: Skypanel S60s. What did we use a lot? I love a Skypanel booklight. You take a Skypanel and bounce it into a 6X Muslin and then diffuse the reflection with a 6x of Light Grid or something.

For the frat house stage they rigged a bunch of space lights over the center of the room and a bunch of nook lights around the perimeter to have backlight. I wanted it to be dimly lit so that we had the flicker of these oil lamps working and didn’t overwhelm that. But then you set the guy on fire, it gets really bright, now you have to brighten up the room and change your exposure on the camera so you’re not blowing that out. So we had to have a lot of wattage on that set. 

In general it was a lot of 18Ks pushing through the windows to get sunlight, and Skypanels bouncing around the room. LiteMats, Quasars, crossfade tubes, which run off AC and look like 4x Kino Flo tubes but can run from tungsten to daylight. We used a lot of those. And frankly a lot of Tweenies bouncing around, we did a lot of tungsten Tweenies and Inkies.

Filmmaker: Could you and Sophia work pretty much as you always have at this size?

Schwartzbard: Yeah. Sophia especially had a lot to do on this one. Even in preproduction it felt like a big movie. We shotlisted the whole thing. It was very shotlisted out. Some sequences were storyboarded, for others we bought Lego figures and did little Lego animations. So we spent a lot of time planning it, but while we’re doing that she’s got all these wardrobe people coming in because they’re fabricating these robes and checking out different sorts of velvet, prop people coming in with different kinds of arrows and black goo. Oof. Black goo! Forget about it. 

We spent so much time on black goo. What the color is, what the consistency is, what the viscosity is. Some goo is going to be better when you need it to stick to your hand, and what’s it like when you pull your fingers apart after picking up some of it? But that’s maybe not the same black goo you want on your face because it will maybe stain the skin if it’s there for too long. Then you want black goo that cleans off the wardrobe but sticks and kind of looks like blood when you’re just under Christmas lights [and that also has] to look black under incandescent light. So all these goo tests between the special effects people, the makeup people, the wardrobe people, all with different responsibilities to the goo. There’s all kinds of that stuff. There was none of that in Always Shine. That was nine people in a house in Big Sur. This is stunt arrows, retractable knives, shipping in pink snow shovels from the one pink snow shovel manufacturer in Vermont.

Filmmaker: Are Legos a standard previs strategy?

Schwartzbard: [laughs] No. Stunt guys always have little Hot Wheels cars when they’re doing car stunts.  It’s good to lay them on the table. We had to figure out this big fight with a number of principals, so we printed out a floor plan of the stage on a big table and played with Legos for a long time. The Lego people, not the blocks.

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