Throughout 2020 the work ethic of horror filmmakers shone a light in the dark when it came to artistic creativity. Many adapted to the year’s woes and delivered work which was just as terrifying as anything from any previous year. Bristolian Filmmaker Ethan Evans took his turn, during a break between UK lockdowns, to shoot his viral short Time Out, about a babysitter encountering some possessed Time Out dolls. Through its utilisation of the instagram stories format, audiences bought into Time Out’s realism and it quickly amassed five million views across a variety of platforms. Twelve Cabins caught up with Evans in the early days of 2021 to reflect back on his experience making Time Out, whilst looking ahead to his future horror projects.
What interested you in shooting a film via instagram stories?
Like many filmmakers, we were working towards, and struggling, to get a bigger short made in the current Covid climate. One evening, I came across an image of a Time Out doll that Jason Blum had retweeted – it instantly sent shivers down my spine! I couldn’t believe it was a real concept, they’re so horrible! It was the classic case of knowing someone was bound to make a film out of it, so we thought, – let’s be the ones to make one first! I quickly called up my partner in crime and Producer Jess Bartlett to pitch the concept to her. She’s always up for throwing ourselves into projects like this and I couldn’t have done it without her. This was late September, so we didn’t have much time before another inevitable lockdown would prevent us from making it happen if we didn’t act right away. With Halloween fast approaching, we decided that would be the prime time to release it online, so the week of Halloween became our final deadline.
The first few days I spent figuring out how we could make the film unique and stand out. I originally envisioned it as more of a conventionally-shot short film, but knew we had no time or money to make it as good as we wanted. At one point I was even dreaming of making a one-take Steadicam short, which with our budget would have been impossible! I’m not sure exactly what triggered the idea, but it hit me that we could shoot it on a phone, mimicking an Instagram story as a fresh take on the found footage sub-genre. It was the solution to all our problems and a chance to do something I hadn’t seen before! After an extremely positive response from Jess, we instantly found ourselves excitedly brainstorming. I love the babysitter and creepy doll tropes, but as every horror fan can attest to, they’re too often utilised in clichéd material. I leapt at the chance to put a fresh spin on both of these.
The best thing about using the Instagram story format is that we had the potential to not only entertain the online horror audience, but scare anyone who stumbled upon it, thinking they were watching a real-life Instagram story unfold. The format also makes it accessible to anyone with a phone, so it was exciting to know we had the potential to reach a bigger audience than we ever have before. There are so many amazing found-footage-style vlogs and videos online that I love to watch, but a lot are very subtle and/or left open to interpretation. I wanted to make something that felt like it could be real but also functioned as a short film, with a clear beginning, middle and end. With the well-deserved success of films like Host, it’s an inspiring reminder that we can stay creative and make something effective no matter the circumstance. One of the many reasons horror is the best genre!
After those initial conversations with Jess, how did you develop the layout of the plot?
Once we had the form in mind, I spent a day or two thinking of ideas for scares. I quickly realised it was essential to find the balance between having genuinely creepy moments, while still having it one hundred percent believable. The illusion would be shattered if it peaked too soon or was too obviously set-up. But, if it didn’t captivate or creep people out from the get-go, then no one would watch for more than ten seconds.
I decided to write a shotlist sequence of how an Instagram story like this could realistically unfold, and to figure out how we could creatively utilize the format. This led to ideas like the goofy low-angle ‘send help’ photo – we all know that person! Doing this also gave me an overview of the pacing, so I knew what ideas would keep people engaged.
I’m also a huge fan of bells in horror films (some personal faves being Annabelle: Creation, Satan’s Slaves, The Autopsy of Jane Doe) and knew it would work as a great device to suggest the dolls moving without explicitly showing it on screen, something I find far more terrifying! In terms of the lore, I was always drawn to the idea that rather than being ‘alive’ themselves, the dolls could actually be controlled by a larger supernatural entity/presence with the dolls acting almost like puppets to torment the babysitter. This worked well for the short, because I knew the audience would be suspicious of the dolls and expect to see them move. I could then use this against them to drag the tension out and play with their expectations, before shocking them with an ending they’d never consider coming.
Given that the film has such a realistic sensibility, did you allow for any improvisation amongst the planning?
The entire thing was planned out, written as a scene breakdown/outline, almost like a music video script. I knew that authenticity was key, so rather than writing a traditional screenplay, I wrote guided dialogue that Fiona McGarvey, our wonderful actor, could play around with and see what felt natural on the day. We stuck with this for the most part, but we had a lot of fun figuring out what felt authentic and what didn’t. I’ve never worked on something that relied on improvising like this, and in all honestly, although it was only a tiny short, it was a real challenge for me as a director. I’m the type of director who likes to over-prepare and know the meaning behind everything, so I forced myself out of my comfort zone – something I aim to do on all my films and recommend others do too!
The casting process was a unique one too, as we weren’t necessarily looking for someone to embody a specific character, but someone that we completely believed and could talk to the camera in character as if they were a real person. We gave applicants the task of creating self-tapes as if they were broadcasting on Instagram live before something goes wrong – Fi smashed it out the park! I also loved her ability to make a contrived laugh sound so natural, which is not easy!
How was production? Did you shoot across a single evening?
We treated it like a normal production, which was fun to jump back into after such a static year. We completely blacked out my house and shot over a six hour day which gave us the flexibility to play around with certain ideas and figure out what worked. We duct-taped black-out cloth to the outside of any windows you see on camera to give the illusion you were looking out into a night-time abyss.
As well as Jess, Fi, and I, our crew on the day consisted of two others; Faye Russell, the talented SFX make-up artist, and Nick Bendle, the amazing editor. Nick gave me a great hand on-set acting as the other crew members combined – he’s always a life-saver! Jess spent most of the shoot day in the make-up chair to become what we referred to as the ‘Witch Entity’ for the final scare! We also had April, our five-year-old family friend, drop by for ten minutes to be the doll double that we catch a glimpse of in the mirror! It was a challenge to direct because it wasn’t the usual case of looking for or guiding something specific, I just needed to completely believe the take. The process taught me a lot that I can now apply to directing on more traditionally-shot narratives.
How did you come into possession of the Time Out dolls?
Believe it or not, we made them out of some old curtains we had lying around and stuffed them with old pillows. We also used the curtains to make the entirety of the ‘Witch Entity’s’ costume. Luckily my dad is a sewing wizard, so I knew who to call when we first got the idea. To design the costumes for the dolls, Jess and I spent a few days touring charity shops and searching through eBay.
Did you specifically develop your scares then? Were you able to test them out to see if they’d work?
Once we had the outline in place, I first pitched it to Jess to get her feedback, before pitching it to Nick and Robin Niedojadlo, our trusty lighting advisor. They all reacted in the same way to the scary moments, so we knew we were on to something! We bounced ideas back and forth and had a lot of fun pitching-in ideas of what we thought would be unsettling. It was such an enjoyably creative and collaborative process.
Since we were shooting in my house, we had the benefit of mapping it out and seeing what worked without much hassle. We did a few tests to run through the outline, figuring out the rough framing and lighting we’d need for each scene to work. This led to us making a lighting plan with Robin, which basically consisted of planning where to place lamps for each scene. This was most prominently for the ending as we needed some elements to be specific, such as being able to see a door creak open within the murky darkness of a room. One of the benefits of shooting on an iPhone was that FaceTime essentially became our accurate camera tests! I also mocked up a rough sequence of the ending with some sound effects to see if the tension would be tangible enough. Early on, we realised that the dolls were enough in themselves to keep people creeped out. After I initially discovered the original photo, I shared it with family and friends and every single person had the same audible reaction, they are horror gold.
I’d love to know about the development of that final scare.
My approach to filmmaking is always asking myself the question, what would scare me? or what wouldn’t I see coming? Early on I knew I wanted to feature some form of entity that no one would anticipate, simply because it would scare me if I was watching! I’m terrified of witches which is something I’ve been desperate to explore, so I designed the entity to fit within that realm. It’s something I’m eager to expand upon further. I’m also a huge fan of jump scares when they’ve been earned. I take a lot of inspiration from James Wan and Atomic Monster in that sense. From the very beginning, I wanted to challenge myself to earn one in a short space of time. Unlike many, I also love screamer videos. I think it’s probably due to a vivid memory I have of when I first saw the K-fee car commercial far too young, which I’m still recovering from!
I’m a part of the ‘doing things 100% practically whenever possible’ gang, so Jess and I had the challenge of figuring out how we could achieve that with no budget and barely any time to plan. After scratching our heads, we found a terrifying prosthetic foam latex face from an online store in the US. We spent a few hours painting it, with cheap-and-cheerful Snazaroo face paint, and brought in Faye to complete the look on the day. She did such an amazing job transforming Jess into the freakish entity we briefly see at the end and added so many details that really brought it to life.
What’s next for you?
Jess and I set up Terror Arcade in 2018, an indie production company that we make all of our horror films under. The UK isn’t the easiest place to get genre films funded, so all of my shorts have been completely self-funded so far. However, seeing all the amazing reactions to our shorts online, especially this one, has made me realise that you really don’t need a big budget to make a captivating, effective, or scary short. David F. Sandberg’s Lights Out is probably the best proof of this. If all else fails, I’m confident we’ll always be able to find a way to make something!
We’ve been writing and developing a handful of bigger shorts that we’re aiming to get funding for as we gear up to make our first feature. We’re also currently developing three features, all horror! One of which is an adaptation of the Time Out dolls short that I know will be even more terrifying. We’ve been working on one of the other feature ideas for a while now, a contained supernatural horror, that I’m so excited to bring to life. We’re aiming to do so in the very near future!