Published on: 21 January 2020 in Events
Challenge TRINITY 2020 — an interview with the directors
Reading time: 30 minutes and 3 seconds
Challenge TRINITY gives Directors UK members the chance to get their hands on an ARRI TRINITY holding an ALEXA Mini LF, and the opportunity to team up with experienced, top-notch TRINITY operators to make a film...in one shot.
We spoke to the winners of Challenge TRINITY 2020 about how they made their films, in partnership with ARRI. Below you can read the thoughts of directors Charlotte George (Lurker), Bojan Brbora (Surprise), Paul Romero Méndez and Arturo M. Antolín (Ruth), Shona Charlton (The Sacrifice), and Markus Meedt (Bad News) about this unique — and demanding — directing experience.
Can you tell us a little bit about your film? What it’s about; where did the idea come from; how did you decide to approach the theme?
Charlotte George: Lurker is a twist on the myth about the monster under your bed (or is it a myth...?) Coming up with a one-shot short film idea was a different approach for me (it was sort of reverse engineering a script!) and I thought about it for weeks before settling on the monster under the bed idea. I tried to think of a visually striking idea that also suggested a bigger story.
Bojan Brbora: Surprise is set up as a thriller but then turns into something completely different. It’s about stereotypes and clichés in film, and how they are best used with a twist. The other theme is one of best laid plans going completely wrong, and having to roll with the punches, which, again, is a common theme in filmmaking and in life itself. The approach was to set it all up as a serious, though slightly over the top, thriller that drops little hints of the bizarre and weird as it develops before revealing the twist. I also wanted to feel like there is a world outside of this film, that these characters are connected to each other and that this is a scene within a longer feature film that poses enough questions for people to be interested in how everything came to be and what happens next.
Makus Meedt: Bad News takes place in the five-minute countdown before the taping of a live broadcast Breakfast Show, who happen to host a leading political figure, moments after a potential scandal about him goes public. The film follows the diverse characters in front of and behind the camera, who try and make the most out of the situation from a professional and personal perspective.
The idea for the short came to life in early 2017, amidst the Brexit chaos. There seemed to be a confused approach by the media and the politicians alike. Everyone was keen to choose sides. Politicians were scrutinised for their personalities rather than their political capabilities, and some other personalities became political despite their lack of...well,everything.
I wanted to make a film that delves into this divide, without a political agenda. But I also wanted the film to be about what’s important! Without wanting to give too much away, Bad News is fundamentally a love story about compromise and hope.
Paul Romero Méndez + Arturo M. Antolín: Ruth is a short film that tells the story of an elderly woman suffering from dementia who becomes lost within her own home. As she tries to find answers, she ends up losing herself further, confusing reality with memories of her past self.
We had talked about working together for some time now and when we saw the announcement of Challenge TRINITY we thought it would be a great opportunity, so we started throwing around ideas that we felt could work and hold up as a one shot. Our main requirement was that we wanted to use the long-take technique as a part of the narrative, not just as a fun stand out element of the film, it had to be necessary for the story.
Paul had worked on a dementia related project in the past, something that never got produced, but since then he had been thinking about a way of making a film that could put the audience in the position of a person suffering from dementia, so they could experience the fear and uncertainty first hand.
Shona Charlton: I knew I wanted to explore the potential of the ARRI TRINITY system to sustain heightened emotions through movement. Also, I wanted to make a film that was more personal, about identity and community. With these two targets in mind, I came up with one of the most emotional real-life stories I filmed as a documentary filmmaker.
In 2005, I was commissioned to make a documentary about forced marriages and honour crimes in Britain called For Love or Izzat that was televised across South Asia. I was given special access to be able to interview girls who survived horrific ordeals, married off at very young ages to much older men. In one case, a 15-year-old girl was helped by her elder sister, having both been married off to and held captive by the same family in rural Bangladesh, to escape back to England. The story of Leila and Margot is inspired by theirs.
In The Sacrifice, a young Bangla girl from East London is being forcibly married to an older man, and her older sister is determined to help her escape a fate she herself endured. She recruits the help of her sister’s teenage girlfriend to find a way out. Meanwhile, to appease the overtly religious in-laws, a goat is sacrificed before the ceremony.
What has the TRINITY shooting package allowed you to explore that you otherwise couldn’t have done, and what did being selected as a Challenge TRINITY filmmaker mean for you and your project?
BB: I’ve always been excited by long take scenes and shorts as they do feel very immersive, everything happening in real-time, a form of film theatre. They also help raise tension, as audiences are used to cuts and editing in film, so when there isn’t a cut they feel a heightened sensation of “something big is going to happen”. The TRINITY package is a very interesting piece of equipment, as it builds on the strengths of the steadicam and takes away most of the drawbacks. The fact that you can go from a low angle to a high angle all in one shot, while also keeping the horizon level and the moves organic and floating helped me explore the world we created and create a form of fluid editing to end up on exact shots and heights at each story beat, something that wouldn’t be possible with any other system. Being selected for Challenge TRINITY was the best thing that could have happened to round off 2019, as I was really looking to push myself and develop my directing skills.
SC: One of the effects of shooting a long take film with something like the TRINITY is to conceal the artifice of cinema, this distance the audience has from what is occurring onscreen. For me, this was the primary advantage, the ability the TRINITY rig gives you to make the viewer an active participant in the narrative. With the TRINITY system, I feel the Camera became an extension of the heart. I used it to sketch a steep emotional arc, from a dark beginning to the lift and promise of young love.
I wanted to make this story as viscerally unforgettable as possible. I remember one of my notes to my amazing TRINITY Operator, Sebastien Joly, was that I wanted the audience to feel a “bit sick”. Not something a skilled camera operator wants to hear! But he immediately understood. I also told him I wanted the audience to “fall in love” with the character of Margot, making the short time she is onscreen an emotional lift from the darkness that came before. He completely got that too.
MM: While the plan for Bad News was always to be shot in one take, having the TRINITY package allowed us to approach this execution a lot more comfortably. Most locations we could afford or were available had narrow corridors and door frames, too tight for most steadicam or gimble set ups. We also wanted the camera to freely move up and down on a vertical level, to catch the characters at different heights and emphasise their control by freely moving below or above their eyeline. Once we had the TRINITY confirmed we even wrote in some gags (about socks) that pushed the equipment to work on all axis.
We also had access to the very impressive ARRI Signature Primes, which looked stunning on the large frame sensor. There is a width to the frame I haven’t come across before. Moving in and out of differently lit spaces never seemed to push the sensor either. Switching focus from close foreground to deep background quite regularly throughout the film never feels strenuous. I was very impressed and delighted to be working with such high-end equipment and our operator Sebastien Joly.
CG: I had been planning to make another short film after a career break to have a baby, so this was a terrific opportunity — partly because it gave me deadlines! But also, because it forced me to approach the project in a new way and create something very different from my previous work.
PRM + AMA: The project was created specially for Challenge TRINITY, so it’s fair to say that without it we wouldn’t have made the film. From the start we designed the film thinking of it being filmed in a single take with the TRINITY shooting package in mind. It forced us to think ahead from the beginning of the writing process, visualising the film and how the camera would move and what we would see in each individual moment. Basically, when writing the script we had to think about writing, filming and editing simultaneously.
It was only thanks to the shooting package provided by ARRI that we were able to shoot the film that we made. Knowing all the capabilities of the TRINITY system and the ARRI camera lenses, we were able to design (at the script stage) a film that wouldn’t have been possible without that equipment. A simple steadicam system wouldn’t have been able to pull off some of the camera moves that we needed for the film. There’s no denying that without this excellent and very specific equipment we wouldn’t have been able to create the film.
Being selected for Challenge TRINITY was a great honour, it helped us create something that without being chosen would never have seen the light of day. It’s great that ARRI and Directors UK are helping to push and support less experienced directors like ourselves to make projects like these, which would normally be out of our reach.
SC: In terms of what it meant for me and my project, it gave me the creative freedom to tell the story my way, using this incredibly advanced bit of kit was crucial. With Directors UK and ARRI on board, it attracted some incredible talent to the project, both cast and crew. It meant I could make a film that may be difficult to make commercially. The high-profile nature of the filmmaking scheme means more people will see it and become aware of the issues surrounding forced marriage. The life the film will have after completion is one that a new director can only dream of. Starting with being screened at the Vue West End, it is a real treat for my hard-working team and I am grateful the scheme allows me to offer that.
An unfortunate result of revisiting the issue of forced marriage was the reaction from certain sectors of the South Asian community. Back in 2005, I received death threats and angry emails. This time round, I had a whole support system back out of the project. From background dancers, local businesses and people who had agreed to be extras - all withdrawing their support because they were unwilling to support an anti-forced marriage film. I was suddenly back to square one. That the film got made at all is a testament to the commitment of my mostly female crew and their determination to see it through.
How much of a challenge was it to shoot the project in one shot, in such a short space of time?
MM: Ho-ly crap. I was trying to look casual on the day, but there were certainly moments when the soft ticking of a wristwatch felt like a hammer banging on a door. We went in with a slightly longer script than originally anticipated. And due to the large number of cast members, we couldn’t bring them together for a rehearsal or read-through beforehand. Fortunately, Mark Nutkins, our DoP and the cast came incredibly prepared. We had a schedule in place that allowed us to rehearse in the different spaces while camera and art department could set up next door.
We only had the location for nine hours including move in and out, so we had a movement plan for the cast and camera in place. After that, it was just tweaking walking pace and blocking of the cast and background to allow our operator as much space as possible. We ended up with only three full takes, which all got gradually better. Obviously, I would have loved to keep on shooting till the sun comes back out. But when we had the third take in the can, we all knew we had a good one, and it was time to call it a day.
CG: It was a challenge, but not an unexpected one because that was the whole point! We had the added complication, however, of a child actor, so we had to combine getting the shot technically right with the performance of an inexperienced eight-year-old.
SC: The first challenge is the very short lead time you get to prep such a complex shoot. And also that you’re filming in November, possibly the dreariest and rainiest of months in England! When I called my DOP, Pascale Neuschafer, who had filmed one of my previous short films, she immediately guessed that the transition from dreary November evening to brightly lit interior were going to be a problem. Luckily, she gathered a great camera department: the amazing gaffer Gosia Prońko, spark Kuba Kubin, and focus puller Bradley Stearn. Together they figured out a way to make the dark church hall look warm and inviting while obliging me with the “rays of light” I was so obsessed with.
The hall was a last minute location change as well, since the previous location people were being obstructive. We had only the evening before the shoot and the morning itself to set up the lights and dress the set.
Casting was another challenge. We had to find two young teenage leads who could skateboard as well as act and one of them had to be South Asian! It can be hard to cast for any one of these characteristics on its own, finding all of them in one actor was formidable. Fortunately I had a particularly driven casting director, Martina Krajnakova, who found all the right people in such a short time. We held auditions over Skype for the supporting roles but Leila and Margot I auditioned in person. I had to see the actresses together to be certain the chemistry was right. However, finding a South Asian actor to play the halal butcher proved impossible. In the end I had to have a Belgian actor, Jean-Pierre Boriau, play this short but difficult role.
PRM + AMA: It was a big challenge. Our ambitious script was eleven pages long and had action in every room of the house over multiple floors. That meant that we had a lot of movement within a pretty tight space, which needed complex choreography between the camera and our lead actress, Ania Marson.
On top of that, due to the nature of the story we were telling, our most challenging moments from both a technical point of view and also for the performance were in the second part of the film, which meant an extra layer of pressure for our operator and our actors.
To some extent the difficulty of only having one day to film this was actually useful. The crew knew how difficult it was to pull it off and the limited attempts we would have, and you could feel it on set. Everyone was ultra-focused and on the top of their game. You could feel people holding their breath as we were reaching the most challenging moments of the take and everyone would explode in cheers when we managed to pull it off. It was a really rewarding experience. We learnt to work in a super-efficient way to get the most out of the day.
BB: It was a massive challenge, especially as the film is nearly 7 minutes long with so many moving parts. We basically squeezed a three-day shoot into one, which is a testament to the amazing team that I had. The struggle started in prep as we had to find a single location that worked for the exterior and interior, while sorting all the permissions and logistics, while keeping it super low budget. We had less than two months from finding out we won to being on the actual shoot day, so I had many sleepless nights trying to put it all together. Fortunately, with the help of amazing producers and heads of department it all came together last minute. It was the most difficult thing I have ever done and it pushed me to the limit, which is what a good challenge is all about.
Have you got any future plans for your Challenge TRINITY short?
SC: The film will be entered into, and hopefully, screened at festivals around the world. Following that I would continue to arrange screenings and arrange discussions around the subject. I did have a feature script that continues from where The Sacrifice left off but I will be rewriting it to accommodate the newer skills I have acquired during this production!
PRM + AMA: We completed the film very recently, so we haven’t had much time to think about the next phase of it, but we’re planning on sending it to select festivals. We have got some great feedback so far, so we’re hoping for a good festival run, after which we’ll put it online for everyone to watch.
CG: The usual festival entries. And I hope it will provide a good calling card.
BB: I’ve got big plans for Surprise, we’ll push it out to as many festivals as we can, and also use it as a platform to get funding for longer form projects in the future. It’s also a good showcase for directing short but complex scenes so it’s a great thing to have in the portfolio to promote myself as a director.
MM: We are trying to hit the short film festival market with it, while the film has some current relevance — it’s nice to ride the wave as it gathers momentum.
Beyond the technical execution, I hope the film also works as a solid showpiece for performance focussed directing. As I work a lot in advertising, I don’t get to do a lot of dialogue lead work. I love story driven performances that guide the audience through a journey with a satisfying conclusion at the end. I hope Bad News can help the team to find work in the future, that lets us explore the technical and emotional elements of film making we love.
What advice would you give to others thinking of applying for next year’s Challenge TRINITY?
PRM + AMA: Our main advice would be to really think about using the single-take element as part of the narrative of the film. It’s easy to get lost in the really cool aspects of it and how good it might look or where you can push it... but ultimately you need to think about what the technique adds to the film. If your story can be told equally or more effectively in a different way (without being a oner) then it’s probably not the right story for the challenge.
Challenge yourself in the process. Be realistic about what you can achieve (from a practical and economical point of view), but don’t cut your own wings too early. Be ambitious when putting the story together, you will end up putting a lot of time into it, so make it worth it.
BB: Go wild with the idea, but keep the execution simple as you only have one day to rig, rehearse and shoot. The time runs out really fast so make sure you’ve come prepared and have backups for any situation. And lastly, try to have fun and not to lose too much sleep over it.
CG: Use it as an opportunity to do something different and push your creative boundaries.
SC: The technical process and the skills behind making a one take film are impressive but it is the story that stays with you. Think about how you’d put the advantages the TRINITY rig offers to best use, in the service of the story. Then describe it as visually as you can. In my case, I pitched a detailed storyboard but ended up deviating a lot from the original frames!
MM: I think the two things I would advise are: Have fun with it! There is a lot of spontaneity that can be found in one-shot films that you might not expect.
Secondly, I was glad I had taken the time to do a thorough floor plan. We saved a lot of time having a clear idea of the key ‘set ups’ we wanted for the various ‘scenes’ and the entry and exit points our cast would have to take to find their positions as the script unfolded. Obviously preparation is always key, but putting emphasis on a floor plan was quite useful to me, and I would recommend it.
And finally, who were your collaborators on this project?
BB: The old Latin proverb “fortune favours the brave” comes to mind. A director is nothing without their team; honest filmmaking is always a team sport. I only had my DP Zoran Veljkovic, sound designer Dora Filipovic and composer Filip Sijanec attached to the project immediately. They are my close friends and top artists in their field and would jump into anything with me. The rest of the crew and cast positions were yet to be filled, which is a daunting proposition with only a month and a half to go before the shoot. I was really worried that I wouldn’t get the team and cast in place in time as it’s a super challenging project with very limited funds. The beautiful thing is that with the right script and attitude, people will come and help you. I met two amazing producers, Gav Mukerji and Tharun Mohan, who I hadn’t worked with before, but they really came through to trust a rookie director and put together the location, logistics, additional crew and extras. Art director Adriana Hervas and costume designer Maryna Gradnova did an amazing job with the almost non-existent budget to really bring this bizarre world to life, and it really shows in the film — all the little touches help keep us immersed. The casting process involved a lot of trust and gut instinct as we didn’t have the time or funds to organise extensive casting auditions. I was super excited that we got Jon Campling to play the part of the hitman as he was my first choice and probably the only actor that 100% resembled the character in the script; he was a true gentleman and raw professional. Una Kovac came through to play the witch, again a hunch that definitely worked out, as well as Hai Le as the thief and Jo Hart as the victim at the end of the film. At the end, I want to mention our Trinity operator Jay Jaramillo Gomez, who carried and flew the heavy rig throughout the evening while performing a very precise choreography; without him the film simply wouldn’t exist. I’m super thankful to them all and the rest of the crew for trusting me and coming on board to make this little yet massive film a reality.
CG: The people who really went above and beyond were the production designer, Jason Kelvin, who had to build a monster puppet (and operate it!) plus a bed that could fit the TRINITY underneath it. We also had to move hundreds of Lego toys from the location and then try to replace them... which was tricky! Jake Corbett, the DOP, also spent a lot of time on the project, brought on some of the crew, helped me to design the shot and work with Jon, the operator. The cast were terrific, including 8-year-old Niamh, who had never done any acting before, and David Kennedy, who came down from Liverpool for the film. The producer, Isabella de Rosaio, was also a key collaborator and supporter. A new collaborator on Lurker was the composer, Michaela Polakova. She found my call out on Twitter (so millennial!) and sent in some great ideas for the score, which we then built on together. The process of working with her has been excellent and I hope we can work together again in future.
MM: Thankfully, I had some great people who were excited about the idea from the start and helped me bring it over the finish line. Our DoP, Mark Nutkins has been a great support ever since I started directing. When I told him about the idea and the challenge, he was onboard right away, and pulled together a spectacular Camera and Lighting crew who were happy to work on the film under the given circumstances. Also, our Producer Jamie Harvey was a god send. He recently became a Dad in the middle of a production storm on a feature, while writing some concept drama. So, when we had the thumbs up from ARRI and Directors UK, it looked a bit like another straw on the camel’s back — but he took it on and on the day he managed to shield me from the usual location havoc while keeping me on track! Of course, without the writers Gabriel Henrique Gonzalez and Alex Gibbons, who brought my original concept to life, the film would have never found its humour, character and structure. Our Production Designer Isabel Pirillio created the full ‘This Morning View’ Show concept, and painted the canvas of IQ Studios to work as the location for our morning show. It was magical to see the place become a character. And the rest of the characters found their three-dimensional identity through our costume designer Giulia Scrimieri and make-up artist Sarah Rowland, who had a six square meter box to share, to get nine leading actors through costume and make up. They were all a dream to work with, and I would do it again in a heartbeat, if they will have me!
SC: Shooting any long take takes genuine collaboration. When shooting an entire story in one, everybody must pull together. I did not have a producer, or a production manager. So I lined up the location and managed all the logistics myself — having been a documentary PD and filmed across the world possibly helped. Luckily, my 1st AD, Lucia Schiavon, and my 2nd AD, Esther O’Loughlin, both helped out with many aspects of logistics.
My main leads, Zara Aslam and Alicia Simai-Kral, are the emotional core of the story and it was essential that we root for them. To achieve that in a five-minute film was a tall order for such young actresses. I think being able to have a full cast table read beforehand really helped. Zara, who plays Leila, was a great discovery. She was very confident at the audition and nailed it immediately. She also taught herself to skateboard within one month. She has the dedication to have a great future as an actor. As for Alicia, who plays Margot, I was conscious that she would have to show a quite mature strength and conviction in the short time she was on screen — and she totally did.
Our other great find was Ambika Mod who plays Rukhsana, the older sister whose desire to help her baby sister escape a fate like her own drives the story. Ambika is more used to comedy, so it was a revelation how well she portrayed the anguish and determination of Rukhsana.
To add to all my crew’s other woes, we were recording location sound since there wouldn’t be time for ADR over Christmas to finish the film in time. Mark Levien did an amazing job with mike and boom and on the sound design after. But it also meant we had to have silence on set. I had to trust my actors to make decisions about when to stop and go, to take their cues from the TRINITY operator or each other. The dancing had to begin and the children come in and out of shot without any sound. Thanks to Ruchika Jain, who plays the mother, and Ria Bella, who plays one of the dancers, all the cues were timed perfectly.
The production designer, Laurie Waplington, and the art department worked incredibly hard to put up all the drapery and props the evening before. On the shoot, Laurie also had the unenviable job of managing the dead goat and all the fake blood.
Also, it really helped me as a solo filmmaker that the lovely people from ARRI and Directors UK were there to help and support me every step of the way. Thanks to Milan Krsljanin and Kate Priestman at ARRI, as well as Amy-Jo Bryant and Sean Thomas at Directors UK, the entire Challenge was a wonderful experience.
PRM + AMA: We were so lucky to have the amazing cast and crew that we did. As you know with all self-funded short film passion projects, there’s a lot of super talented people generously giving up their time to make your project a reality. On this one we have countless people to thank, they believed in the idea from day one and jumped in at the deep end with us...we can’t thank them enough.
To name a few specific collaborators, Kerry-Ann Calleja McGregor our co-writer of the film and Tom Watts our cinematographer, were two of the main ones. Both were involved in the project from early on and were a massive influence for the script and concept design. They both had first-hand experience with family members suffering from dementia, so they gave us their unique perspectives and pushed us to develop the film in a more ambitious direction.
Also our gaffer Ollie Riches and production designer Alex Jones Nash, who were also involved early and magically brought Ruth’s house to life. Dom Jackson, TRINITY operator, who had the almost impossible task on his hands of navigating the less than ideal house and hitting every mark... with all the pressure on his shoulders. Our fantastic composer Christian Lloyd, the sound designer Nick Butler-Bridge, Gabriella Gower our costume designer... There are so many of them, all the people who worked on the film were fundamental to the project.
And of course, our actors, in particular our lead Ania Marson, we couldn’t have asked for a better lead. She had such a difficult task, she had to go through a complex character arc while keeping in mind all the complicated technical aspects of the film. We’d also like to highlight Leslie Ash whose excellent emotional performance as Ruth’s daughter Jen gave us the epic finale that had a lot of us holding back tears each take.
Last but certainly not least the help from Milan Krsljanin and his team at ARRI and Amy-Jo Bryant and her team at Directors UK who kindly worked with us and assisted us every step of the way. It’s obvious but we wouldn’t have made Ruth without their kind contribution and trusting us with this project. We hope we have created something they are also proud of.
The first screening of these Challenge TRINITY 2020-winning films is taking place on Thursday 23 January at Vue Leicester Square. Directors UK members can book their tickets here.