How to Fake a Movie That Takes Place Entirely on a Laptop: DP/Producer Adam Sidman on Unfriended
My gripe with most found footage horror films is that the subgenre strips away so many of a filmmaker’s paintbrushes in the name of verisimilitude. Score, editing, composition and lighting are sacrificed at the altar of faux reality.
Unfriended strains under some of those same constraints, but the film diverges in the way it uses perspective. Instead of limiting point of view to a single shaky handheld camera wielded by one of the characters, Unfriended unfolds entirely on the Mac laptop of Blaire, a high schooler who, along with five or her friends, is terrorized by the spirit of a cyberbullied classmate on the year anniversary of her suicide. The filmmakers somehow managed to wrangle licenses to use the interfaces of YouTube, Facebook, Spotify and, most importantly, Skype. The majority of the film takes place in the interface of the latter, allowing all six of the teen protagonists to share the screen at once, cutting away only when Blaire opens other windows to send an instant message or play a diegetic tune from Spotify.
The technical challenge of simultaneously recording six performances in six different rooms required a cinematographer both artistically and mechanically inclined. Unfriended found both in producer/DP Adam Sidman, a Harvard grad with a degree in engineering who created a now-patented camera stabilization device in his teens. Sidman talked to Filmmaker about the challenges of shooting an entire movie on a GoPro, the trippy experience of watching Unfriended on a laptop, and his plans for more visually high concept films.
Filmmaker: You are definitely the first cinematographer I’ve spoken to with a mechanical engineering degree from Harvard. Growing up, were you more interested in the world of movies or the science of engineering?
Sidman: It was always both. I’ve always had an interest in making things and also making movies. I got into engineering by creating this handheld camera stabilization device to use on the little movies I was making with my friends. It turned out there was really no one else out there at the time doing anything like it.
Filmmaker: How old were you when you started working on it?
Sidman: I think I was 16. I started by creating my own mechanical Steadicam using counterbalances and ball bearings. It was not that great and I asked myself, “Why can’t I just use sensors and motors to do this?” I approached the problem at a time when the technology was right, whereas if anyone had tried it even a couple of years earlier, they wouldn’t have been able to do it.
Filmmaker: What did you use your newly-invented camera rig to shoot?
Sidman: I was doing all sorts of things. I was making homemade movies with my friends. I had a job at a local TV station. I was also a grip on a number of small, independent feature films that were shot in Colorado. So I got to have the experience of working on a real movie set at age 16 and to see that world.
Filmmaker: Did you consider film school rather than the much more practical option of Harvard?
Sidman: Film school was always my goal. I applied and I ended up getting in, but I also applied to Harvard on a whim and I got in. I majored in engineering and did a minor in film production. I guess the reason I didn’t major in film was because I didn’t feel that when I graduated anyone would care if I had a film degree. It would be more about what I had done and what I wanted to do. As different as engineering and filmmaking sound, they both are about problem solving and design, critical thinking and just working really hard.
Filmmaker: How did you become involved with Unfriended?
Sidman: A good friend of mine from college, [Unfriended screenwriter] Nelson Greaves, was working with Timur Bekmambetov [the director of Wanted] at the time and they had come up with this concept to do a movie set entirely on a computer desktop. Nelson, knowing that I had worked in reality [television] and knowing Timur’s desire to do the film in a very inexpensive way, thought I would be a good match. So I came on as they were developing the script and was involved in every process from casting all the way through editing. As soon as Nelson pitched the idea for me to produce, I immediately started thinking about how to shoot it. And I may have overextended myself trying to produce the movie and shoot it at the same time, but I really enjoyed taking on both of those roles.
Filmmaker: How did you settle on the GoPro HERO3 Black as the best way to emulate the look of a laptop’s webcam?
Sidman: When I first came on I think they already had a draft of the script, but no one had any idea how to go out and make it. The first thing we did was go to a house, get some friends who were actors and do a little test. One person had a 5D rigged to their laptop, one person had a GoPro and one person had the computer’s webcam. Mounting the 5D to a laptop wasn’t that practical. [Unfriended director] Levan Gabriadze really wanted to shoot the entire movie on the actual laptop webcams, which definitely would have given us the right look, but it would’ve been a nightmare to do the media management of constantly getting the footage off the computer and still being able to continue working quickly. We also wanted to start out with as clean of an image as possible and then degrade it later in post. With the GoPro, the actors could physically have a computer with them and move with it and it would feel really natural.
Filmmaker: How did you manage the logistics of shooting all six of the actors simultaneously in a way that allowed them to interact with each other?
Sidman: Each of the characters had their own room in the house and each had a laptop with a GoPro connected to it. The GoPros sent an analog signal out to a surveillance box – like the kind you would see in a convenience store that does the 3×3 split screen so you can see all of the cameras on the screen at the same time. That signal was then sent back to everyone’s laptop so the actors could see everyone else at the same time.
Filmmaker: Did that type of surveillance setup already exist or was it something you designed?
Sidman: There was nothing out there that really existed other than something like an expensive, high-end broadcast switcher. So along with our DIT Sean Goller, who was really above and beyond a DIT, we developed a system where the analog inputs would go into a regular, off-the-shelf surveillance box which would actually do that 3×3 split exactly how we wanted. Then we realized that in order to get that image back to everyone, we needed a multiplier that would repeat the signal. So we had these long RCA cables going throughout the house to everyone’s rooms.
Filmmaker: So the basic idea was that the surveillance splitter allowed the actors to see each other and for the crew to have a video village, but the actual footage used for editing was captured on the GoPro’s microSd cards.
Filmmaker: At the time you shot Unfriended, did the GoPro HERO3 Black allow for manual iris or focus control?
Sidman: We were able to set the white balance and I think that was about it. (laughs) But not being able to control the exposure and focus gave [the GoPros] the same realistic quality as a webcam. The goal with the cinematography 100 percent of the time was to make it look as painstakingly realistic as possible, not to make it look glossy and shiny. The focus wasn’t really an issue, because basically everything was in focus and that mimics the same look as a webcam. And then as much as you’d like to set the exposure, webcams automatically change exposure. If you move over to your left, the screen might brighten up and if you’re front and center it might all darken down depending on how the light is shining on you.
The GoPro batteries are also not that great. We were doing hour-and-a-half long takes and we were shooting all day. We didn’t want to be constantly changing batteries. You can charge the GoPro while it records, but only when it’s charging from a wall socket. You can’t charge it from a computer because if you connect it to a computer it tries to sync up and it won’t let you record at the same time. So I took these USB cables and I opened them up and cut the data lines and then wrapped them back up so that the GoPros thought they were being connected to a regular power source and could be charged by the laptops without trying to synch up.
Filmmaker: How did you approach lighting the sets, which are essentially six teenagers’ bedrooms?
Sidman: We did test shoots with different lighting setups. Should we have soft boxes behind everyone? Should we use just practical lights? Should we do LED lights? And we found that the combination of a GoPro mounted basically where your computer webcam would be and strips of daylight-balanced LED lights soldered to the perimeter of the laptop gave us the same look as if [the characters] were really using their computers’ webcam.
Filmmaker: Did you use the GoPros for the videos that the characters view on YouTube, such as the video of a girl’s suicide that opens the film?
Sidman: There were a couple things that were shot with a [Canon] 5D and there were some things that probably should have been shot with the 5D that we shot with the GoPro just so that we could say the entire film was shot on GoPros. [laughs] 99.9 percent of the material in the film was shot on GoPros.
Filmmaker: In post, how did you put together the non-photographic elements?
Sidman: We had a computer desktop and we would use screen capture software to record individual elements. So we would record a web browser or we would record the mouse moving around on separate captures. We captured all these different elements with a green desktop background so that we were able to key it out and then layer all the elements together. One thing we knew from the very beginning was that we didn’t want to animate those elements, because it would take forever and it would never feel as authentic as someone really using a computer. In a way, the mouse is its own character. We learn a lot about the character of Blaire based on how she uses her computer and how she organizes things.
Filmmaker: I’ve read that you started shooting more traditional scenes and that eventually gave way to shooting the entire movie in these epic long takes.
Sidman: Originally we broke down the script into ten different sections and we were going to do one at a time. We would do an eight-minute scene and then the actors were ready to go and we’d immediately continue on to the next scene. We realized there was really no reason to break up the movie. So we would literally do hour-and-a-half long takes of the whole movie. It was really, in a way, a stage play. So as one character was killed off, that actor would come out of their room and hang out for the next 45 minutes. We could basically shoot the entire film twice before lunch, review it and talk about it, and then we’d do it two or three more times after lunch. Then for the kills, we would go back and shoot just those gags in an isolated fashion. To hammer those out, it would take half a day for each kill. We shot most of the film in about five days. We did a bunch of pickups later on, including basically repeating that five day shoot and learning from what we did the first time. All in all, there were fewer than 20 days of any sort of photography, but most of it was done in the initial first five days.
Filmmaker: I first saw Unfriended during its theatrical release, but watching it again on my laptop was a very difference experience. Viewing in fullscreen mode in essence makes the protagonist’s computer screen take the place of the viewer’s computer screen.
Sidman: We had this debate from the very beginning — before we had a cast, before we had shot anything — about whether this is a movie that comes out in theaters. Is it an experience to see your computer desktop on the big screen? Or is it a film that’s really meant to live on your computer desktop? If you saw Unfriended in the theater, it’s such a cool experience to take the time to watch it again on your laptop because your laptop comes alive in a way that no other movie comes close to. It’s really a trippy experience.
Filmmaker: It feels like Blumhouse Productions has a hand in nearly every horror flick that makes its way into theaters these days. How did they become involved with Unfriended?
Sidman: Jason Blum and Couper Samuelson at Blumhouse saw a very early cut of the film and they felt like it was a concept that was fun and refreshing and we started working with them to help refine the edit and do additional reshoots. They were such an invaluable part of the team. They were also a huge champion of getting the film out into theaters and getting Universal behind it. We really lucked out to be able to work with them.
Filmmaker: After working with Timur Bekmambetov on Unfriended, you were named president of U.S. production for his company, Bazelevs. Do you have anything else coming up that you can talk about?
Sidman: We have another visually high concept film called Hardcore, which will be premiering in the Midnight Madness section of the Toronto International Film Festival. It takes place entirely from a first-person POV and was also shot almost entirely on GoPros. I don’t know if you ever saw that music video “Bad Motherfucker” by Biting Elbows, but it’s a first-person POV music video and we worked with the video’s director, Ilya Naishuller, to create a feature film version. We really believe the format of Unfriended can work in all sorts of different genres. It did well in horror, but why not take it other places and tell different stories?
Matt Mulcahey writes about movies and interviews filmmakers on his blog Deep Fried Movies.