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FILMMAKER: Carl Mason
STORY: The Making of First Response, a Genre-Bending Short Film Shot in a Single Take
Creative constraints are the mother of innovation.
We prepared for the single take nature of ‘First Response’ very early on. It wasn’t initially conceived as a one-shot film during the writing stages of pre-production, however due to the time and budget constraints we were going to have, it was clear we would have to be clever with how we shot the film, and I think these constraints worked in our favour.
We didn’t tackle the one-take approach simply for a technical feat; the benefits of having just one continuous shot is that we were able to hide certain elements from the audience. We don’t discover the true nature of the police situation and why the man is in the car until the reveal at the end - so we wanted the audience to discover and form their own interpretations as the film develops.
Sadly, our crowdfunding campaign wasn’t successful, but I decided to go ahead with making the short regardless with a budget of £1,500, most of which went straight to expenses and production - meaning we could only afford to hire the marked police car for one evening for 5 hours. I therefore worked with our screenwriter Alex Sutton to tailor the screenplay so it was simply contained around the car.
Preparation built confidence, and allowed for a tight schedule
Extensive camera moves which would take a lot of time to pull off could be kept to a minimum to allow for more shooting time on the day, allowing us to rehearse with a stand-in car in the meantime. This meant by the time I approached the cast and crew I was confident we were only doing this as a single take, and it was just a case of how we could pull such a thing off without much time or money.
I met with our Director Of Photography Jack Shelbourn really early on in pre-production in person and via Skype, in order to discuss the setups around the car and how I imagined it would look.
The whole production of ‘First Response’ was actually inspired by a Film Riot episode about lighting cars at night, so we used that and other car setups such as ‘Locke’ as inspiration for the visual style of the film - something really quite dark and ‘contrasty’ with these small spots of light to pick up certain actions and draw the audience’s eye.
Because this was a one-take, and we weren’t cutting, we wouldn’t have to stick to any rules or conventions about camera placement - allowing us to move around to opposite sides of the car during the take to reveal key plot points; however, that meant there wouldn’t be any place for us to hide any lights outside of the car due to reflections and shadows.
In order to try and overcome this, Jack rigged small Litegear LED strips inside of the car and let the blue police lights fill the outside so they were lit separately, which gave us some room to work with after some experimentation; but also took time out of our already very tight schedule which put pressure on Jack and the camera department - who handled it exceptionally.
Storyboarding allowed us to test ideas before production
I’m not particularly the biggest fan of storyboarding, so I usually tend to go in somewhat blind to a shoot and go from there - that suits me. However doing such a thing when trying to pull off a oner would have been a foolish mistake. I needed to be confident that I knew exactly what I needed to do, so by the time I got to set I could walk through with the 1st A.D, Jack Meredith, what we needed to achieve both from an action and camera perspective so he could then keep us on track to guarantee we got everything we needed.
In order to achieve this, I sat with my friend and talented local artist Lucie Ward at a cafe early on in pre-production, and we walked through each section of the script and created detailed storyboards of each of the proposed setups so I could get a clear idea of what may be possible.
Even though certain elements of how we staged the scene may have been different on the day, it at least made me confident in some of my ideas - and having someone there dedicated to drawing out the shots to relay my ideas to was so helpful in making sure I wasn’t going insane trying to pull it off, allowing me to discuss and improve certain elements in detail.
During production it was all about preparation, not just for the cast to nail their performances but also for the camera and sound department so they could perfect their moves so we could shoot at it knowing even though we had a short amount of time, we were fully prepared.
Therefore we made sure we allocated enough time in the schedule for rehearsals, with two solid days dedicated to block and rehearse the scene to find and sort any potential issues, so it became muscle memory by the time of actually shooting.
There is debate with conducting numerous rehearsals that performances may become less and less authentic with each rehearsal. To pull a film like this off, however, it is so important everyone is prepared to hit their marks - no one wants to be the person who screws the take up meaning you have to start from the top.
I can’t imagine what it must have been like shooting ‘Victoria’.
Always be prepared for the unexpected
Looking back I don’t think any of us were prepared for the amount of issues that we actually faced during shooting. It is so important you allow enough time for contingency in the schedule in case things do go wrong.
Rehearsals had been so smooth but when we got to the shoot, issues like torrential rain, the car running out of fuel, batteries and media running low, boom shadow and light reflections all meant that the shoot was delayed - resulting in production going over schedule which, when shooting at midnight in a residential area, was a risk.
It was frustrating for us all having to reset mid-way through a great take, but everyone involved knew these were the constraints with filming a oner so we tried to make sure we all stayed happy and calm to guarantee we got the film shot - and the perseverance from the team made that possible. Thankfully after 15 takes in what would be 4 hours of shooting we had got a successful useable take, and boy did I feel relieved.
Some would think the benefit of a one-shot film is that there isn’t much post-production, but they would be so wrong. Even though there wasn’t much of an edit, elements such as the grade were made somewhat more complicated having to grade one continuous take with a bunch of tracking mattes moving and transitioning simultaneously to hide the grade.
Our colourist, George Cooper, did a fantastic job however, grading the film accordingly and hiding the occasional shadow or reflection so the audience was never distracted by any of our mistakes.
Once our vfx artist, sound designer and composer finished with it, the one-shot felt right for creating the relevant tension through hiding certain elements from the audience as we had originally intended - becoming one of the first shorts I am genuinely proud of with what we achieved.
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