Tobe Hooper and TCM: A Low Budget Masterpiece

How Tobe Hooper Turned The Texas Chain Saw Massacre Into a Classic

We uncover the special brilliance and low budget ingenuity of Tobe Hooper in our Anatomy of Horror series. Only one man, Hooper, could have created possibly the most influential horror film of any era, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Click here to watch. In both part one and two, we discuss how a young Tobe Hooper, a film professor and documentary film camera man, was able to create history with none of the advantages of making a studio picture. But, like Liam Neeson’s character in Taken, Mr. Hooper had a particular set of skills. So, how the heck did he do it?

The Script

Hooper and co-writer Kim Henkel wanted to write a film that was both about and set in Texas. And this makes sense, because with an extremely low budget you want to film local. Texas is a place where they had connections, they lived there, and because of this, scouting location was much easier to do.

The film is about a group of early 20 somethings and every one of them represents the type of people that were valued during that era. There’s the young jock type and his sweet, pretty, new age girlfriend. You have the easy going intellectual type; the liberal, kind, pretty white woman, and the disabled brother. This was the future and the now. At the polar end is the Sawyer family. They represent war and carnage, the past. They are everything that world wants to and has forgotten. A family pushed to the fringes of society by technology and feasting on what is dead.

The Budget

It’s rumored the actual cost after post-production was somewhere in the realm of $90,000 to $140,00. Adjusting for inflation is around 600,000 t0 $840,00. That is not a lot of money. It sounds like a lot of money, but it’s not, not when you are shooting on film – even 16 millimeter film. Film is and was expensive, finite and time consuming. You have fewer takes to get the shots you need and if you run out of film you have no movie.

The Texas Chain Saw Look

A low budget means less time to shoot, so Hooper and company needed to be able to prepare to shoot as fast as possible before moving on to the next shot. To do that, they needed as little equipment as possible and that equipment had to be lightweight. They shot on an Éclair NPR, a 16mm film camera popular with documentary filmmakers because of its ability to quickly load and unload film. The camera itself was about 20 pounds loaded with a roll of film. Lighter than most cinema cameras, but too heavy to pull off some of the trickier shots they had planned. For those shots, they used a Bolex H16 which was a consumer level camera with different lens options. It weighed about 8 or 9 pounds loaded with a roll of film.

The film stock was 16 millimeter low contrast film. Low contrast means no heavy shadows, and that’s important when your main key light is the sun. The sun is the best friend to all low budget filmmakers but can also be a curse. It is usually a really harsh light and during most of the day will need both diffusion(lower intensity), as well as a neutral density filter(sunglasses for your lens). Since Hooper shot most of his film in the daylight, he needed a film stock that could limit intense shadows.

Now, the choice of shooting daylight works in Hooper’s favor. it enhances that documentary feel to it for one, and two, it’s way cheaper. Having the sun as your key light is worth the headache of constantly setting up and moving diffusion. It’s a light you don’t have to buy or rent and you don’t have to lug it around everywhere.

Tobe Hooper: The Documentary Camera Man

Tobe Hooper first dipped his toe into filmmaking as a camera man for documentary film. Hooper chooses a matter of fact, documentary style to shoot his first act.. Sometime in the late 1950’s and early 60’s direct cinema came to be. Direct cinema is a type of documentary film whose main objective was to be the antithesis of mainstream documentary. Documentary films had, at the time, become a vehicle for propaganda, rarely differing much from narrative film. Direct Cinema films were usually absent of any contact with the subjects of the film. The rules also entailed no narration and no interviews. The result was a “fly on the wall” type perspective, objectively watching the subtle details of the film’s subjects.

This style became a very popular aspect of documentary film thereafter, namely with network documentary programs. Even though these networks violated many rules of Direct Cinema, they adopted the “fly on the wall” aspect. In 1974, there were only 3 or 4 channels on TV and every station had their own news programs. People trusted theses programs. The news equaled the truth – it was a fact, and the news looked a lot like TCM did.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre looked real, like something you might see on the nightly news. After the opening sequence, much of it is shot on a wide angle lens, a lot like how a documentary film would be shot. Also, there is no soundtrack, only the radio and most of the time, the radio is playing the news, enhancing the realism.

Tobe Hooper: The Film Professor

When Sally and friends make it to her father’s dilapidated home, things change. This is something that is so subtle and nuanced that most people never even notice it. Look at this shot right here…

THIS is when Texas Chainsaw goes from being a documentary film into a horror film.

It’s a low angle dolly shot through the shrubbery, stylistically, this is classic horror. Sure, it’s still wide angle but there is so much character to it, not the matter of fact style of nearly every other shot before this. If you go back to the two scenes that precede this shot you will also might notice something else you may have previously missed.The soundtrack kicks in whereas it was practically non-existent before.

Right from the get go everything about the photography in these scenes are far more interesting and cinematic from the lighting, the shot composition, and the lens choices. This was not some happy accident. This was planned and executed at a historic level. You set the stage by convincing your audience that what they are seeing is real, and once you establish that you bring them the horror. When you shoot low budget, you have to rely on your strengths as a filmmaker to make up for the fact that you have so much going against you, and that is exactly what Tobe Hooper did.

Anatomy of Horror: The Texas Chain Saw Massacre Part 1 & 2

The Infinite Eleven’s Anatomy of Horror is a video series dedicated to the art of horror filmmaking and really, filmmaking in general. Our intent is to focus on directors who had complete artistic control of their vision, or at least most of the control of the film’s vision. By breaking down a film’s language, it can be extremely useful to those who are trying to develop their own skills as a filmmaker. Actually, it’s for anyone with a deep interest in how a director might go about directing a film. If you’d like to see the full filmmaking breakdown of Tobe Hooper’s classic The Texas Chain Saw Massacre then click here for part one and here for part two.


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Brian Robert Oliver
I love horror films. From time to time I'll make a short horror film or I might write about something horror related.

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