The Young Cannibals recently got its official release in the US, having come a long way since production first began. The film follows a group of friends who are being tracked down and hunted by a relentless ancient evil after being duped by a suspicious old man. There is currently no news on when we can expect a UK release but hopefully it won’t be long!
We had the opportunity to have a chat with the cinematographer of The Young Cannibals, Liam Hejsak. We spoke about the challenges the crew faced on their first feature film, the genre itself, as well as his career as a young, budding cinematographer.
Morgan: A good place to start is by congratulating you on the recent US release of The Young Cannibals (TYC)! That must feel pretty good?
Liam: It’s pretty insane, actually! I don’t think anyone really thought about how high the ceiling was for this thing – from the perspective of a bunch of plucky film school graduates, that is. We certainly didn’t treat the production like it was anything other than the passion project that it was. We were all just happy to be working on a feature with our friends so quickly after graduating. It’s a nice surprise.
Morgan: Up until this point, you’ve primarily worked on shorts. The Young Cannibals is your first feature. How was this process different and how challenging was the transition?
Liam: I think the principles and values you bring to the table as a cinematographer don’t change too much between short form and long form projects. It was actually the ramp-up in intensity and longevity of those things that ended up being the most ‘challenging’ aspect for me on TYC. I find it takes a lot less of a mental capacity to lay out the scope for a short film, i.e. committing to a look that works for the story, keeping consistent with theme and tone, reinforcing a visual rulebook that works for the script.
Expanding that to a feature-length film keeps you on your toes and keeps you thinking about widening that scope over a duration of, for example, fifty shooting days. You have to be even more certain in what you’re committing to visually because you won’t have time to ponder over it as you’re already at the next day thinking about another dozen problems you have to solve.
Morgan: What were the challenges with this style of film and how did you adapt to fit the genre?
Liam: I think a good 60 to 65% of the film was shot at night on exterior locations. And it’s no secret that night exterior shooting has proven to be a difficult task for first-time filmmakers – creatively and logistically. Committing to a lighting style that worked for the film and for our schedule was a real jump in the deep end for me.
A lot of the film is set in vast forest landscapes, and logistically getting high-powered film lights up and running in the middle of forest in Wales was a fucking nightmare. Shout-out to my incredible lighting department for that – they were relentless. Also, props to the generator that died on us just after we wrapped.
Morgan: Was there anything specific that the film asked of you that was particularly challenging for yourself? If so, how did you figure it out?
Liam: Again, I think reinforcing this idea of being super confident about your commitment to a lighting setup/plan. I was never the strongest lighting guy at uni. My confidence wasn’t fully there and that filtered into the first couple of days on TYC. I ended up settling for a three-source setup for most sequences, using our strongest and brightest HMI light to backlight the location, whilst bringing in smaller lights to key the side of our subjects: keeping shadow whilst highlighting scenery and our actors. Lighting spaces as though they were lit by moonlight without having the height and spread of a balloon light that would sit 30ft in the air was tough. We’d often dress our lighting stands with shrubbery or black fabric just to hide the stand from being seen in frame.
Morgan: Was there a scene or sequence that stood out as being particularly challenging?
Liam: There were a couple of difficult sequences, actually. I have two that come to mind. There’s a scene where the main character, Nat, ignites a red flare. This is during a night-time sequence in – you guessed it – a forest. We already had a contrast ratio baked into our lighting plans (AKA we had an even and consistent exposure for every shot within the scene). However, I wasn’t sure what exposure the flare would give me and we only had a handful of flares to use for the take. I had one 45-second test window to gather a light reading for the flare, and it ended up being a lot brighter than expected. I think I asked the AD for an extra thirty minutes of an already tightly packed schedule to replan our entire lighting setup. Taking into account the bright flare, we basically had to double the amount of light in the scene to compensate for the camera’s reduced exposure sensitivity, which was compensating for the super bright flare light. As a result, the quality of light in that scene ends up looking a lot more harsh as we had to remove a lot of flags and diffusion that was giving the light a softness. This was to increase the amount of light hitting the camera sensor.
The other challenging sequence was the prologue that we shot in the French Alps… in late November. The snowy winds look great and they really set the tone for the rest of the film but the conditions were brutal for the crew and I don’t think I’ve ever been more cold. I had to sit out in our warm 4×4 on the last day to regain movement in my fingers because it was that cold.
Morgan: What were the biggest challenges you faced in making an independent film, not just for you, but for the whole team?
Liam: Charlie (Charlie Pride), our producer, will like this one: actually finishing it. Having something to show for our efforts. I’m being totally serious. It took three blocks of filming between nine months. We entered each break with a real uncertainty about whether we’d continue or not. So, credit to him and the directors for being resolute and sticking to their guns. There were many instances where it would have been easier for everyone to call it a day but we stuck by it and made it work. The weather was, by far and large, the hardest obstacle we faced. We had snowstorms, torrential rain, a Welsh tornado, and a lot of broken kit and spirits to deal with. Dare I mention the day in Gloucester?
Morgan: Dare I ask about the day in Gloucester?
Liam: This shoot really tested our commitment to the cause! Like I said, we experienced almost every serious weather warning scenario possible, we worked a couple of 18+ hour days just to keep on schedule, a lot of cast and crew fell ill because of the weather, and yet we pushed on unfazed… except for the one day in Gloucester.
There’s a scene where a few characters stumble upon the monster’s pit that’s only lit by the flare I mentioned earlier. We had about 20 different setups to get in one night. “No problem” we confidently said, as we were well within our stride of consistently knocking out 30+ setups per night by this point. The weather Gods of sorts looked down on us without mercy. It started bucketing it down after the first 20 minutes. “This is fine” we said, as we’ve dealt with torrential rain before – “We’ll wait for it to calm and just work 20% harder”. It just wouldn’t stop. The location couldn’t have been more problematic because it was this sort of circular ravine where the only access point was this muddy incline; it ended up being a total mudslide. Ferrying equipment up and down this was impossible without slipping; everything became 200% harder. We also had two actors on the floor with prosthetics applied and they couldn’t move without ruining the makeup. They were sinking in the mud, so we had to line the floor with bin bags and cover them with space blankets and umbrellas. Despite all of this, we persevered and started to knock out a few “okayish” shots just before our camera shut down and wouldn’t turn back on. Looking up at the crew, there wasn’t an ounce of motivation left from anyone, not even the usual suspects (Kris Carr and Sam Fowler, executive directors).
We started filming at 10pm, finished at 6am and then it took us another three hours to just ferry everything back up the incline and pack it in the van over half a mile away. Fuck that day. A documentary of that day would be more famous than the film.
Morgan: So, why cinematography? What drew you to it?
Liam: I’ve just always loved moving images. As a kid, it was either Lego stop-motion animation with a small flash camera, or using a handycam to film myself with a lightsaber. I often watched the behind-the-scenes of a lot of my favourite films, being fascinated with the process and the smoke-and-mirror effect film productions ended up being. I think it was the Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire DVD behind-the-scenes that confirmed my wannabe filmmaker status, and then through my film production degree I focused that love towards camerawork and lighting.
Morgan: Who were your major inspirations and do they influence your work at all?
Liam: I met up with a lovely cinematographer named Lol Crawley back in 2015, during university, when I knew absolutely nothing about anything – even less about cinematography than I do now… which is still basically nothing. He let me shadow one of his colour-grading sessions for a day and I interviewed him afterwards about one of my favourite TV shows, Utopia, which he shot the second series of. He was very welcoming and patient with me, and ended up being a big inspiration because of the way he came across, not because of his body of work – this seemingly regular, totally relaxed guy who’s now working on some really big films (Vox Lux). No ego, no status. I’d love to emulate a career path like his.
Morgan: What’s next for you? Would you like to remain in the horror space or would you like to diversify your work, tackling different styles and genres of film?
Liam: I think just focusing on how to further my career. I would like to choose projects that match my ambition and have the potential to go far. Projects that challenge me to grow as a cinematographer so I’m better equipped as the older I get, but it is wishful thinking. I can’t pick and choose at my age. I sometimes forget that I’m only 24 and I’ve got a good couple of years to experiment before I expect myself to work at an extremely high standard, but I am VERY ambitious! I understand that the industry is incredibly oversaturated as well now, with digital cameras being so readily accessible and producing great images out of the box. And everyone wants to have a voice, so the pressure to create work that stands out from the norm is crucial for anyone to succeed.
Morgan: Well, we wish you luck! Lastly, just for a bit of fun, what’s your favourite horror film?
Liam: I honestly don’t watch a lot of horror! I had a lot of homework from the directors of TYC. Kill List was pretty mental, wasn’t it? I’ve not seen a film descend from a realistic social character piece into a brutal twisted nightmare as quick as that did. (Midsommar is on my list.) I was hardly going to give you a classic answer like Alien, was I?