As the original content production landscape continues to grow more and more competitive, the DIY online video giant YouTube has managed to stay relevant through its unique event partnerships with various brands and creative professionals interested in engaging with up-and-coming filmmakers.
This year, YouTube, in partnership with Legendary Entertainment and Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, launched a unique new production opportunity at YouTube spaces around the world, in which YouTube filmmakers were given access to production sets and tasked with making a short horror film. Del Toro, whose work serves as the inspiration for the sets, selected winners from each region and provided each filmmaking team with a consultation on their rough cut. One YouTube creator, selected by Legendary and Del Toro, will receive a development deal to turn their short into a feature film.
During a recent visit to YouTube Space LA, Indiewire had the opportunity to tour the sets, participate in a roundtable discussion with Del Toro and interview some of the filmmakers who used the sets in their projects.
The architectural set up of the YouTube space in Los Angeles is decidedly Silicon Valley; floor to ceiling window panels allow for a generous amount of light, but not enough to generate discomfort by throwing a glare on a screen. Exposed beams lining the ceiling reinforce the aesthetic sophistication that is stereotypical of start-up culture, but once you set foot on the soundstages all bets are off.
Suddenly, you find yourself surrounded by moss and foliage and in front of a wrought iron gate with the Legendary logo emblazoned at the point where the two halves of the gate meet. Designed by production designers Hillary Gurtler and Ethan Feldbau, the horror sets in the Los Angeles YouTube space reflect a carefully curated cocktail of aesthetic conventions, pulled from different periods across history. “We wanted to create the constant juxtaposition of worn down and terrifying with really elegant and grand,” Gurtler said while giving the tour.
All in all, Gurtler and Feldbau created five magnificent set-ups: a graveyard, a solarium, a study, an attic and a séance room. Each set-up contains subtle suggestions of horror and the grotesque, leaving room for the filmmaker to decide how he or she may want to engage with, as Gurtler put it, specific “character moments.”
According to Feldbau, their goal with the project was to “support the romance of Guillermo’s work, not necessarily be immediately recognizable as a wash of horror, [but rather] more focused.”
“We wanted to create these sort of character moments so that people could come in and really engage with, as opposed to [making it] feel like stock,” continued Gurtler.
“Or,” Feldbau added, “too imposing of one narrative that would drive people in one direction.”
In preparation for designing the sets, Gurtler and Feldbau not only educated themselves in the aesthetic vocabulary of traditional Gothic and Southern Gothic home architecture, but also studied the Châteauesque Biltmore Estate, built by the Vanderbilts at the end of the nineteenth century. According to Gurtler, the 250-room Biltmore Estate “compartmentalizes every major aesthetic of an old world home.” Both the sets and the Estate share a similar organizational approach to aesthetic, which is why it’s not much of a stretch to describe the former as a spiritual microcosm of the latter.
Unlike the Biltmore Estate, however, Gurtler and Feldbau wanted provide the filmmakers canvas, rather than a visual dictum. “We wanted it to be detailed, but not heavy handed,” Gurtler said.
From the hand-painted Old Hollywood backdrop in the cemetery (which actually photographs very nicely) to the Greco-Roman inspired sculptures and busts scattered throughout each set-up, Gurtler and Feldbau manage to strike the perfect balance between the pre-exisiting and possibility.
Said Feldbau: “It’s very important for the creators to come in and get a sense of antiquity but not feel like they have to be governed by a specific story or period costumes; that way creators can come in and feel like [they could] quickly dress this up and make it a period piece or dust it down and make it look antiquated [against] the present day.”
Del Toro Roundtable
There is an uncanny element when you find yourself standing in the same room as the person who is not only the inspiration for the design of said room, but his likeness has also literally been incorporated into the design (via a hand-painted portrait that hangs above the mantelpiece).
These are the circumstances under which we were introduced to Del Toro — on the set of the study, or The Great Room as the designers called it, standing not too far from his portrait likeness.
The real Del Toro, however, is anything but uncanny. He was casual and warm, both in appearance and conversation, which spoke volumes about his hands-on involvement with the project. While it might feel familiar to every other fan contest, upon talking to del Toro, it became apparent that it was actually more like an informal talent development and mentorship program.
In sharing details about his visual and narrative inspirations, Del Toro not only demonstrated a deep passion for learning, but also showed off his inherent capability as a teacher.
“I think it was [Noam] Chomsky that said the limit of your language is the limit of your universe,” Del Toro said during the roundtable. “And the same is true visually. If you force yourself to explore and expand your vocabulary visually into other areas, as similar as they may be, then when you’re discussing a piece of design, you can bring the point of view or critique of all that baggage into telling the story. So it’s the same, you are not limited by a vocabulary visually that is constrained.”
Building your visual vocabulary, Del Toro says, comes from training the the eye “to recognize the styles but [also] what makes them unique.” Doing so affords you greater flexibility as a creator because you have the ability to identify relationships between seemingly disparate iconography, as is the case with Del Toro’s “Hellboy 2.”
“We brought the Arabic language visually, and the Hindu sense of design, to a normally Celtic world in ‘Hellboy 2,'” Del Toro pointed out. “We said at one point the Celtic knot, if you deconstruct it, it can become a piece of Hindu architecture or a piece of oriental design. [So] we said let’s not go to the Celtic language for this tale, let’s go to another.”
In certain circumstances, however, learning can become a paralyzing force that can prevent a creator from executing his or her vision. Del Toro seemed to recognize this conundrum when he describes how he gives advice to younger filmmakers.
“Not judge,” he said, “but be a pal.” That is his main goal.
“Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárittu, Alfonso Curaón and myself are constantly critiquing each other’s work and constantly being completely sincere, disarmingly so,” Del Toro said. “All you can do is be candid; treat them like fully-formed storytellers and not just kids doing videos.”
5 Second Films
The creators behind the hit YouTube channel, 5SecondFilms, took full advantage of YouTube Spaces’ Guillermo Del Toro-inspired sets, shooting a total of seven films for the project — a number that seems less daunting when you consider that they shot four of them in three hours.
The concept behind each video is simple: Two seconds of beginning titles, five seconds of film, one second of end titles. It’s a format that naturally lends itself to comedy, and horror around the Halloween season.
The channel has been with YouTube since 2007, and they currently boast a whopping seventeen members. Six of them sat down with Indiewire in the YouTube Space’s “Seance Room” (the setting of their video “The Late Mr. Prestons Wife”) to discuss their experiences with the project.
While the team came in with preexisting ideas, a few of their films were inspired by the sets themselves. “YouTube told me what we had but I hadn’t seen any of (the sets),” said Ben Gigli, regarding when they first started brainstorming for the project. “It was very helpful to walk in and see because these sets are ridiculously amazing.”
5SecondFilms are no strangers to YouTube Space LA: They’ve been actively involved since it first opened in 2012, doing everything from participating in comedy workshops to running their own live-stream-a-thon.
“There’s even stuff that we’ve come and done that we haven’t released,” said 5SF member Mike James. “There’s a late night talk show sketch, with Joey (Scoma) and I as goblin talk show hosts, because they were teaching a makeup class and were like ‘Hey, you guys want to come be goblins?’ and we were like ‘Yeah we do!’…I don’t know if we’ve missed a single set. Even if we don’t have an idea we’ll use it.”
So far, the videos they’ve released from the sets deal with murder mysteries, serial killers and tone deaf banshees. For these veteran YouTubers, the House of Horrors project has provided a source of inspiration as well as a much-appreciated twist on their creative process. “It’s more of a creative place,” said Olivia Taylor Dudley. “You walk in and you have a million ideas and you can just shoot them.”Ben Gigli added, “And then we can leave!”