The Ruins Production Design and Cinematography

“The story starts in a fairly idyllic way,” says production designer Grant Major. “It's coastal and loaded with color - blue sky, yellow sun, creamy, sandy beach. That was all reflected in the design of the film's first sequence. Then this journey moves into the forest that's not all beautiful. It's dirty and the light gets darker, dingier. Finally, the characters end up on the Mayan hill and even though they're outside, or in some cases inside the burial chamber, it's all about creating a sense of isolation and claustrophobia.”

Adds Smith, “When you put all that together, it helps create a dark mood. The audience might not realize what's going on, but if it's all done right then they'll definitely feel it.”

As with all his other projects, Major researched the period and cultural details in his creation of the Mayan ruins. “This film is set in Mexico, so the touristy areas were easy to recreate,” he says. “The Mayan environment on the Yucatan Peninsula required a lot more research and work. There are certainly Mayan pyramids we could have visited, which are historical monuments, but it's not as though we could just show up with a crew and take over for weeks at a time to study them in detail and then make the film. We needed to be able to put gear on it and move items around, so the only way to achieve that was to build our own pyramid.

“We researched various pyramid styles from the Mayan culture and then textural rock patterns from other areas,” Major continues. “Then it all had to be adapted to the drama that takes place on top of the pyramid. It all had to be designed around that dynamic. Ultimately, it took us about seven weeks to build the top and bottom parts of the pyramid, which was pretty fast for such a big build. Thankfully, I had a great team.”

Tying all the looks together was director of photography Darius Khondji, ASC, A.F.C., who had previously worked with Smith. “I was laughing with Carter because he's also a photographer, and you usually try to take care of actors and actresses to make them look beautiful. But on this film we decided to change that.”

Smith and Khondji discussed how the beginning of the film would be attractive because the mood was fun and it's sexy. But then, little by little, it all shifts. “We started with a soft light and a mosaic of colors and then started scratching them a bit and getting much harsher with the light. I wanted to find a really gritty look, even with the characters themselves, so they would kind of become a reflection of their circumstances and look raw, ugly. I also used much more physical camera work than I've done before so that things would feel slightly chaotic and just slightly out of everyone's control.”

While Smith acknowledges that “The Ruins” is a rough movie containing both obvious and subtly disturbing elements, he points out that “Horror movies are one of the only genres in which audiences experience a very physical, visceral reaction to what they are seeing on screen. People enjoy yelling and screaming and sinking into their seats or glancing away from a moment that's particularly uncomfortable. All that's great. There are very few types of films where you get that physical response. So for me the best way to give the audience that release was to establish a very real world with very real characters, tease them with tension, then show glimpses of the most realistic horror I could produce. And if all that aligns and the audience experiences a physical reaction toward the film, then I think we achieved our goal.”

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