Filming a Feature in a Single Take: BTS on Last Call
We shot a feature film in a single take.
No, you heard me right. A single take. Actually two single takes. Excuse me? Oh, you want to know if there are any hidden cuts. No, you’re not following me. The two single takes work side by side for the entire duration of the film’s running time.
Let me step back a little and explain the production of Last Call.
How it All Began
As a filmmaker, I have forever been obsessed with long-take storytelling. I love films like Jaws that would play out scenes in moving masters or the famous intro in Touch of Evil which was at one point the longest single take in cinema history. There there are so many wonderful single shot music videos. The list goes on and on.
Once digital video arrived and removed the time limitations associated with film, we were ushered into a new era: the ability to make an entire film in true real time. Timecode and Russian Ark were the first of these new films on my radar. Mind blown. I was hooked.
My writing and producing partner, Daved Wilkins, came to me with a short-film concept of a man placing a desperate call for help. Our minds immediately turned to ways that the tension could sustain, never letting the audience have a breather of what comes next. Real-time allows for just that.
Then we decided to over complicate things...we wanted to show both sides of the phone call in complete real-time from opening frame to end credits. In order to accomplish this, we had to think differently with almost every department. We would rehearse like a stage play but shoot like a film.
Gearing Up for Real-Time Filmmaking
We needed two cameras and two sound crews simultaneously filming in different locations. Two sets of perfect sound, perfect focus pulling, perfect actor performance, and perfect lighting.
Our DP, Seth Wessel-Etes, and I previously collaborated on a single-take music video and a heavy subject matter short film, Just 20 that ran twenty minutes in a single shot. I knew right away that Seth would be up for the challenge Last Call presented.
In Los Angeles, before traveling to Canada for the shoot, Seth and I shot a new single-take music video in 8K using the RED Weapon Helium camera as a test for what we hoped to achieve for the film. At the same time, we used the music video to test the Tilta Nucleus-M follow focus handles and Zacuto rigging for the handheld look the film would have. That music video, When The Sh*t Hits The Fan by Bleu, was a success, and we felt confident moving forward with this as our camera set up.
We worked hard to find a balance between the best camera image possible for our feature-length runtime while also having a media storage solution for 8K. We also needed a rig that wasn’t too bulky for the operators for such a long take. The Zacuto EVF Recoil for RED DSMC2 cameras allowed for the camera operator to also be their own focus puller, eliminating a crew member.
Due to limited space, we decided to go without a boom operator with each camera unit. Losing a 1st assistant for camera and a boom operator for sound left us with a much great chance of not catching shadows or reflections from the crew. It also created an easier path, with more freedom for the actors and camera to move through the locations, creating a more dynamic film.
Our gaffer, Doug Cunningham, had the challenge of lighting our bar location, an entire college location, the interior of a vehicle, and our apartment location at the same time. We needed full 360-degree use of the space for the entire shot without a single stand or cable in frame. He used a mixture of available practical lights and lights that could be placed on camera and made to look practical. In the apartment, there was little room for additional lighting other than the practical lamps and ceiling fixtures.
Rehearse Rehearse Rehearse
Our rehearsal process ran for ten days. We spend the first five days with all cast and crew rehearsing in the same location. Actress Sarah Booth would be at actor Daved Wilkins’ location making the phone call and vice versa at the other location. This allowed for Seth and me to work through a camera path and actor blocking, working together to design a single compelling shot when ultimately seen side by side. We would rehearse six hours at one location and then spend the second half of the day at the next.
The following five days split up the units, beginning rehearsals as the movie would be created. As this was both technical and performance rehearsal, we were able to film all of it. In the evening, with a rough sound mix and rough edit, we were able to watch it as a team and discuss changes for the next day in all aspects. Day by day we could see the improvements in lighting, camera, sound, and performance.
And, Action! (x8)
With everything running smoothly, it was time to move into actual production days. Our approach was to film the movie twice per night for four nights. This would give us eight versions of the film to choose from. Ultimately we would have to pick just one.
Given that each take had variations in time and performance, there was no way to marry one side of the story from say take three with the other side from take seven. It was also never our intent to try. From the four nights of production, we managed to get five full versions of the film and three that had technical errors part way through the run. While shooting, we had all felt strongest regarding a take from our third of production. Turns out gut instinct might be a thing; that was the take we chose!
I’m very proud of the entire cast and crew. We asked them to step up their game on a shoestring budget and the results are fantastic. I think back five or ten years and wonder if we could have achieved the same film without the technical advancements in cameras and filmmaking gear. I’m not sure that it would be even close to the same.
I’m excited to share the film with the world very soon. We are taking this challenge to another level and recording the film’s score live in a single-take to match what we did with the storytelling. If I didn’t earn enough grey hairs on the first portion of this project, check back with me in a few weeks!
To end things here, I think I’ll leave you with saying: if you have a crazy idea you are chasing, chase it. We were told by many folks not to try making a film this way. We were told we didn’t have enough money, enough time, enough crew to make it happen. We were told flat out that it wouldn’t be possible to get the film in a single take and that we should plan for hidden cut points.
The bolder the idea you are pursuing the more it will scare people that lack ambition. Don’t let their lacking motivation steal from yours. Push through, find your people, and make your art. There are a million things we could have done “better” but then… we wouldn’t have the perfect little indie film we found in being rebels.
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