It’s fair to say that a few well-structured words can hold an incredible amount of imagery and power. But how about creating a 20-minute television segment around a mere two sentences? Well, Vera Miao certainly thought there was something in that idea, and she created an entire series based on a popular internet writing exercise; the two-sentence horror story. What started out as a short 5-episode series on Verizon’s go90 mobile app quickly developed into a popular series on the similar digital platform, CW Seed. Due to the popularity of the digital series, The CW recently moved the aptly titled Two Sentence Horror Stories up to the big leagues and is now airing 8 full-length episodes throughout the summer.
Guy Pooles is not only one of the main cinematographers for the newly invigorated CW series, but has been involved with the series from the very beginning. An incredibly talented young voice in cinema, Pooles has worked on projects like go90’s series Snatchers, The Ferryman and a variety of successful short films that have screened at festivals like Tribeca, the LA Film Festival and Raindance Film Festival. Well aware of the challenges that come with creating a cohesive and visually engaging horror anthology, Pooles manages to blend his own style while complimenting the artistic direction of each individual segment’s director. I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Pooles and we talked about Two Sentence Horror Stories, why he loves horror, nerdy camera techniques, and the power of playing with expectations.
Rachel Prin for Nightmare on Film Street: Two Sentence Horror Stories has an interesting origin story. Tell me a little bit about how the series has evolved and how you became involved with the project.
Guy Pooles: It started as a digital online series about 2 years ago. I believe the Show Runner and Director Vera Miao was inspired by the kind of internet sensation of the two sentence horror story writing exercise. So, she decided to find a way to adapt that to a series form. She then found a platform through Stage 13 in which to do that. I was lucky enough to be hired on the initial series as the cinematographer. We did about 5 episodes with different directors, each one about 15 minutes long. And then sort of fast-forwarding to this year, I got a phone call from Vera saying that Two Sentence Horror Stories had been picked up by The CW as a network television series. She wanted me to come out and be one of the two cinematographers on the series! So now the format was going to be 8 episodes in total, just around 20 minutes each in total, and the production had moved to New York.
NOFS: Seeing as the series started out on a digital platform, were there changes you had to make for this new series when transitioning to network television?
GP: There were. I wouldn’t say they were substantial changes to the sort of spirit of the show, they were little things. For one we had to change our aspect ratio. Our original series when it was a digital series was a 2.40:1 and that doesn’t necessarily translate so well when most of the people watching are going to be watching on their television sets. And I think the network wanted a slightly more 16:9 forgiving aspect ratio so we sort of weighed out our options and then settled on a 2.00:1 aspect ratio for this new version of the series.
Another thing that we had to reconsider was considering the nature of network television. We didn’t have free license to necessarily depict violence, gore or things of an unsettling nature in the way that we could do in the digital series version. So we had to make sure that everything was approved on a script level, and if there was anything that was potentially upsetting to a viewer that we were very careful how we depicted it and photographed it.
NOFS: Two Sentence Horror Stories is an anthology and therefore each episode is a self-contained story. How do you as cinematographer balance each episode’s individuality while still retaining an overall series cohesiveness?
GP: Yeah, that’s definitely the most challenging part of the whole process really. We had collectively, all of the directors, Vera the showrunner, the two cinematographers, production designer, costume designer…all of us creative department heads sat down to talk about the look and feel of the show. We sort of set rules for ourselves about how and what the visual continuity would be throughout all of the episodes. And once we had sort of set those ground rules, in terms of color palette, framing, contrast ratio and that sort of thing, it sort of fell to each director and the team working on their particular episode to sort of design a way in which you might use that as a starting point. Then, allow the visual lens of the episode to evolve from that and take on its own identity and style with its own individual narrative.
NOFS: The anthology format is so fascinating to me because of how collaborative you have to be due to the number of people coming in and out of the project. Talk a bit about the relationship between director and cinematographer. How do you balance your own visual aesthetic or ideas with the director’s artistic direction?
GP: For me, the collaboration is my favorite part of the entire process. Whether it be my collaboration with a director, which I really love that process, or my collaboration with a production designer, that’s what makes film for me so enjoyable. Your work is always elevated by the people you are working with. They push you to try new things that you never would have thought of by yourself.
When I work with a director, I try as best I can to leave my own personal style initially behind and not kind of cling to the things that I like and the things that I would push to have within a film until I’ve heard their vision and what their take on the visual language and aesthetic of the film or TV show should be. And then, from there, I like to sort of take their initial idea and run with it. It’s very rewarding.
There are no two collaborations I’ve ever had that are in any way similar. Every director is a totally different individual and each process is wholly unique. Even on this show, every director I worked with had their very specific process. It was interesting, just going from shooting one episode to another. Even though they’re all back to back in terms of our shooting schedule, it really felt like stepping on to a whole new project. There’s just such a different energy that each director brings to each set. I found it really exciting.
“It’s very rewarding[..] Every director is a totally different individual and each process is wholly unique.”
NOFS: You’ve worked on a lot of short films in your career. Do you feel that was an asset to you on this project?
GP: Yeah, definitely. I really love short films. I feel like a lot of people overlook short films or consider them to be a stepping stone to a feature. But I really like what you can do with a short film in terms of your sort of brevity and the ambiguity. You don’t have to flesh out every single character and you don’t have to answer every single question. And I think this show, because of it’s short-form anthology format, really mirrors more a collection of short films than it does a more traditional sort of television show. I think that the work that I’ve done on short films and my collaborations with directors on short films in the past, really helped how I worked with them to design and evolve a visual language over one very short narrative in a short period of time.
When you’re making a film, it really doesn’t matter what function you’re acting in the process, you’re all just trying to get to the core of what the story is. In some ways, it’s harder in a short film because you have less time, but in other ways, it’s easier. A short film, because it is distilled down to its base core elements of storytelling, it’s pretty clear, direct and easy to point to what our story is, what the arc is and what we need to focus on. Sometimes a feature, especially if it’s less structured or formal in the way it’s written, can be a little harder to get to the core of what the story is. But it’s absolutely necessary to do that before you start shooting otherwise you’ll be lost in the dark the entire time.
NOFS: If I can get a little nerdy with you, I’d like to talk about a couple techniques I noticed used in the 1st episode ‘Gentleman.’ First one is the use of racking focus. How do you as a cinematographer view and use this technique as a storytelling device?
GP: That’s interesting. Well the good thing about utilizing a shallower depth of field is you can really guide the viewer’s eye to where to look at any given time. With a rack of focus, what you’re really doing is setting the rhythm by which you want the viewer to look from one thing to another. You’re sort of dictating it for them. I worked with Natalia Iyudin, the director on that episode, to find ways to- instead of doing things like a shot-reverse shot in a more conventional way, to find compositions that could contain all the information for a moment of the scene in one frame, and then just try and rack from one to the other rather than do a shot-reverse shot.
NOFS: The 2nd one I wanted to talk about is the over-the-shoulder two-shot that occurs a couple times between our two main characters. Though two similar situations, the two are very different in terms of vibe. How does this technique and the positioning of the actors in the frame work as a subtle support to the narrative?
GP: When you initially first meet them, it’s a first date. And at the beginning, it’s a date not going particularly well. I think what we were really trying to do with our lensing and our composition in that first scene was to emphasize the distance between the two of them. So even though there’s a really small table that they’re sitting opposite each other from, it does feel like they’re stretched quite far apart from each other. While later on in the bar on their second date, we wanted them to feel much much closer. Like, a little bit more compressed into each other because, from the protagonist’s point of view, there’s this sort of attraction and trust that’s forming. Though we did in each scene try to maintain a sort of short sighting where you place each character on what would seem the counterintuitive side of the frame. So that it sort of suggests that even though there’s an evolution and ‘closening’ that’s happening between the two of them, there’s something about their interaction that feels just a little off.
NOFS: That’s the cool thing about cinematography! How a visual cue like that can, on a subconscious level, convey so much subtle information.
GP: It’s wonderful to work with a director and come up with the rules you’re going to kind of set yourself to tell the story. Because, you’re going to be placing the lights and the camera somewhere so you might as well place them in a position that’s actually telling the story in a way.
NOFS: Since Two Sentence Horror Stories obviously falls into the horror genre, are you a fan of the genre? What do you like about horror as a cinematographer?
GP: I do love horror! There isn’t a genre of narrative filmmaking that I’m not a fan of, but I really like horror specifically because it’s introspective nature. It’s a very personal genre. When a person makes a horror film, if they’re actually putting effort into it, they’re often tapping into a fear or insecurity that’s very personal to them. And very specific. A lot of times, that translates to the fears and insecurities of a lot of other people. So, these films become very personal feeling and they strike a chord within you. Usually a fear you’ve never contemplated before or an insecurity you’ve never explored and these films allow you to sort of reflect upon it and teach you something about yourself. That’s really what I like about horror.
“I really like horror specifically because it’s introspective nature. It’s a very personal genre.”
NOFS: It seems like a really good genre too, to play with the power of light and what it can convey about a situation.
GP: Absolutely. The interesting thing about horror that I like to play with in collaboration with directors is, there’s quite an expectation for what a horror film looks like. And sometimes it’s wonderful to lean directly against that and embrace the exact opposite of that and what a person might expect from a certain scene. If you can make a scene unnerving and scary without necessarily relying on the tropes of horror lighting or cinematography, then I think you’re doing it right.
NOFS: This has been an incredible year for horror, on the big and small screen. Seen anything that has stood out to you? Is there anything you’re looking forward to?
GP: I saw Us earlier this year, and I think, even though it maybe wasn’t as successful as Get Out, I think it solidifies Jordan Peele as a fantastic director and definitely a voice that will be of great significance to the entirety of cinema moving forward. I’m looking forward to Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse later this year. The trailer for that sort of blew me away, so I’m really excited about that. I’m also definitely going to catch It: Chapter Two and see how that compares to the first film.
For a while, horror was a genre that I felt often quite disappointed by. That it had a lot of potential, but was rarely ever explored. And for a long time, definitely through my teenage years, it felt sort of relegated to just slasher movies that had nothing interesting to say or do. But now, I’m really liking the sort of renewed popularity and excitement with fresh voices and fresh ideas within horror.
You can catch Guy‘s work in Two Sentence Horror Stories now playing on The CW with new episodes dropping every Thursday. Set that DVR, and you can also catch up on any previous episodes you might have missed!