Halloween offers us the perfect opportunity to create something bold and unique. But what drives companies to create seasonal horror pieces? And what dark corners of our psyche do they crawl out from?
This year, one of our animators, Ben Allen, created an unsettling scene set in a deep forest. As with all horror, the influences are vast and very personal. Ben has been playing a lot of Silent Hill recently – a video game franchise that will be revived in 2023. Part of this game’s defining characteristics is the thick fog coating locations, and the eerie shapes lurking in the haze. But a video game offers a different type of immersion to an animated piece, due to the level of control the viewer has over the events.
To replicate this, Ben opted for a first person perspective. Namely because this puts you closer to the horror elements. It heightens the fear and forces the viewer to look in a certain place. By doing this, suddenly the peripheral becomes more terrifying and what you can’t see is just as unnerving as what you can.
If you go down to the woods today
As with every animation, we take special consideration to the flow and story. That being said, The Hands has a deliberate narrative ambiguity. From the very outset, a lot of the driving force behind the events is about cultivating a tension. To illustrate this, Ben constructed storyboards which outline this.
For him, the story itself was less important than evoking a feeling of unease, which is then replaced by a gripping panic. All of which is conveyed through the camera’s erratic movement. If you have questions about who the audience surrogate is, their ultimate fate, or what the hands are, we don’t have answers for you. But that’s also true of most of the horror genre; whether that’s film, TV or games. All horror lives and dies on “less is more” as well as the terror of the unknown.
This is why Ben preyed on a handful of triggers. Personally, he has a long-held fascination with something that’s close to identifiably human but a little exaggerated or lost. And there are countless examples of this throughout the genre: it’s known as body horror. A lot of which stems from an irrational fear called dysmorphophobia – the fear of distorted or warped features, which makes people feel uncomfortable. To add to this, there is the injection of isolation. The animation opens with the unseen central character coming to. Their gaze is bleary and unfocused. A sense of feeling lost and alone creeps in, only to be replaced with a more terrifying prospect. That you’re in fact not alone, and now wish you were. And as the animation loops, it adds an extra dimension of uncertainty. Is this just the same incident repeating or is this individual in an inescapable nightmare?
Constructing the macabre
A lot of time and effort has been invested in creating this 30 second animation, so let’s analyse some of the components. To capture not only a sense of depth but to allow Ben to move the viewer through the space, he had to create 2D elements in a 3D plane. If that feels a little hard to compute, imagine you’re sitting in a theatre. The stage is set and to give the impression of depth, there are various backdrops and standee cutouts. These are all flat, of course, but they push a false perspective: suddenly a stage of say 10 metres can feel like an entire factory floor, a city street or a deep forest.
This technique, while subtle, has so many applications. For an example of it being used for a client video, it’s worth watching our Nature Spy animation – which similarly manipulates complex two dimensional images in a three dimensional space. But this method does present a few challenges. This is down to the fact that the animator has to consider the speed and time with which the various objects move. If you shift the camera to the left and the background doesn’t move at a pleasing pace, it ruins the entire illusion. This is called parallaxing and it ensures your animation is not only less static but feels natural.
As stated at the start of this article, so many brands will create ephemeral seasonal content. Images, advertisements, videos and copy which feels out of place for the rest of the year. There’s the argument that it’s all promotional but why do so many companies love to invest in these standalone treats? For Ben, it’s the chance to produce something that’s different and out of the ordinary.
“No client is going to ask for this particular scenario but it illustrates our out of the box thinking and the skills that could be used in a different way.”
It’s also a magnificent opportunity to hone and develop new skills, not to mention acting as a great novel showcase. Companies may not want to sit through other businesses’ branded content, but seeing something divorced from a product or service can illustrate what’s possible.
“It’s like an actor performing in a comedy, a drama or a horror film – it’s the same with us as animators. We have a variety of skills and it’s great to show them off in different ways.”
The cutting room floor
There’s an old quote attributed to PT Barnum: always leave them wanting more. So what could that “more” have looked like? If time and ability were no object, what would Ben change or improve, if anything? The answer was incredibly simple: sound. As an animator, Ben has complete control over what the audience sees but so much of horror is carried by what they hear. Unsettling music, ambient sounds and unearthly effects go a long way to instil that fear.
And for those wondering if there’s more story to tell, Ben believes it doesn’t need an explanation or expansion to a full story. Namely as the audience themselves will create the narrative based on their personal experience, rather than him dictating the exact beats and answers. To his mind, The Hands exists as a creepy graveyard, an abandoned building or maybe just a vile toilet: “You arrive, are hit by a sense of something awful, and get out as fast as possible.”
Happy Halloween everyone.