More than 15 years after helping to bring the zombie movie genre back from the grave in Dawn of the Dead, Zack Snyder has returned to the genre in his latest movie, the action-horror-heist mashup Army of the Dead. To mark the film’s streaming release, the director has made a series of videos with Netflix in which he shares his insights and experiences of filmmaking. One recent “Snyder School” class focused on cinematography, and the choices that Snyder made while shooting Army of the Dead.
“I was really experimenting with how much natural lighting I could do, and how carefully you could control the environment, and it was really liberating,” he said, explaining that during scenes where characters were exploring dark rooms with flashlights, he would try as much as possible to make those the only sources of light on set. He would then use white surfaces to reflect the beams of light off-camera, so that the scenes wouldn’t be too dark for the viewer to make out what was going on, but not so bright that it shattered the illusion.
In the film’s many, many shoot-em-up sequences, Snyder revealed that they used gas guns rather than real guns firing blanks. “Frankly, it’s dangerous,” he says, and so instead they used LED panels which would trigger the muzzle flash in sync with the guns going off. “It’s difficult, but everyone did a great job.”
Something Snyder does to help him visualize a scene ahead of filming is to draw out storyboards by hand, frame by frame. Then, when it comes to the day, he has a clear idea of how he wants each individual shot to look.
“There’s all these production restraints that are going to be on you,” he said. “The difference is, the consistent language of the script got to the drawings, and now are in your hand on the day, it tends to give you a chance to remember the consistency you had on a day of complete pandemonium and mayhem where there’s no consistency at all.”
Ultimately, Snyder believes that all filmmakers, whether they’re a Hollywood director or an aspiring film student, has their own style and sensibility—they just might not know it yet.
“Every single filmmaker, you’re the prism that the thing goes through. Every single person could hold this camera, and they’d take a different picture. And that’s awesome, that’s a beautiful thing,” he says.
“An exercise anyone can do is start to play with your camera. Take pictures, get your friends, and in a very short amount of time, you can learn everything there is to know about depth of field and how it works and what it means and all of that. And the same thing with ISL and low light and daylight and MDs; it sounds complicated at first for a second, but you’ve got to get out and do it, and you’ve got to just get a camera and look through it. And don’t be afraid to fuck up, and make bad choices and bad shots, because that’s how you learn.”
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