A day in the life of a cinematographer: Taking VFX for a ride in <i>Totally Killer</i>
March 1, 2024

A day in the life of a cinematographer: Taking VFX for a ride in Totally Killer

DP Judd Overton shares a day on set of the Amazon Prime original hit film.
Starring Kiernan Shipka, Totally Killer follows teenager Jamie in her fight against the infamous Sweet Sixteen Killer. Thirty-five years after his first murder spree, the killer returns to claim another victim, and Jamie accidentally travels back in time to 1987 where she is determined to stop the killer before he can start.

Judd Overton: Several scenes in the film take place at a carnival, including on a Graviton ride called the Quantum Drop. There’s a fight sequence on the Quantum Drop during the climax of the film that not only had to incorporate its high centrifugal force, but also time travel. I knew from the beginning of the project that this was going to be complex. It was the first thing that really blew my mind when I read the script; I’d never seen anything like it. How the hell were we going to shoot it!?

The only place inside a Graviton that’s not affected by the centrifugal force is the center where the ride is operated from. We were never going to be able to shoot the whole scene from there so once we decided to shoot the scene on a stage; it was all about how to create the look of no gravity on a static Graviton, and a big piece of that puzzle was how to shoot the VFX plates. 

We strapped a Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera 6K G2 to the outside of the Graviton as it spun, using a super wide 14mm lens and rotating the ride at a variety of different speeds. We also shot static plates with a Blackmagic URSA Mini Pro 12K OLPF at different times of the day to cover all the comings and goings. In addition to the spinning plates for our green screen, we used a combination of lighting design, wind effects, and some cool stunt rigs to give the impression the ride was at full speed. At times the spinning effect was so realistic that people would need to step off the static ride to take a breather. The VFX plates outside the Graviton worked with the greenscreen on stage to show the speed ramping up as the Graviton—which also was a time machine—really accelerates and eventually takes off back to the future.

One thing in post production that helped sell the motion was using DaVinci Resolve Studio to add camera shake to the shots, so we could dial it up and down to increase the unsettling feeling of the set piece.

Keeping true to the period and in fact starting our time travel in an 80s photo booth made me really want to explore photographic effects for the time travel. We shot many test shots with long exposures and motion blur, and settled on a look where organic particles come apart and then form back together. Our final Quantum Leap shot was a combination of the in-camera motion blur effects, lighting, and a full 360-degree rotation of the inside of the ride—culminating in a push towards our star Kieran Shipka as she dissolves into bright white light.

Knowing that this scene was the crescendo of the film, we worked hard in pre-production, taking multiple visits to carnivals and chasing down a Graviton we could shoot. That, along with extensive storyboarding and stunt previs, meant that when we got to the shoot everything went like clockwork. I always set out to build the film in pre-production and get on the director’s wavelength to make sure we have all the best ingredients available, so that if/when things go awry on set, I have the head space to think quickly and pivot as required. Every film has its own unique challenges, but I feel like we really balanced the tone of slasher, comedy, and time traveling.