How Nathan Love Made a Gory Teaser for Animated Horror

From the moment Blood Trail, the debut feature screenplay from writer Matt Cochran, came over the transom at downtown New York creative studio Nathan Love, company founder Joe Burrascano got excited about the potential of creating an animated horror film. To generate interest in the property, Long Island-based animation production company Perspective Studios asked Nathan Love to create a short trailer that would demonstrate the potential atmosphere and ferocity of a full-length Blood Trail project. Perspective and Nathan Love both hope the next step for Blood Trail will be development as a full-length feature and/or videogame, but the three-minute short film they created to sell it stands on its own as a harrowing CG experience – it’s as fast-paced as a music video and gorier than a Saw movie. Watch at your own risk, then read the Q&A below.

Watch it again, and listen to an excerpt from F&V‘s interview with director Joe Burrascano.

F&V: How did you get involved with Blood Trail, and why were you so interested?

Joe Burrascano: There was a guy [screenwriter Matt Cochran] living out on Staten Island. He got divorced. And when he got divorced he said, “You know what? I’ve always wanted to be a writer. That’s what I’m going to go back to.” He started writing and getting his ideas out there, and he was trying to find a way to shop this screenplay. A friend of a friend got him in touch with Perspective Studios, which is known as a motion-capture studio, but they’re all businessmen, and they’re trying to develop their own IP. They said, “Wow, here’s this unknown guy from Staten Island with a lot of great writing. Let’s make a deal with him and get Blood Trail produced.” This is the first time he’s ever experienced anything like this, and he jumped on board to do it.

I had worked with Perspective a few times, and they brought us the script. We usually get weird premonitions before big things happen. Kate [Burrascano, Joe’s wife and creative director at Nathan Love] and I were on vacation and we were saying, “Oh my god, we really want to do something crazy and violent and gory.” Within that week we got a call about the job. We said, “Well, there’s no way we can’t take it now.”

Was the idea to just visualize some aspect of the writing?

There was the full script, which we read and we loved. But Matt actually went back and wrote a trailer piece, which is what we ended up doing. We based our trailer on what he wrote and then came up with the visualization and the pacing from there.

How detailed was what he wrote in terms of the terrible, awful specifics of what we see happening on screen?

He put in the terrible, awful specifics. We played it up a little bit and did a little bit more than what he wrote. But what he wrote was pretty sick and great to begin with. He was originally thinking of this as a traditional trailer with drums and lots of flashing back to different cuts and scenes. Given the brief we got from Perspective, and what they were trying to do, it seemed like it had to be more than that. We had to sell the idea of what this film could be as far as mood and pacing. We wanted to give you a scene from the film instead of hyping up monsters and characters and action and then just ending it.

We’ve already gotten requests to enter this into film festivals. And people are asking for screeners of the full feature, and it doesn’t exist.

It’s an animated, visceral horror piece. And I haven’t seen a lot of horror animation [at least in the U.S. market – ed.] through history. There’s supernatural stuff and haunted-house stuff, but as far as a very pushing-the-envelope gory piece …

That’s something the writer was really conscious of. He’s a horror movie fanatic. He wanted to push it as far as showing this guy being ripped in half. He said, “I really want to give the viewers this jaw-ripping scene. That’s really important to me.” It was really exciting that he was willing to go there and wanted us to stylize it in a way that you couldn’t do in live action. We actually saw a few references of jaw-ripping. One was Stripper Zombies or Stripper Vampires …

Zombie Strippers.

Yeah, Zombie Strippers! That had an awesome jaw-rip scene. But it was super-fast. This one dragged out a little bit.

Zombie Strippers also had the tongue kind of lolling around [after a man’s head is torn apart].

It did, it did. It was awesome. That came later in our reference search. We’re all huge South Park fans. There’s one with Britney Spears where her head gets chopped off to the base of the neck and her tongue is flapping around the whole time, which we thought was hilarious. And in one of the epic Jesus episodes, Jesus has to die to save the world. They’re saying, “You have to kill Jesus.” And they do it in the worst way possible – it’s this two-minute-long slow death. Anyway, that’s horrible – but that was an inspiration for it.

Did videogames come into it? There have been quite a few horror video games.

There was one videogame where the characters have these oversized hands, which we thought was really cool. We borrowed that idea as far as stylization. But we looked more at sculpture and lots of older horror flicks from the 1960s and 1970s. Before this, I was not a real horror fan. I didn’t watch any of the major movies. But over the course of it I feel like I saw 70 percent of what’s out there. It was fun to immerse ourselves in something new. That’s what’s fun, just approaching jobs as if they’re new every time.

What was the most challenging aspect?

Producing it. We crammed it in between two other major jobs that were going on. Going from a studio that was used to doing 15-second pieces or 30-second pieces to all of a sudden a three-minute piece, just the amount of shots and effects we had to do went through the roof. We didn’t scale the team up for it ‘ it was just about working with what we had and selling all the effects within our budget. Our blood-and-guts and Flame and FX guru bought one of those $180 HD cameras and went to a chicken slaughterhouse and filmed the carnage and brought it in. It was horrible. But it helped him quite a bit, so it was good.

As director, are you hands-on with the animation and effects?

Definitely. I was lighting and compositing and rendering and all that fun stuff. My dad asked me the other day, “Don’t you ever want to go back to fine arts and paint?” And I said, “No, man. I really like directing. It’s more hands-on than you think.” I started describing the fire and how much went into directing that. Our FX guy was coming up with flames, and I was like, “That’s cool, but there’s a certain way they should act. It should feel like a character.” If you ever look at the way Disney used to make their flames and fires there’s a magic to the way it moves. Working on one little tiny piece, one little shot alone, is super-fun and exciting, let alone the overall goals and vision for the piece. My background is totally in 3D and leading and supervising, and that gives me an advantage because I actually understand the process.

Camerawork, too, is one of my favorite things. The scenes get set up and the animators start putting the action together, and then is the fun part where you can go in and frame the shot and get exactly what you want out of it. It’s really cool to approach it so that it really feels like filmmaking as opposed to just animation or 3D. We never did storyboards for this piece. We just went straight ahead into action and blocking and camerawork, and I think that’s why it came out as well as it did ‘ we were so hands-on with that process.

How long were you working on it, and with how many people?

I think it was about four months. The first month was research and reference-gathering and concepting. The second month was finalizing designs and moving into 3D, and the rest was final production. We had maybe a dozen people, off and on. We’d work with one or two people for a month, and when we could get other people we’d move them on and take the others off to do other stuff.

Anything else about this project that you found challenging or that you’re especially proud of?

We did the audio ourselves. That was important to us because it’s something we’re trying to do more and more of. With animation in general, it’s hard to separate the sound design from the actual animation. This was new territory for us, but without the sound we ended up with it wouldn’t be the same piece.