On movie sets, rooms in houses are often built in the traditional three-wall style, their layouts arranged according to space on the soundstage rather than architectural realism. But the creators of supernatural horror thriller “Annabelle: Creation,” to be released Aug. 11 by Warner Bros., did something different.
After conferring about the best way to shoot the prequel to 2014’s “Annabelle,” director David F. Sandberg (“Lights Out”) and production designer Jennifer Spence created two complete to-scale sets of the house’s interior on Stage 26 at Warner Bros., Burbank, one for each floor.
The build created the perfect alignment of several visual elements. Such completeness was necessary because many of the shots move or point from one room to another, including an early scene where excited orphan girls explore the entire lower level in a single tracking shot.
The house was designed from scratch to adhere to Sandberg’s vision, making it a character in its own right. “The short films and features I’ve done were always in real locations,” he says, “where the location informs the action.”
Production designer Spence (currently working in Romania on “The Nun,” another spinoff in the expanding universe of “The Conjuring”) wanted a gothic farmhouse, referencing vintage floor plans and laying the entire scheme out on the ground to get a sense of the scale. “The whole story takes place inside this house, so I wanted it to be vast,” she says, adding that every shot was conceived in the original design phase, with the set planned and built around the shots.
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Sandberg says the result of all that work is clear on-screen, and not just in the visuals. “It feels like you’re in a complete house, a finished space, so it’s immersive,” he says.
Spence likewise threw herself into the project, designing, building and dressing details and even whole rooms the film didn’t necessarily use. “I wanted it to feel real not only for David but the actors. They know that level of detail is there, and it makes them feel good about being in that room.”
Control over the environment also gave Sandberg flexibility to improvise on the set. “The approach on ‘Annabelle’ was to not storyboard it so much but figure it out together on set,” he says.
An example of that is the way the set changed the story long after the script stage. Having seen enough scary closets in horror, Spence suggested two central elements — an old-fashioned dumbwaiter and a secret room under the grand staircase — that provide some of the most effective scares.
Sandberg says no matter where an idea comes from, he’s going to use it if it’s good: “That’s moviemaking — it’s very collaborative.”