March 28, 2023
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Life & Culture

Short horror film spooks 1 million on Youtube

“Portrait of God” is a seven-minute short horror film with one character and a small production team that was shot in a dark studio over the course of five days. Its writer and director, Ithaca College senior Dylan Clark, uploaded the film to YouTube and it has since passed the 1 million view milestone after six months of being uploaded. 

The film follows a religious person preparing for a presentation about a painting called “Portrait of God,” which looks blank to most, but according to some, depicts a mysterious figure. “Portrait of God” can be found on Clark’s YouTube channel, which has 50,700 subscribers. Before Clark uploaded “Portrait of God” on Aug. 28, 2022, he was at around 23,000 subscribers.

Clark said the restrictions from the lack of money and time had an influence on the film’s concept and production. The film was paid out-of-pocket. He chose to film in room 140 in the Roy H. Park School of Communications since they were available, and the projector and black curtains already in the room inspired the film. Clark had the idea of a viral image that is perceived differently by different people, which informed the general concept of the film.

“Taking things that I wanted to do and finding a way to connect them all with the resources we had was really where the idea came from,” Clark said. 

The film was shot during finals week in Spring 2022 over the course of five days. Editing and post-production happened over the summer, and it was released on YouTube on Aug. 28. 

Clark said he has been making films since he was nine years old, making superhero films while he and his family were living in Germany. 

“I was really frustrated by the fact that they sucked so bad,” Clark said. “But I started watching horror stuff when I came back home to the states, and I got really into that.”

Clark specifically cites the DIY approach of the 1999 low-budget “Blair Witch Project” as an inspiration for him as a young filmmaker. 

In 2018, he uploaded “The Pretty Thing,” which was his first short film to gain a large audience on YouTube, with a now 1.3 million view count. Since then, he has made consistent uploads on his channel, including behind-the-scenes videos for some of the short films.

“I’m quite involved in, like, the YouTube shorthorror space,” Clark said. “And I’ve just watched a lot of it because, you know, to be a part of it, I think that that’s important.”

Clark said he is usually critical of his work, and he is not often satisfied with his films until he sees audience response.

“When I did the first cut of it, it was like 10 minutes, which is significantly longer than it ended up being, and I was like, ‘This is so terrible, I’m never showing this to anyone,’” Clark said. “It takes a while to become happy with your work.”

“Portrait of God” had a small team of seven and was not created for an assignment; it was done as a personal project. The lack of a deadline was freeing to the creative process senior Surina Belk-Gupta, assistant director and first assistant camera, said.

“When you’re doing a set for class, even though they often are fun, there’s a lot more pressure for everybody to know everything; it’s a bit more competitive, the time is much more restrictive,” Belk-Gupta said. 

Since it was a more casual project, production team members got to experiment with roles they are not as practiced in. Belk-Gupta was also the special effects makeup artist. She learned how to do the makeup for the film from a YouTube video. Clark’s roommate, senior Gavin Watt, was the sound recordist, and it was his first time doing sound for a film. 

“It was a very low production project that was solely based on what we wanted to do for fun,” Belk-Gupta said. “So it’s very cool seeing that it went to such a far audience in such a big extent.”

Clark said it was comforting to see positive reception from viewers, including theories and analysis from viewers, as well as fan art. As of February 2023, “Portrait of God” is his third most-viewed short film on YouTube and the third to surpass 1 million views. “The Pretty Thing and “Transfigure” (2021) are still the two most-viewed short films on his channel.

Belk-Gupta said she attributes the film’s positive reception in part to the lack of jumpscares, emphasizing that the plot is scary enough on its own. 

“Religion is such an interesting horror concept because there’s so many things engraved with religion that are so terrifying,” Belk-Gupta said. “Exploring the idea that God is a fearsome creature is just a terrifying concept.”

Senior Taylor Teusch, who was the director of photography for Clark’s thesis film, said creatively driven projects can feel forced out when there is a deadline involved.

“You kind of have to be, like, constantly manufacturing creativity,” Teusch said. “People who take the time to make something outside of class, it’s usually because that spark of creativity sort of hit them.”

Clark said the COVID-19 lockdown gave him enough time and creative freedom to lead him to success on YouTube. It was during this time that he started uploading more consistently.

“I kind of doubled down on uploading stuff and doing smaller projects and not worrying as much about putting 1,000% of my time and money for a whole semester into one project,” Clark said. “I could do a couple of projects and spend a lot of time on them.”

When Clark returned to Ithaca in Spring 2021, he said the people he met and the connections he made improved his short films. 

“Ithaca allowed me to find friends and build a network of people that I could rely on to help me boost the quality of some of the films I wanted to do even if they were small,” Clark said. “With ‘Portrait of God,’ I literally could not have done it without the small team that we had — that team was very much assembled by meeting them in classes and liking their work and liking who they were.”

Teusch said Clark’s specific and focused vision in directing makes for a smoother process when shooting. 

“Being on set with him, you could tell that he had spent a lot of his personal time really thinking through exactly how it was going to go,” Teusch said. “It saves a lot of time when you have, like, you know, put some forethought into what’s going to happen and why you want things to be a certain way.”

Belk-Gupta also works primarily in the horror genre, and she has worked with Clark multiple times. 

“He’s very collaborative, and we both share, like, a huge love of horror and a very specific kind of storytelling, and so we work together really well,” Belk-Gupta said. “He’s a very respectful director, but he also has, like, a very precise vision.”

Clark is studying in Los Angeles for Spring 2023 while working for Ghost House Pictures, a horror production company. He is looking to expand “Portrait of God,” using the short film as a proof of concept for a possible feature film. Clark is also working on bringing his thesis short horror film through the film festival circuit. His thesis film is not on YouTube yet because of premiere restrictions placed by film festivals. 

“YouTube lets you immediately release your work and potentially show it to a wide audience of real people,” Clark said. “But on the other hand, with festivals, you are getting more personal networking with fellow creatives, and it’s being seen by people who maybe could help your career in a different way.”

Belk-Gupta has also worked on many of her own horror films and shares a passion for them with Clark.

“It affects you more than the average movie because it really gets under your skin if it’s effective,” Belk-Gupta said. “It’s this genre that’s continuously ahead of the time and very forward thinking.”

Clark said horror appeals to him as a filmmaker because of how much the genre relies on visual presentation.

“You can get away with a horror film with no dialogue I think more effectively than some other genres,” Clark said. “You can get away with so much more for less in horror, so that’s really enticing as a filmmaker.”

But Clark said his main attraction to horror as a genre is that he loves it.

“Horror is like a filmmaker’s best friend as a genre,” Clark said. “And as someone who loves to consume horror anyway, it’s a natural pairing.”