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If you love Horror films you know the importance of the unobvious; you relish in the music, the scenery, and all the factors which indicate something is about to occur and you may not see it. Setting the tone for the eventual payoff that frightens you is more often than not the result of the mood that is created rather than a barrage of frightening images. In fact, if a Horror film gives away too much early on you may lose interest. Dong Lei served as production designer for the award-winning film Emily. Recognized at film festivals in Houston, Hollywood, and others, Emily excited fans of the Horror genre across the US and beyond. The film is a terrifying look at revenge and the supernatural. The tale revolves around a woman who dies during child birth due to her lover’s absence and her restless spirit’s insistence on taking revenge from beyond the grave. As lead production designer, Lei was in charge of the design and creation of each of the film’s sets, an especially important role during the production of Emily. In a horror film, locations are paramount in creating a sense of tension and fear. Lei’s designs for Emily created a dark atmosphere which serves as a metaphor for the souls of the main characters, enveloped by their own selfish motivations.

As a fan of Horror films himself, Lei points to the master Alfred Hitchcock as the epitome of what makes fright an art from rather than just a tool. The ability to control an audience’s emotions and create tension in their psyche rather than overtly displaying it onscreen is key to this approach. A majority of films are predictable and telegraph the oncoming action. Like Hitchcock, Lei wanted Emily to reject the expected and use unconventional lighting, camera angles, and editing to transfer a state of mind and emotion to the viewer. The Horror genre requires greater detail in a generally dark setting, meaning that subtlety contains a different definition for films such as Emily. After meetings with the director and producer concerning the tone of the film and location scouts, he devised a construct to support the story. Explaining his design, Lei states, “I read the script and I talked to the director about his ideas. He emphasized the importance of visual look and camera movement. I found a spacious house with complex construction. The materials of door and floor introduced some very natural and horrible sound effects to the film. The further work was to use different materials to create multiple camera movements. The DP used a Ronin to move cameras from floor to ceiling, so I created different layers to help him to achieve the visual that he and director wanted. I chose carpet and wallpaper that would help make it easier for the lighting department to get the horrible effects they wanted. I was especially pleased that the carpet and door gave the lighting department great materials to work with when it came to the thunder and lightning effects.

Horror films like Emily which seem quite natural require a dual approach when designing the sets. Many of the elements should seem natural and pleasing in one context but should complement the frightening action when it occurs. Lighting is an obvious factor. Less overt is the decision of details that at first appear cute and then later communicate a disturbing feeling. Lei points to his use of a sunflower pattern of wallpaper on this set which vacillates between warmth and frightening depending on how it is lit and communicated onscreen. The MacGuffin (music box) is a notable element in the story. While its music was created to soothe, this is decidedly one of the scariest pieces in the film. One of the most impactful and frightening scenes in the film is when the MacGuffin opens and plays on its own accord. This communicates Emily’s attendance in the room and the connection between the physical world and the spiritual one. The subtlety of this scene contradicts one of the earliest scenes with its gratuitous use of blood as Emily makes a sacrifice with her own blood. Both of these inject fear but the MacGuffin’s melody is such a contradiction to the sense of what is happening that it stands out significantly.

Emily has received accolades from its appearance at festivals like the Chinese American film festival, Hollywood international moving picture film festival, and Worldfest Houston where it was awarded the “Gold Remi” for Horror. Audiences love to be scared, especially when done with great skill and expertise. It seemed inevitable that Emily would frighten all viewers as Lei reveals, “One day during filming, I was waiting outside the restroom. The lighting department was adjusting the light and suddenly the lights went out. I felt cold and wanted to check to see what had happened. I turned around and found myself face to face with the actress who plays Emily. She was looking at something on her phone and the slight pale light from it illuminated her face. She had just finished in makeup and was ready for the next scene. Her face still had blood dripping down. She was looking right at me and we were surrounded by darkness except for the dull glow of her phone. I caught myself before screaming out but it felt like I had been transported into the film itself for a moment. For that split second I was on the verge of questioning reality itself. Ha. I can still remember that picture in my mind. Although it became something that everyone laughed about on our set, I also knew at this moment that the audience would feel exactly as I had and we had something special in this movie.”

EMILY’S REVENGE BY DESIGN Reviewed by JaamZIN on 12:09:00 PM Rating: 5
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