Published on: 16 May 2019 in Events
Challenge TRINITY — an interview with the directors
Reading time: 28 minutes and 51 seconds
Challenge TRINITY gives Directors UK members the chance to get their hands on an ARRI TRINITY holding an ALEXA LF or ALEXA Mini, 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 the first ever Challenge TRINITY about how they made their films, in partnership with ARRI. Below you can read the thoughts of directors Diego Barraza (The Letter), Martin Gooch (A Midwinter Night’s Dream) Emily Carlton (who co-directed Exit To Stage with Daphne Schmon), Luke Bradford (One), George Milton (A Bullet Wasted) and Isabel Anderton (The Yearning) about a 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?
Luke Bradford: One is based on a common saying in addiction recovery that, ‘you have less of a drinking problem and more of a thinking problem’. As a recovered drug addict myself, now with — by the grace of God — nine years continuous sobriety, this subject is particularly close to my heart. In the early stages of my recovery it felt like someone was holding a gun to my head when it came to using. I literally had no choice. As my recovery journey evolved, I realised who was holding the gun. That realisation stuck with me and I felt it would make a strong short film one day. When the Challenge TRINITY competition came a long it felt the perfect fit to bring the idea to life.
Martin Gooch: A Midwinter Night’s Dream is a short film about a group of churchgoers as they prepare for a Mid Winter’s Eve celebration around an ancient yew tree by an old English church. But on Mid Winter’s Eve the fabric between this world and the next is at its thinnest, and events turn out somewhat unexpected!
Trinity of course means ‘three’ and three is a magic number. The Trinity is also a religious term, so I decided to write something that incorporated three of everything: movement in all three dimensions and with some magic to hold it all together. There are three parts of the story: beginning, middle and end, it begins and ends with the same shot, just like a year beginning and ending in a circle, and there are three of everything — three priests, three mums, three yew tree goddesses, and three parts to the locations. I also framed it in thirds.
I already had an idea about a mystical ancient yew tree that was sentient and instrumental in the successful changing of the seasons, and a magic sunstone that stores power throughout the summer to keep the darkness of winter away. I have always enjoyed working on long complicated moves — having a background in motion control cameras — and so all of these ideas went into the creative themes of the film.
Emily Carlton: We’d actually been thinking about the project for a while before we heard of Challenge TRINITY. Our fantastic writer, Karina Jacubowicz had mentioned an idea for a short inspired by The Yellow Wallpaper (by Charlotte Perkins Gilman), and we were both instantly hooked. All three of us are huge fans of the short story, and we could instantly see the dramatic potential and political resonance in a modern reinterpretation. Ideas of isolation, paranoia and unreliable perspectives are major influences in our work, so we knew at once it was something we wanted to explore. As soon as we saw Challenge TRINITY we knew it was the perfect fit. Shooting the entire thing in a single shot built naturally on the claustrophobic, surreal tone we were working towards.
Diego Barrazza: The Letter tells the true story of 11-year-old Andrè and his inspiration to pursue a ballet career. Last summer we had a meeting with Andrè and his mother and we were blown away by his passion and self-motivation to become a ballet dancer. At that point he had just received acceptance to the most prestigious ballet school in the country and we discussed the possibility of doing a documentary feature on his pursuit. When the call opened for Challenge TRINITY we instinctively knew that we could make a powerful self-contained short that matched the dynamism of dance with the capabilities of ARRI’s TRINITY camera system. We wanted to take the opportunity to not just do a choreography but to add narrative to the piece based on Andrè’s real-life challenges and inspirational role models. Our approach was to blend fantasy and reality and sit somewhere in between documentary and fiction. For those into film history there is a nod to that great British classic The Red Shoes by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and we took some inspiration from the groundbreaking work by cinematographer Jack Cardiff, but we did not want the story to only be a fantasy dream, we wanted to show that Andre’s art is perused through overcoming obstacles, practice and hard work.
Isabel Anderton: The Yearning is a short proof-of-concept for my feature script The Tentmaster’s Daughter. A teen girl goes in search of her estranged father. The feature is based on interviews I did in a UK travelling circus and was developed with funding from BFI Network. The feature project has received loads of positive feedback from the industry. When Directors UK put out the call for Challenge TRINITY, I thought that adapting the opening scene of the feature to fit the one-continuous shot brief would be a great way to showcase the world of the circus and our protagonist’s journey.
George Milton: The idea for A Bullet Wasted came out of a showing a contemporary (but somehow timeless) civil war scenario, where a community is turning in on itself, tragically pitting a family against each other. I came up with a story that makes the audience work hard to follow what’s actually happening – they’re behind the story, often trying to work out retrospectively what might have occurred. The audience has to fill in some of the gaps themselves, as if they’re glimpsing one small part of a bigger drama. I also wanted the camera to have a character, a decisive point of view. At the end the human characters in this drama are turning violently on each other, but the camera turns away from them – suggesting the universe is ultimately indifferent to all the terrible things humans do to each other.
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?
MG: I was very interested by the TRINITY’s ability to whip-pan whilst maintaining a level horizon, as well as jib, tilt and roll, so I wrote all that into the script and camera plans. We have actors being followed by the camera, actors leading, walking parallel, developing shots from singles to wide shots to extreme close ups, we even have an actor walking backwards whilst talking to the characters behind her (facing camera) with the camera behind her: a shot I have not seen in any other movie ever. I was using the TRINITY to enhance the actor’s performance without having to cut.
The TRINITY gave me the ability to cover the action in a new and visually exciting way. So much directing is formula: wide, two shot, single, etc. This is a new way to cover action and can only become more amazing as it is developed with the use of other technology. We obviously have some CGI on top of the film, which was good fun (the glowing sun stone and the yew tree sparks).
I decided to shoot the film at 48FPS, so I could use it for very smooth slow motion and master the film at 24fps. Filmed in a widescreen 2:39 aspect ratio to give it that extra cinematic look and feel, it was all shot on a signature prime 25mm lens, which has negligible distortion even close up. Beautiful kit deserved beautiful things to film!
Being selected as a Challenge TRINITY filmmaker was wonderful and gaining the support of Directors UK and ARRI was 100% instrumental in helping raise the budget and gave us confidence in the project and vision.
LB: The story required a sophisticated stabilisation solution which the TRINITY truly offers. Its instant high to low capabilities and remote head allow for fluid motion and dynamic angles. This results in greater options of composition and interesting angles which when used correctly, enhances the visual storytelling. Being selected for the Challenge was an honour. The level of professionalism and creativity out there is immense so for my script to be selected was both encouraging and very exciting.
GM: Shooting with the TRINITY allowed me to really push what a nine-minute take could express, in a fluid and expressive manner. It’s so versatile that one has to resist the director’s desire to show off, and rigorously stick to what the drama demands!
IA: The TRINITY rig with the ALEXA Mini is relatively compact and versatile, which was essential given we were going to be filming in a real working circus with artists and members of the public. Not having lots of grip equipment or laying track meant it was simpler to shoot in that environment and have a great looking film at the end.
Being selected as a Challenge TRINITY filmmaker meant the project had a USP that helped get great collaborators on board. The actors and crew all responded to the concept of a one-continuous shot. Most of us had never done one before so it was good to try something different!
Having Directors UK and ARRI was also great in terms of recognition. Again, it’s easier to ‘sell’ a short concept to potential cast and crew if there are credible organisations behind the project. However, conversely, this did raise expectations as people (agents!) assumed we were also awarded a cash production budget, which was not the case.
DB: From the production standpoint, when developing a project and working from the margins, budget is always a big constraint. Gaining the support of both Directors UK and ARRI helped us bring some mainstream credibility to our plans and made it grow with more support. Having the TRINITY from the get-go, made the creative ambition grow and we tried to optimize the possibilities of the tool, agile camera movement with a small footprint, to the form of the film.
EC: The TRINITY shooting package was essential to the concept of our film, allowing us to move with our lead character as she deteriorates, from high stance to low crawl, in a single shot that would never have been possible otherwise. Thanks to the camera system, we were able to follow her crumbling mental state and weave from space to space in a fluid stabilized motion. Furthermore, being selected as Challenge TRINITY filmmakers quite literally made this film happen, giving us confidence in our concept and vision, and helping us recruit a world-class team. Offering this kind of platform to young directors looking to achieve technically challenging shots is an unparalleled opportunity and we are so grateful for it.
How much of a challenge was it to shoot the project in one shot, in such a short space of time?
EC: We ultimately had eight hours to set up, light, shoot, and break down. Executing the single shot was also a significant challenge, made more complicated by our venue — The Cambridge Theatre. We were incredibly lucky to secure a West End theatre as a location, but of course, this meant that we had to work around the scenery already on stage, and restricted hours. The actors saw the venue for the first time on the day, and our operator Charlie had the difficult task of manoeuvring the TRINITY down a stairway and through a narrow back-stage corridor. The shot itself required everyone to be in perfect coordination, like a dance. It really wouldn’t have been possible without such a hardworking and professional crew. We only got through the entire thing cleanly about five times, and the last take was when the magic really came together. When we cut I think everyone could breathe again, we all knew that was the take.
LB: This was in the top three most challenging projects I’ve made. The competition title ‘Challenge’ should not be underestimated. Our crew had over 50 set changes, three costume, hair & makeup changes - all playing out in one room. I got into the space a month before the shoot and filmed a crude walk-through with a gimbal mounted GoPro. This set ‘the camera path’ so all heads of department could see what we were attempting to achieve. The really hard part was factors that we could not control, that being daylight. Our location was indoors in a stunning Victorian property, modernised with giant floor to ceiling windows — but those giant windows turned into giant mirrors as the sun went down and given we shot in November, we didn’t have many daylight hours. Despite rehearsing for the whole of the previous day and for three hours on the day of the shoot, it still took 21 takes to get our shot. By that point, new shadows and reflections appeared on every take as the sun went down. As the director, this process added more than one grey hair to my already impressive collection. There were just so many factors we were trying to pull together, the reality was that there was no ‘perfect take’. In fact, we only managed to get through the whole sequence three times out of the 21 attempts. Take 21 was the shot I went with. The speed ramping achieves several things; it adds momentum and keeps the attention on the actor’s performance which also hides some unavoidable reflections and shadows that, on location, felt like the end of my career. I can smile about it all now.
DB: It meant going from 0 to a 100 in a month’s time. We kind of had to commend ourselves to the original Holy Trinity to pull it off, but miracles happen and everything lined up well and we are thankful to say it went smoothly.
IA: When you plan a one-shot film, the ideal scenario is to have a controlled, locked down set that you can light and precisely choreograph your camera movement and block your actors…we were attempting the exact opposite! Filming in a working circus had knock on challenges for our crew, particularly for lighting and sound. Sara couldn’t rig lights just anywhere inside the tent as we were filming between performances with crowds and Matt our sound recordist wasn’t able to boom. Will Lyte our TRINITY Op had a very positive attitude given the tight, uncontrolled spaces I was asking him to shoot in without any prior recce! For the cast, there were exciting elements about acting amongst members of the public. Each take was different which kept things fresh but we couldn’t plan to hit specific marks as someone would probably be standing on them when they got there!
Having limitations from the outset is great for focussing your mind… Knowing it was one continuous shot that had to be completed in one day meant that the vagaries of the weather, a limited budget and other production challenges were put aside. The limitations force you to be creative and innovative.
MG: Every shooting day is a challenge! You have a call sheet and a wrap time and the challenge is to get it all done by the wrap! Usually you arrive on set and hopefully turn over within a couple of hours or everyone starts to get itchy, but because the move was six minutes long, and had over 30 performers in it, we turned up at 8:30 (it was the earliest we were allowed into the church) and immediately started blocking and setting up all the lights. We didn’t turn over till 5pm, by which time the sun had set (it was December) and it was pouring with rain and howling a gale. So I abandoned any attempts to record any sound (the whole film is post recorded and ADR). But because we had planned it and rehearsed it we actually completed it on the first take! We were all amazed! But decided to do more takes, and in the end we did ten takes with six completely successful. We chose take number ten for the final film and wrapped at 6pm and a hour or so cleaning up and mopping the church floor (so glamorous!) So in filming terms: a relatively short day. It was such a great shoot and the feedback from cast and crew was sensational — I would love to do it again.
GM: It was a big challenge. We were shooting in a forest, and the nature of being so exposed meant that the first shoot date was cancelled because of gales. The TRINITY couldn’t have coped with 60 mile an hour gusts! We finally got to shoot it three weeks later, and the weather was kinder to us this time.
The film starts by chasing after somebody, which is demanding in a forest. The logistics of the rest of the shot were also tricky, in different ways. Hitting all the marks for actors and operator took a lot of rehearsal. We were looking at 360 degrees in the forest, so video village had to be well hidden by trees and camouflage. I’d spent a previous day in the forest rehearsing the basic move with the actors and a small gimble. That gave us a big advantage on the shooting day because the actors knew their cues and their routes already, so we were already ahead when we got to the shoot day.
Have you got any future plans for your Challenge TRINITY short?
DB: We are working to build the long-form version of the project, in which we would like to film part of Andre’s life in the UK and then take him to Cuba to explore the rich cultural dance heritage of his role model Carlos Acosta Jr. For this we would like to gain support from his ballet school to be able to undertake the project with their blessing and also find suitable partners to finance or commission the film.
MG: We just had a completely sold-out screening at BAFTA which was amazing, and many people who watched the film did not believe it was truly one shot and were trying to tell me where I had hidden the cuts, which was amusing. We have entered the film into many other film festivals, and have had nothing but great feedback. Hopefully it’ll lead on to other projects and it was suggested I should develop it into a feature, but as we all know development means nothing without cash.
IA: We will be showing it to potential financiers at Cannes for our feature project. We also plan to showcase it alongside the other five TRINITY shorts at several festivals.
GM: Being chosen for Challenge TRINITY has been very positive – I’ve been working almost exclusively in commercials and content for a decade, but it has kickstarted my desire to go back to where I started: drama. I’m hoping the film has a rich festival life.
LB: I made the film freely available online and it was immediately featured in a selection of recovery related blogs and articles achieving 16,000 views on Vimeo in just a few weeks. It received hundreds of comments on Facebook and it has had a real impact on some individuals. One particular comment, from an AA member on Facebook, stuck with me and reminds me why I want to be a filmmaker: “Wow! This short video created by someone in recovery is really powerful. Only a person who has gone through this kind of hell could have made such an impactful video. And dare I say this? Only people who have experienced this kind of hell can truly appreciate how accurate it is. This film helped me not drink today, I intend to watch it every morning”.
EC: We have already won ‘Best Director’ at the London Independent Film Awards, and have submitted Exit To Stage for other film festivals around the world. Now we’re just waiting to hear the results. Fingers crossed it will continue to have a successful festival run over the next year.
Who were your collaborators on this project?
LB: My key collaborators were my heads of department along with my wife, who starred in the film. She is a gifted actress and the believability of the character’s suffering was down to her performance. My DoP was Scott Milton who I have worked with on many projects. He is a gifted individual and is unfazed by complex challenges, so he was the right man for the job. We had a highly complex location and scene with regards to lighting as we needed to see the whole room at different heights. Somehow he and his team managed to light the space, which exactly met my creative brief. The art department — Kiira Smith and Elliot Selfe — also had their work cut out for them. We had about 50 individual set changes that needed to happen out of shot in each take, which needed re-setting each time. In total, we had 17 crew members hiding behind pillars and under tables as the take unfolded. The project’s success is quite simple down to their patience, talent and dedication.
DB: To turn around the project in the allocated time and with no budget we had to pull together a team of dedicated believers. Clive Martin our producer was the initial motivator of the long-form project and encouraged the proposal. Andrè and his mother Liz were committed from day one, even if they had to juggle the limited time constraints. Corin Stuart who I worked with before as actor and producer was also someone without whom the project would not have happened. Then we also counted with the great talents of Chris Titus King as Cinematographer and the wonderful score by Elliot Lloyd Short interpreted by the Modulus Quartet. As I live in a mostly rural part of Sussex, we had fantastic help form the local creative community coming together.
MG: In the end more than 120 people worked on the film, including extras and post-production. We also had a 50% female/male cast and crew ratio and cast and crew with disabilities on set. My main collaborators were producer Paul Craig, producer and actress Krista DeMille who flew in from New York to choreograph and play the lead Yew Tree Goddess, Jack Silver 1st AD who also was essential with casting, Mark Hammond DoP, who I have been working with since 1998, amazing creature designer Sarah Panigada who created the three Yew Tree Goddesses, make up designer Becky Hall, costume designer Astrid Schulz, composer Pete Weitz, sound design (which is a huge part of it) by Sam Bucknall, and of course our TRINITY Operator Will Lyte, who brought everyone’s talents together with his masterful handling of the TRINITY system! Our cast, Frances Pooley (lead) Michal McKell (the Priest) and Zara Plessard (the mum) were superb and I was especially delighted to be able to get David Vanian (lead singer of The Damned) to be the Narrator. And most importantly our Executive Producer Richard Montgomery, without whom there would be no film at all. A brilliant team of extraordinarily talented people who all came together when I asked them to with the help and support of Directors UK and ARRI.
IA: Producer Christine Hartland and Script Editor Toby Rushton are on the feature script and collaborated with me on the short. The opening scenes needed changes in order to be able to shoot in one take. Once we were green lit, we had three and a half weeks to assemble cast and crew! DOP Sara Deane previously shot a feature that Christine Exec Produced and she jumped on board. We only had one date when both the circus location and a TRINITY operator were available and luckily Sara was too. Casting Director Mandy Steel did a great job gathering an experienced cast in such a tight window.
GM: For a while I’d wanted to collaborate with Mike Downs, who runs production company Electric Light Studios, so this seemed like the perfect project. We also brought on board my regular collaborators co-writer Mark Tilton, Casting Director Rosalie Clayton, Sound Recordist Lucy Pickering, and Make-up Designer Ameneh Mahloudji.
ARRI teamed us up with very experienced and skilful TRINITY Op Dominic Jackson, who was a very reassuring presence — and seemed genuinely excited by trying to meet our cinematic demands!
I’d always wanted to work with Director of Photography Robbie Ryan – he nearly shot a feature of mine a few years ago. He was excited by the script and by the prospect of playing with the ARRI TRINITY for the first time. It was great working with him, and he pushed me to be consistent, or even ‘pure’ with the camera’s point of view.
EC: As with all short films, we owe a huge debt of gratitude to our entire crew, some incredibly talented people dedicating their time to a small but ambitious project. But a particular thanks have to go to our core collaborators: writer Karina Jacubowicz who first brought the idea to us, our producer Nicola Quilter who collaborated with us from the very beginning and, at times, made the impossible happen, Director Of Photography Diana Olifirova who completely understood our vision and never compromised on visual style and Camera Operator Charlie Rizek, in whose skilled hands the TRINITY operating system came to life.
What advice would you give to others thinking of applying for next year’s Challenge TRINITY?
LB: It is a fantastic competition to be a part of. The people you meet and the support provided by ARRI is a wonderful opportunity. If I was attempting this again, I’d say use a studio so the light can be better controlled — but of course it is all budget-dependant. If your idea excludes a location with daylight restrictions, you’ll likely be doing yourself a favour. I would encourage anyone from Directors UK to enter this competition. Watch videos on YouTube of what the TRINITY can achieve; it might help inspire and evolve your initial creative thinking.
IA: Go for it! It’s a great concept. I’m really glad we did it. We had great support from Milan at ARRI and AJ at Directors UK. Bear in mind that you’ll need to fundraise separately for your budget. With this camera and kit you can’t wing it on 20 quid!
Be bold with the idea. Be creative with the sound design – you can’t edit or disguise cuts/wipes in the one shot (cheating!) but obviously you can cut and manipulate your audio to enhance the visuals. Have fun with it!
GM: My advice for those thinking of applying for a future Challenge TRINITY contest is: be ambitious! Make sure the story naturally comes out of a single piece of uncut time. You need a series of dramatic turns in the take, not just a beginning and an ending. Think about the camera’s POV – who’s POV is it, or are there shifts in the POV? Try to keep the audience ‘in’ the film, not ‘out of it’: the self-consciousness of a single uninterrupted take can easily distance the audience. This is the interesting tension for all ‘long take’ films – balancing the stylistic trick against suspension of disbelief… Personally, I think you’ll make a more interesting film if it’s more than a gimmick.
DB: Be sure that you are ready to go, in case you get selected.
EC: Make sure the limits imposed by the challenge serve your story and work with people that you really trust. At the end of the day shooting a one-shot film is inevitably going to be a stressful endeavour and you need to have people around you who you trust. You want to end up with a film that stands on its own merit beyond the Challenge, so always return your focus to the story you want to tell.
MG: It’s all about the planning. We had a day rehearsal with the dancers and visited the location twice to work out the timing of the distances, how long it would take to get from A to B and then I drew up camera plans to work out exactly the move and where we can hide the lights, kit and all important tea urn.
It’s also a huge amount of work: Directors UK kindly offered us the members’ space for all our pre-production, which was very helpful and I visited 25 different locations before I found the one we actually filmed at. From the day we were selected to the day we screened the film (21st January), I worked on it every single day, even over Christmas!
Although there is little editing to do, there are still the titles, credits, conform, grade and all the sound design and music and of course due to all the rain we had to re-record all our sound and foley and ADR the entire film! Also remember Directors UK and ARRI do not help with the budget, so it is up to you to find the money to make the film, which was by far the toughest and most stressful part of the film-making process.
The whole point of using the TRINITY rather than the traditional steadicam is it can move in all three axis (hence TRINITY!) so plan your move with those axes in your camera plan. You can’t change lens during the film, so to get a close up (or wide) you have to block the actors and camera into the appropriate position, so think about your block and where everything is. Ultimately when the camera moves from one key position to another key position there will be ‘dead frames’ where nothing much is happening, as the camera is re-positioning (which is traditionally why we have cuts in films), so fill those frames with extras, props, lighting, music and sound design. No frame should be dull! But remember the story is still key: a cool move is a cool move, but a cool move with a great story is something else.
Also it’ll be a long day, so remember to stay hydrated and have fun! You’ll never have another shoot like it.
Banner image: Rachel Manns. Feature image: Michelle Wallis.