The Making of “There’s a Ghost in my Flat”Posted: February 19, 2011
Here’s a homemade video I made for There’s a Ghost in my Flat.
Youtube has messed up the already questionable quality of the footage, which is disappointing, but hopefully it comes across. View it at 480p, fullscreen if you can.
This video would’ve been impossible if I didn’t have help from my brother David and Rebecca. Without them, it would’ve consisted of a series of not-very-spooky clips. Not only did they assist with the filming, they came up with a lot of ideas that helped turn it into something resembling a narrative from my vague ideas.
As I’m sure anyone reading this knows, I love a good ghost story. Everyone’s scared of the dark, or at least more likely to be scared in the dark. It’s a primal thing. We can’t help it. I like how folk stories have been passed down over thousands of years playing on that. We can all relate to fear, and not in a superficial don’t-you-just-hate-it-when-you-make-a-cup-of-tea-and-there’s-no-milk-oh-my-god-that-happens-to-me-too way. It’s a given that you’re afraid of dark, unknown things, and ghost stories create experiences based on that. Given my lifelong fascination with the subject, There’s a Ghost in my Flat was a natural candidate for a homemade video on no budget. Although it’s a song about milling around your bedroom and not taking very good care of yourself, I couldn’t pass up the chance to make my very own creepy tale.
The biggest challenge, aside from no budget and very little filming experience, was to create an unnatural atmosphere without the use of sound. Scary movies are mostly the marriage of sound and visuals, and without heavy breathing, loud noises, moaning, silence or video static, it was pretty difficult to figure out ways to convey that something wasn’t quite right. With that in mind, it takes the form of a video log, in the vein of Paranormal Activity or Marble Hornets. Strange things happen around the flat, getting more and more bizarre, before I finally see the ghost in the hallway and try to escape. The door opens behind me and I leg it outside only to run into… myself! Doppelgangers are said to be an omen of your impending death, and yet here I am, writing this. Movie magic indeed.
The first scene, with the video blog format, was actually just a test shot to see if I could do that “reflections acts differently from subject” thing. I balanced my camera on a rickety tower of pizza boxes, books and Xbox games and mouthed to an old demo recording. If the lip synching seems a little off, that’s because it is: the version I recorded for the video was entirely new. The process of having two different sets of footage occupy the same shot is actually fairly straightforward, but it was fiddly learning how to do it.
Two forks, balanced on the very edge of a glass using a burnt toothpick. Reminds me of those useless old plastic eagles you could balance on your nose. Probably the most expensive shot in the video, because it cost me £1.50 for the toothpicks. Instead of waking up and finding this, I wanted to wake up and find a burning matchstick effigy, but I didn’t want to send the flat up in flames or ruin those nice countertops. I could’ve done it in the sink, but that would’ve been excessively lame.
Further forays into Bizarro World. Somewhat less impressive than the toothpicks, but at least it was cheaper. The idea wasn’t that the can standing on its end was in itself particularly unsettling, rather that finding these dotted around an empty flat was, like the scene in The Blair Witch Project where they find all those little twigs in the shape of a person.
It was going to be bloody handprints all over the wall, but my secret formula for fake blood wasn’t getting the desired results so instead it became a mess of blood with a slow reveal of a bathtub full of the stuff.
This was actually shot in Rebecca’s bathroom. I cleaned up the mess (mostly) but she almost had a fit when she saw the video. She likes things clean, see.
And so, the final sequence. I’m a huge fan of the sprawling tracking shots in Goodfellas and Children of Men, so I wanted to do my own amateur version. If there was a cut at any point, it wouldn’t be as impressive running into myself downstairs, because then I could’ve just turned the camera off and handed it to someone else. Therefore, it all had to be one take, set to a specific timing. It wasn’t easy, having just planned the shot prior to filming and having almost no experience, but thankfully I had David and Rebecca to help.
Above, you can see me talking to the camera. This was essential to establish that it was, in fact, me holding the camera. I picked the line “all I can hear is this moaning sound”, as if I’d been sitting in my room and started making an entry in my video journal when I heard this unearthly sound. The lights go off, and I see this friendly message painted on the window in blood:
I can’t help but read that in the voice of the haunted house in The Simpsons. It was going to be on the floor, but Rebecca sensibly suggested that I could walk into it and mess it up, or alternatively slip and break something. A bottle of water is knocked over, the tv comes on unexpectedly, I decide I’ve had enough and try to leave the flat when…
GHOST! WALKING TOWARDS ME! HOLY SHIT. Time to make an exit. It was important you didn’t get to see much of the ghost, but thanks to Youtube’s shitty compression, I suspect most people who’ve seen the video didn’t see the fucking thing at all. It was based on a famous picture of a phantom monk I remember from my childhood that I have dug up for your convenience here:
Of course, it’s meant to be seven feet tall, but I only know one person who’s seven feet tall and I don’t have his phone number.
The door opens behind me as I run out. What’s interesting about this shot is that David and Rebecca were convinced they could see the ghost in the doorway, even though I’d specifically told the person playing it to remain out of sight, as if the ghost was invisible in the light. That’s right, the other two people involved in the production’s minds were playing tricks on them, looking for scary things that weren’t there. That’s the power of ghost stories, for you.
The footage was altered here to stutter on my hand. This is because upon repeated viewings, I realised the viewer might believe I’d simply ran down the stairs and turned the camera to face me because you don’t see me come into shot. Of course, it doesn’t explain the hat and coat, but since I’m only onscreen for a couple of seconds it’d probably escape their notice. The stutter would hopefully go a little way to communicating that I’d ran into myself waiting outside. It actually ended up being quite advantageous, because it’s a more interesting way to end the video than fading out, and also gives off the impression that the camera was shut off under suspicious circumstances.
I had a blast with this little project, and I’d love to do it again with a lot more effort and time. The video journal format means it’s suited to the lo-fi look and shoddy camerawork, but for another video it would require a lot more thought to make it aesthetically pleasing. I learned a lot, not least of all that it’s terrifically hard to communicate a narrative through visuals alone. I mean, I knew that already, but I’ve internalised it now that I’ve attempted to do it.
Now, I’m not going to go into excruciating detail about how and when it was done. Obviously it’s not me holding the camera at the end, so I’ll leave it up to the viewer to figure out exactly when it changed hands, and how I got out of the flat without being seen on camera. The best mysteries are left unexplained.
That’s what good ghost stories are about, after all.