Welcome back to Unsung Hero, a feature dedicated to bringing attention to actors, directors and other folks behind our favorite films who might not be in the spotlight as much as they deserve. This edition is going to Unfriended cinematographer and co-producer Adam Sidman.
We’ve seen our fair share of computer use, social media and video calls on the big screen, but nothing compared to what Sidman was challenged to do in Unfriended. The movie takes place entirely on one character’s computer screen. She starts up a Skype call with her friends, plays some music on Spotify, sends a few instant messages, but then notices that there’s an unknown Skype user on the call with them, someone claiming to be Laura Barns, a girl from their high school who committed suicide a year ago. There’s panic, screaming, black outs, violence and gore, and all of it is captured right there on the Skype call.
If you’ve been skeptical about Unfriended, it’s totally fair. This isn’t an easy thing to pull off, but the scenario actually plays exceptionally well and it’s in large part due to Sidman and the camera system he created.
Who he is …
Sidman knew he wanted to work in film at a young age, but didn’t really know what that meant. “When I was a kid, making movies meant doing every part of it – writing, shooting, directing, editing – but in an industry that is so specialized I enjoy being able to both produce and still shoot.” He worked at a Colorado TV station when he was 14 and then at 16, he took a gig as a grip to get a better sense of what it was like to work on bigger productions. When the time came to choose a major at Harvard, Sidman was still sure he wanted to wind up in the film industry, but he didn’t know if a degree in film would get him there so he majored in mechanical engineering instead.
Where you’ve seen his work …
Sidman’s served as supervising producer for shows on Discovery, National Geographic, SPIKE and Animal Planet, and also contributed to pitches that went to series including A&E’s Duck Dynasty and shows for Shark Week. On top of that, Sidman holds patents for a handheld gyroscope-based camera stabilization device, a cost-efficient and compact camera rig that allows the operator to maintain fluid maneuverability all across a film set.
Why he deserves your attention …
When Timur Bekmambetov and screenwriter Nelson Greaves found out that Sidman had two US patents on a handheld servo-based camera stabilization device, they knew he could handle the technical challenges of Unfriended. In order to shoot the movie on webcams, Sidman designed something similar to a surveillance system with Sean Goller, the digital imaging technician on the film. All six actors had their own room in a house and their own laptop with a GoPro mounted to it. Those GoPros were then hard-wired to a surveillance box with the capability to put multiple camera views on a single screen, that way all the actors could see each other in real time without worrying about a poor connection.
Sidman also had a unique lighting challenge to address. He wanted to be able to light the actors using the glow from a computer screen, but it wasn’t bright enough. In order to amp that up while still making the visuals feel natural, he soldered LED strip lighting around the edge of the screens, brightening the characters’ faces and also creating a darker, more ominous background. The one drawback to this technique is that if the actors opted to move around a bit, the strips could fall off, so they did spend a good deal of time heating up the soldering iron and fixing wiring on occasion.
At this point the system doesn’t have an official name, but Sidman joked and temporarily dubbed it “The Sidman-Goller System for Desktop-Based Movie Production.” No matter what they call it, hopefully Sidman and Goller continue to put it to good use because it’s a game-changer for depicting computer-based video calls on screen.
As I noted in my full review, one of the film’s most impressive achievements is how natural everything feels. Even if Greaves came up with a downright brilliant, airtight narrative, Unfriended never would have worked if the characters weren’t using these very familiar computer applications in a realistic manner, something that very few filmmakers are able to facilitate. The Unfriended team, however, absolutely nails it across the board. The way Blaire (Shelley Hennig) takes her cursor from the Skype conversation to an instant message to Facebook and back again is right in line with how I navigate my own monitor on a regular basis. And all of the music cues are right on point too, especially that terrible noise Macs make when issuing a reminder or alert.
It’s certainly a joint effort, but it’s also quite clear that Unfriended never would have been as successful without Sidman and this camera system. I’d expect a movie like this to cheat a bit and break from the laptop point-of-view using security camera footage or perhaps a flashback, but Unfriended never does, nor does it need to. Even though you’re essentially watching the action from the same point-of-view from start to finish, Unfriended is incredibly captivating thanks to how closely the camera system mimics real webcam use. These actors are sitting in their own rooms watching each other on a computer. If that doesn’t set the scene and help put them in the appropriate headspace, I don’t know what would.
Sidman also deserves some serious credit for composing six especially telling and stimulating webcam shots that up the suspense tenfold as the situation intensifies. Blaire is all smiles in her neat, clean, colorful room while Mitch’s (Moses Jacob Storm) place feels more masculine, but uses the same color palette, instantly conveying that the two of them go together. We’ve also got Ken (Jacob Wysocki) who’s kicking back behind what’s clearly a more substantial desktop computer, teasing his special set of skills. Soon after contributing some character development and helping establish the dynamic amongst the group, Sidman’s framing and lighting choices change just enough to subtly suggest that something isn’t quite right. As intended, the light becomes a bit brighter on their faces resulting in darker, creepier backgrounds.
Again, Unfriended is a solid horror movie all-around, but it’s abundantly clear that Sidman’s work was instrumental in turning the core concept into a dynamic, engaging and highly effective film. Not only is Sidman a filmmaker who knows exactly what’s necessary to bring a specific story to screen, but apparently he’s able to make those resources on his own if need be.
Where you can see his work next …
After working on Unfriended, Sidman became the president of US production for Bekmambetov’s company so he will have more work coming out via Bazelevs Productions down the line. He teased, “We aim to create visually innovative and high concept films and also tell unique stories with traditional filmmaking. There are so many independent films being made and we want to tell good stories in new ways. We are just at the beginning of movies like Unfriended as well.” As for his future as a cinematographer, he insisted, “I will never put down the camera.”