Success on a shoestring: Kyle Edward Ball reflects on the making of Skinamarink

How an Edmonton-made independent movie took the horror world by storm

In the summer of 2022, Kyle Edward Ball was getting ready to screen his artsy, lo-fi horror film – shot on a shoestring budget in his childhood home – for the first time at a festival in Montreal.

By the end of 2023, that same movie had become an international viral sensation, grossing more than US$2 million at the North American box office while also being heralded by publications like Variety and Rolling Stone as the best horror film of the year.

Suffice to say, it’s been a whirlwind 18 months for the Edmonton-based NAIT grad and filmmaker, and for Skinamarink, his debut feature.

Indeed, the story of how this independent movie took the horror world by storm is nearly as incredible as the plot of the film itself: an eerie, slow-boiling story about two young children who find themselves alone in their house at night as familiar objects start mysteriously moving and disappearing. The only thing keeping them company is the crackling of old cartoons on the TV – and the demon who wants to kill them.

Skinamarink’s success is a testament to Ball’s unique vision as a filmmaker, but it’s become more than that. It’s also a beacon of hope, to horror fans and fellow filmmakers alike, that there is still room in the cinematic landscape for work that goes boldly, even proudly, against the grain. And that this work can be done in places like Edmonton.

“My dream was that Skinamarink would be a surprise hit, but I figured: couch your expectations,” Ball (Digital Media and IT ’14) says now, a year after his film's streaming release. “And then it did. And it did in a really crazy way.”

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Keeping things small

kyle edward ball, nait grad and writer and director of skinamarinkBall always knew he wanted to make movies, and took courses in video as a student at Edmonton’s Victoria School of the Arts to start learning his craft.

After graduating high school, he turned to NAIT’s Digital Media and IT program, where he received a comprehensive crash course in all aspects of filmmaking.

“A big thing is that the program teaches you everything from editing to sound design to writing,” Ball says, noting that this is not as common as aspiring filmmakers might think.

“A lot of directors don’t have those basic 101 filmmaking skills, because they took more niche programs. But I do. And I feel very confident in that.”

While at NAIT, Ball’s teachers recognized his ambition early on.

“He’s a character, and I say that with lots of love and affection,” says Michael Jorgensen, a Digital Media instructor who specializes in narrative.

“He knows who he is. He’s got pretty strong opinions about himself and his work ethic and what he wanted to be. It’s easy for young people to get swayed by other people’s ideas of what they should be. Kyle’s a guy who really wrote his own story.”

"Kyle’s a guy who really wrote his own story.”

For his capstone project, for instance, Ball was part of a crew tasked with making a music video. He appreciated the skills that it took to work productively with a large group, but quickly realized it didn’t suit him as a filmmaker.

“I discovered I don’t like shooting big, overwhelming stuff,” Ball says. “A lot of the art and magic gets lost. I like to keep things small.”

‘Bite-sized nightmares’ and the entry to horror

After graduating NAIT, Ball started making his own short horror films, in which he recreated a series of childhood nightmares submitted by viewers on a YouTube page called Bitesized Nightmares. That’s where the idea for Skinamarink began.

A feature film seemed intimidating, so as a proof-of-concept Ball made what he calls a “medium-sized short film” called Heck that used a similarly grainy, found-footage aesthetic, and that pursued similar themes to the larger story he was already planning to tell.

“The whole concept of the short and the full-length movie were very personal feelings about being a kid and being afraid and feeling alone,” Ball says.

At the same time, he’d learned from his YouTube series that what a person might assume are private anxieties have a far wider resonance.

“If you do something really personal,” he says, “it’ll actually speak to a lot of people. Your feelings are not so different from other people’s feelings.”

With the proof of concept now under his belt, Ball was ready to shoot his first feature.

Eight days, $15,000, free coffee

jamie mcrae and kyle edward ball set up a scene for SkinamarinkBall shot Skinamarink entirely inside his childhood home – where his parents still live – in Edmonton, on a bare-bones budget of approximately $15,000.

That number includes the proceeds from a crowdfunding campaign, professional gear rented from the Film and Video Arts Society of Alberta (FAVA) using credits saved up by Skinamarink director of photography Jamie McRae (DMIT ’14), and other in-kind donations (like Ball’s parents providing coffee and snacks).

The shoot itself was equally economical, taking just eight days of filming, including camera tests.

Despite its intentionally amorphous presentation, Skinamarink was fully scripted by Ball ahead of shooting, with precise notes about every muttered line of dialogue or ominous shot of TV static.

“From day one, I wanted it to look and sound like a poorly preserved 1970s movie, with lots of hiss and hum and grain,” Ball says.

Ball shot Skinamarink entirely inside his childhood home – where his parents still live.

As he worked on finalizing the film in post-production, Ball hoped that Skinamarink might find its audience and become a word-of-mouth hit. But he also knew that the odds of this happening for any film were slim.

Plus, early feedback from friends on the rough cut was mixed.

“Their response was fairly lukewarm,” says Ball. “It’s hard when you’re doing an experimental movie that’s shot differently, where some stuff is up for interpretation and other stuff isn’t. It was difficult to gauge.”

The fast track from Edmonton to Hollywood

grainy dark image of nait grad kyle edward ball, writer and director of skinamarink

Skinamarink premiered in July 2022 at the Fantasia International Film Festival in Montreal, where it was an instant hit with audiences. Soon afterwards, Ball was offered a distribution deal from Shudder and IFC Films, with tentative plans for a small theatrical release.

But what really sent the movie’s buzz to the next level was an event that, at the time, terrified him: Skinamarink leaked, in full, onto the internet.

When he learned his film had been pirated, Ball had no idea what to do. Suddenly his work was being passed all around the internet, and – even more surreal – the responses were exactly what he’d been dreaming of: people were raving about it, excitedly discussing the finer points of its ambiguous ending and some even sending him fan art through X (formerly Twitter).

Yet Ball was too scared to engage with any of it because he felt like the film’s future was on the line. If too many people saw it for free, he worried, then maybe its potential streaming audience would disappear, and his entire deal would get cancelled as a result.

Luckily, when Shudder found out about the leak, they decided to use that word of mouth to the film’s advantage. They bumped up Skinamarink’s streaming release up nearly a full year, to January 2023, while IFC started planning a much larger theatrical release.

Ball now sees the leak as a good thing, but is cautious about taking too many larger lessons from it.

“If a movie is leaked before its release, it can be a death knell,” he says. “I don’t want people to think, ‘OK, I’ll just leak my movie and get a Shudder deal.’ That’s probably not going to happen for you.

“But the people who watched the pirated version, I have no ill will towards them. They don’t know the ins and outs of film distribution. They just found a movie one day and fell in love with it.”

From there, Skinamarink only continued to climb. It opened theatrically on more than 600 screens across North America, including a screening at Los Angeles’s Ace Theatre, which Ball attended in person and which was introduced by comedian and horror aficionado Patton Oswalt.

Film critics across North America sang its praises, too – Variety’s Owen Gleiberman wrote that what happens in Skinamarink “sneaks up on you so quietly that you aren’t just scared; you believe.”

When asked to choose the most memorable moment of the film’s reception to date, he can’t decide.

“There are so many!” Ball says. “And they keep happening!”

‘It sets a new benchmark'

jamie mcrae and kyle edward ball set up a scene for SkinamarinkAs Edmontonians have cheered Skinarmarink on, its success – along with recent high-profile film shoots in town like HBO’s The Last of Us – has made other local filmmakers optimistic that it might bring more attention to the local scene as a whole.

“As someone who makes movies in Edmonton, I know how difficult it is,” says Brandon Rhiness (Radio and Television – TV ’00), whose latest film, Grotesque 2, is currently raising funds for post-production.

It also shares a cast member with Skinamarink in Jaime Hill, who plays the (mostly) absent mother in Ball’s movie.

“What Skinamarink has achieved is absolutely amazing,” Rhiness says.

“When you’re in the trenches, trying to make a movie that breaks even, sometimes you just despair. The fact that a movie from Edmonton, made by people we know, has achieved that success, it sets a new benchmark.

"It may not happen every time, but it is possible.”

Ball himself is similarly hopeful for the future. While he’s enjoyed following the success of his debut, it’s clear that he prefers to keep his focus on his work – specifically, on his second feature film, going into pre-production this spring.

While Ball is reticent about the specifics of the new project, he says it is another horror film, and that the wild success of Skinamarink means he will have a significantly larger budget this time around.

"I have the same insecurities – if anything, they’ve increased."

Despite his new status internationally, however, he isn’t straying too far from his roots. He’s hopeful the new film will be shot in Edmonton and is approaching it the same way he did last time.

“The filmmaker that I am now is not that different than who I was three, four years ago,” Ball says. “With all this wind at my back now, I have the same insecurities – if anything, they’ve increased.

“But I also have the same positive things. When I was writing this last script, I had the exact same emotions I had with Skin. And I’ve used that as feeling that I’m on the right track.”

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