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Shooting the "Devil's Tree" with DP Anthony Dones and URSA Mini 4.6K

When you have to put an actual warning message on your film's site telling people not to actually go to the places in the film, you know you are dealing with a truly scary horror film. 

Today we are speaking with Anthony Dones, a Miami based DP who has produced content for national television, corporate/commercial work, music videos and a now growing list of feature films. We reached out to him to discuss his recent work as cinematographer on "Devil's Tree, Rooted Evil" a horror film shot exclusively on the URSA Mini 4.6k. 

As a Floridian, he is well aware of the legend of the Devil's tree, a sprawling, gloomy tree in Port St. Lucie, Florida. The tree has been the center of a horrible serial killing spree, dozens of satanic rituals and countless ghost sightings. It is very real (hence the warning) and it forms the basis for "Devil's Tree."  

Inspired by true events, the film follows a college journalism student named Samantha. And Samantha delves a bit too deep into the realm of the tree and uncovers the truth about the demons of the tree, as well as her own. 

To get the intense, white-knuckle paranormal horror look and feel that captures the grim events surrounding the tree, as well as the natural landscapes of southern Florida, Anthony chose to use the Blackmagic Design URSA Mini Pro 4.6K EF as his A camera. 

Creating a Terrifying Tree

How is shooting a horror film different from other genres? 

AD: For me, the real difference would have to be the psychological aspect of visual storytelling. In horror, much of it is about what you don't see vs. what you do. Your choices need to be much more strategic and precise.  Effective on screen scares are the result of careful planning and execution. You definitely come out of making a horror film with a greater respect for all the great ones before you. The other challenge is that there is nothing scary about shooting a horror film. You are in the reality of the world as your shooting. You're laughing and having a great time with your peers on set doing what you love. You know that the brain matter on the floor was just placed there by the props department, the plunged knife in someone's chest is just a gag and the evil entity is really a lovely, kind actor in make up. We are totally outside the realm of disbelief struggling to find and create a world that we hope will scare and frighten the viewer.  We can never enjoy the movies we make as much as those that see them for the first time. 

It is always daunting to get a high budget Hollywood film look on an indie budget.  Did the URSA Mini 4.6k help you achieve this? If so, how?

AD: I love to ante up against those big Hollywood guys. And that is what we definitely had in mind with Devil's Tree.  The URSA Mini really shines.  You just can't get a better cinematic image for the price point.  With this camera, Blackmagic Design has empowered indie filmmakers to compete with larger studios at a fraction of the cost. It produces images that really resonates with me as a cinematographer and inspires me to tell stories.  It was a powerful tool that enabled me to capture stunning images for Devil's Tree.  

What did pre-production look like with directors Joshua Louis and Chris Alonso before going into your 28 day shoot? 

AD: I sat down with Josh and Chris prior to principle photography to understand their vision.   Since the genre was going to be paranormal horror, we knew we wanted to go with a low key, under exposed look with muted tones. I revisited some films for inspiration, such as The Conjuring, Insidious, The Road and The Book of Eli. I was pursuing visual bleakness.  I went on to make a false color study of these films to serve as exposure and contrast ratio references later on set.  From these I was able to create a starting point and inspiration for the look and feel of Devil's Tree.  The ability to load LUT's into the URSA Mini without burning it into the footage was also invaluable.  We were able to send a graded look to video village while still recording to a film log look internally, which would later serve as a primer for post. 

Because you were not allowed to film the actual Devil's Tree in Port St. Lucie, you had to look elsewhere. Did you have trouble finding a replacement tree that looked menacing and did this cause any challenges for you concerning lighting and camera angles? 

AD: Directors Josh and Chris along with our producer Jonathan Phillips were lucky enough to find this really strange and unique looking tree in one of our local parks. It had a field of dense trees behind it making it difficult to?backlight. My initial idea was to throw a nine light or two from further back but the density of the trees would consume much of their transmission. We eventually came up with a solution that I think worked very well. To make the tree and surrounding forest more ominous I employed some low camera angles using the URSA Mini Pro here and there.  

Talk to us about your influences and personal style when it comes to shooting a film. 

AD: I am greatly inspired by the likes of Dariusz Wolski, Janusz Kaminski and Freddie Francis. Personally speaking, I prefer locked, long shots. I'm not a fan of hand held shots or meaningless beautiful camera movement. I'll move the camera if the story or emotion calls for it but just because a jib or MOVI shot looks beautiful doesn't make it necessary of helpful. I find that if you're conservative and strategic with movement, it has more effect when you do use them.  

Shooting with Blackmagic Design

Anthony's main camera for the film was the URSA Mini 4.6K EF, with Pocket Cinema Cameras used for a number of insert and pickup shots. Shooting 4K in ProRes, he used the URSA Mini 4.K EF with a matching set of XEEN 1.5 lenses. 

Talk to us about your choice to shoot in ProRes 4444 and not RAW.

AD: After doing some data calculations prior to principle photography, we found that shooting in 4K ProRes with a color space of 4444 would be the sweet spot for our data storage budget. ProRes 4444 was more than enough for our color grading needs in post. The color science on the Pocket Camera and URSA Mini are fantastic and really flexible in the grade, even in 422. 

What were some of the reasons you chose the URSA Mini over other options? 

AD: The URSA Mini 4.6K's flexibility to work in any type of situation, ease of use, simple menus and 15 stops of dynamic range were some of the main reasons. It met all the technical requirements we needed. Resolution, dynamic range and codecs. And it was cost effective. The quality of the footage is on par with camera systems that cost up to 12x as much. Every feature I've worked on is always looking to trim the fat and save money. Sometimes the camera department takes a hit forcing us to get cheaper camera packages sacrificing quality. Fortunately, the URSA Mini was a cost saving solution that actually enhanced the production quality of our film. Choosing the URSA Mini 4.6K also spared production the high cost of renting expensive peripherals and proprietary accessories that comes with other competitors.  And being that this was a low budget feature, sometimes you are not afforded a lot of time to modify or add light. This is where the URSA Mini's 15 stops of dynamic range were extremely helpful. There were situations in which actors were backlit causing them to be in shadow.  I was later able to lift the shadows in post while preserving detail. 
Blackmagic Design products make up a lot of your kit. Why?

Blackmagic is disrupting the industry by equipping storytellers and filmmakers with affordable tools that are on par with other more expensive brands. They do so without sacrificing image quality. If I can be given the chance as an indie filmmaker to make images that compete with larger studios, that's something we should all celebrate and embrace. 

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Related Keywords:Blackmagic Design, URSA Mini 4.6K EF, Pocket Cinema Camera


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