Slamdance offers a high-tech thriller
January 20, 2015
Add one more worry to the growing list of insidious dangers on the Internet: your webcam.
After watching Branden Kramer’s debut feature "Ratter" you may never be able to take a selfie or Skype a friend again without wondering who else is peering at you through that little lens.
"Ratter," premiering in the Slamdance Film Festival feature competition on Saturday, is a psychological thriller shot almost entirely through the point of view of one woman’s interconnected gadgets.
For the uninitiated, ‘ratter’ is a term that refers to hackers who use Remote Access Trojans (RATs) to infiltrate computers and webcams. A quick Google search confirms they exist, posing real threats to unsuspecting victims.
In the first scenes we meet Emma, played by Ashley Benson. We look directly into her eyes through her laptop’s webcam as she gushes to her dad about her new life as a graduate student in New York City. She takes him (and us) on a bouncy tour of her apartment, whose walls will soon become a cage, haunted by an anonymous virtual intruder.
According to Kramer, who both wrote and directed "Ratter," the story was conceived five years ago when a friend discovered that her computer had an annoying glitch. The light that indicated her webcam was operating would turn on and off randomly.
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"I immediately thought ‘What if someone is behind that?’ and I began creating this narrative."
What he found was deeply disturbing. He also had a hunch it would make a good story.
Kramer, an experienced advertising copywriter and creative director, gathered fellow filmmakers Stefan Haverkamp, Jan Jaworski and Tom Kropp to help fast track a short narrative about a woman whose privacy is invaded by a ratter. The seven-minute short attracted two million views on Vimeo and was highlighted as a staff pick. With that encouragement, the four began to expand the short into a feature-length film.
Then Kramer received a bizarre email from a man claiming to be an agent with the FBI. He wondered whether the agency could use the short as a training tool. After confirming the agent was for real, Kramer said OK and adds that the short, titled "Webcam," is still being used as a PSA by the FBI’s cyber crimes division. The agent helped the team amass piles of research.
The true stories they uncovered were so disturbing, Kramer says, "We all covered our laptop cams with tape."
With Kramer’s script in hand, the filmmakers decided to shoot as much of the film as possible through regular handheld devices rather than standard digital movie cameras. The finished product is a compilation of footage from GoPros, iPhones and ultra compact, hand-held Black Magic cinema cameras.
That decision generated a host of challenges from lighting to editing. The cameras’ predominantly wide-angle lenses precluded the use of spot or key lights, so the filmmakers had to make do with natural light.
"It was filmed 100 percent with nontraditional cameras. It was very difficult for everybody and a little scary," Kramer recalls. "We really took a risk and we were lucky we had producers who believed in it."
Also, in order to reinforce the intimate view of Emma’s existence, Benson herself shot a lot of the footage. When someone pounds on her door in the middle of the night, Emma grabs her phone, calls a girlfriend and walks around "with" her to search the apartment.
"Ashley is fantastic, and very smart. She wanted to break out with that character and she pulled it off phenomenally," said Kramer.
They also chose not to score the film, deciding instead to let Emma’s ambient dance music, the chirp of her phone’s ringtone, the whir of a webcam stealing a snapshot and the jangling screeches of a video on rewind, ratchet up the tension.
Over the course of the narrative, the anonymous ratter reduces Emma’s personality from buoyant confidence to weeping paranoia and Slamdance audience members will likely cringe each time the light from her laptop’s webcam casts its glow on her pillow.
In addition to crafting a well-told thriller, Kramer said the filmmakers’ intention is to raise awareness of the dangers posed by Internet hackers.
"The takeaway is: we want people to be aware and respect the Internet. Being interconnected is amazing but can also be amazingly terrible," he said.
"Ratter" is Kramer’s first feature film and he said he is excited that it was selected by Slamdance.
"They are phenomenal. I really respect what they have done. Every film is watched, whether they know who you are or not, and the films are accepted on their merits alone. They select material they feel is very original and we are glad to be a part of that."
"Ratter" is premiering at the Slamdance Film Festival in the narrative competition. It will be shown at the Treasure Mountain Inn on Saturday, Jan. 24 at 8 p.m. and Wednesday, Jan. 28, at 2 p.m.
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