How a Sundance Film Pulled Off a 90-Minute Single Take
'A Boy. A Girl. A Dream.' cinematographer Steve Holleran takes the gimbal to a whole new level with a 50-pound antigravity system.
Qasim Basir's film, which recently premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival in the NEXT section, is set in such recent history that it's hard to believe a movie has already been made about it. On the night of the 2017 American presidential elections, two strangers meet by chance. Over the course of the next 90 minutes, the film—shot in a single take in real-time—follows Cass (Omari Hardwick) and Frida (Meagan Good) from nightclub to taxi to house party and beyond as they roam Los Angeles, intermittently tuning into the election results. The surreal night elicits an enduring connection, a cascade of emotions, and a deep reckoning with the state of affairs for minorities in America.
To pull off the 90-minute one-take, cinematographer Steve Holleran devised a 50-pound antigravity rig and unconventional Sony camera and Panavision anamorphic lens combination. No Film School sat down with Holleran at Sundance to discuss how he approached the shoot like a balletic athlete, how he learned to "find a frame out of nothing" in transitional moments, and why, after shooting this film, nothing will scare him again.
"Nothing’s scary after this, as a cinematographer. It took away the fear of shooting anything."
No Film School: How did you first get involved with A Boy. A Girl. A Dream.?
Steve Holleran: I met the director, Qasim Basir, at the premiere of my last film, The Land, which came out in a couple theaters in LA. Qasim came by and saw the film and he said he loved it and he was like, "We should stay in touch. When I have the right project, I'll reach out to you."
About a year and a half later, he touched base with me about A Boy. A Girl. A Dream. It was right around the new year and the inauguration of Donald Trump was coming up, and we were all feeling really frustrated about the situation. Qasim said, "I wrote this story about these two strangers that fall in love. It's set in the nightclub world of LA. I want to set it the night of the presidential election.” It was a study in how two people that don't know each other can be bonded by a big cataclysmic change. That got me really excited.
We met the day of the women's march in LA. We had a really long meeting and just bled our hearts out to each other and talked about the state of the country and where things were going and how art fit into it all. Eventually, we decided, “Let's go make a really different movie. Let's shoot it at night and let's shoot it as a one-er so we can immerse the audience in this 90-minute experience—the last 90 minutes of the election. It’ll also be these two people falling in love with each other and making some life-changing decisions at the end.”
NFS: How did you conceive of the one-er in the first place? What was the process of rehearsals?
Holleran: The oner grew out of our desire to immerse our audience in a real-time exploration of what the last 90 minutes of the election were like for people last year. We let our two leads, Omari and Meagan, have the freedom to explore that as a complete, uninhibited performance. We couldn't go around getting coverage all day and expect to get all of our locations. We were definitely wary of not finishing the film.
Finally, Qasim and I just said, “Let’s do it.” Like a quarterback and a wide receiver, we were spending a lot of time together and practicing, and we just threw up the pass and tried to see what was going to happen.
A lot of it was a freestyle performance piece. The actors were improving off a 60-page script. They knew each other, thankfully, and had a relationship, so they were able to feed off of that. They knew the characters—they spent a lot of time rehearsing over the phone with Qasim. And I had walked through all of the locations. I was able to pre-light the interiors of three locations.
But of course, there were a lot of unknown moving parts. We had live streets. People in the public were walking around on some of our sets. Cars were moving in and out. There were a lot of dynamic things changing in the moment.
"I wanted to shoot the film stabilized because I wanted to have this sort of out-of-body quality to [the imagery], because that’s how [inauguration] night affected many people."
I knew doing the film handheld was going to be too overtly visceral. I knew that I wanted to shoot it stabilized because I wanted to have this sort of out-of-body quality to [the imagery], because that’s how that night affected many people. I coupled it with the antigravity cam system so that I would have a mobile jig mounted to my body and I could move in and out of space with [the actors]. I could walk with them; I could run with them. There’s even one shot where I'm sprinting behind one of our main characters. So with all of those tools, I knew that at least I could keep up with the action.
The rest was just adapting on the fly to [the actors'] body movements and blocking. We knew in certain scenes that they were going to go up the stairs, but then where did they land at the end? I didn't necessarily know, so I was responding to them. So we were all in this really intricate ballet—the three of us, plus all of the rest of the crew behind the camera. The camera was constantly rotating and turning, so for on-camera talent, there's no safe space in the film. There was no break or rest. Everybody has to be on. Everybody has to be ready. Also, there were a lot of people involved in moving vehicles and filling up spaces with extras, so it was quite a challenge.
NFS: How many times did you do camera rehearsal, if you did one?
Holleran: We rehearsed pieces of the film and Qasim spent weeks in phone rehearsals with our actors. The day before, we didn't have all the pieces together to actually be able to walk through it with the blocking with the extras, so it was kind of impossible to know exactly where everything was going to be until the day we started shooting. In that sense, I likened it to a performance piece or a play. An unrehearsed one. At least blocking-wise.
"I coupled [the Movi] with the antigravity cam system so that I would have a mobile jig mounted to my body and I could move in and out of space with the actors."
NFS: Normally, when cinematographers are running around trying to capture things documentary-style, you can see evidence of it onscreen, with a searching camera and some awkward pans in order to catch characters in unforeseen configurations. But here, it seemed like you knew when each character should be on screen.
Holleran: That was due to a combination of factors. A lot of it was just knowing the rough blocking. Having the Movi, I could do really slow camera movements. I could slip in and out of shots even when sometimes I wasn't exactly sure where [the actors] were going to end up or I was going to end up. I could make it feel seamless and give a constant fluidity that would soothe the viewer so you wouldn't notice me searching for the next shot.
I only had one lens on—one focal length— so I could be wide or in a close-up and have to find a way to make those seamlessly blend together. You have to make all the transitional moments nice shots as well when you are shooting a oner. And a lot of that was keeping the camera movement steady through the whole film and keeping my pacing—the way I walked, the way I moved the rig—very similar all the way through. Otherwise, there would be dead space.
That was our biggest fear: what do we do if we lose a shot? I tried to prepare in my head for the moment when you float off the actor the wrong way and you're suddenly in no man's land, and you have to get back to them, and you're 30 minutes into the shot. In the end, I don't think that I ever completely lost [the actors], but there are definitely a few moments where they were going one way and my initial internal response was to go the other. It took discipline and precision to overcome that instinct and turn yourself over completely to the movement of someone else.
Holleran: The nice thing with anamorphic is it has a really interesting scope, so I could fit [the actors] into corners of the frame that you might not have been able to do spherically, and find cool over-the-shoulders. I used my documentary background to figure out what kind of shots I could make out of thin air.
NFS: Is that why you chose anamorphic—because of the scope?
Holleran: That was definitely one of the reasons. Also, anamorphic gave me a really shallow depth of field, so I could hide things in the background—if people or crew showed up, you might not notice them. I liked the quality of the anamorphic, especially the Panavision series, on faces, and I knew that I was going to be moving from a wide to a close-up, getting really close to these actors, and I wasn't ever going to be able to change the lens. So I wanted a very specific focal length and specific type of lens that gave me all of those characteristics. It had to be light and it had to be fast. The C Series anamorphic lenses also have very specific flares, which was something I wanted to enhance the magical and surrealistic look of the film. It was a lot of hunting around to find the most specific lens possible for the job.
"I used my documentary background to figure out what kind of shots I could make out of thin air."
We tested out a number of anamorphic options at Panavision and the 35 ended up being the most flattering for close-ups, while still giving me enough scope to shoot wide shots without needing hundreds of feet to back the camera up, because I didn't have a lot of room. I knew sometimes I'd be in really tight interiors.
NFS: There were also a lot of scenes shot in taxis. Those were probably really tight.
Holleran: Yeah, the car was super challenging. There were a few moments where I needed more room and I just couldn't get it. The nice thing about the anamorphic is it gave me just enough space to fit the two of them in. Worst case scenario, always go for the two-shot!
NFS: How did you light the car scenes? They felt very natural; sometimes car lighting can look very unnatural.
Holleran: It was tough because we didn't have any headroom to put any LED lights in. We were missing a seat where the camera went, so I really only had one-quarter of the car to put any lights in. I used a diffused LED mat, and had it on a dimmer controller that we ran to the front seat of the car. We mounted it to the back of one of the captain's chairs in the van. That provided a naturalistic wash—the kind of ambient light that you might get through a window of a car. Then, with the A7SII set to a specific color space and a higher ISO pushing it at 2400, I was hopeful that we would capture a lot of light from outside, as well, and that would come through to shape the background. That's how we ended up doing the car.
NFS: You mentioned the color. There's a feeling of surreality to the entire film. Everyone has a memory of how that night felt, and it was surreal for many of us, so you kind of project your own memory of that night onto this experience these people are having. I like that the colors reflected that: midnight purple and blue.
Holleran: Qasim was pretty specific about blue and gold being two color components he wanted to incorporate into the film, so we looked at a lot of night photography. We looked at some old paintings and art. We had a Van Gogh piece that was really inspirational for us. We had a mood board of colors. Like you said, there's a surrealistic element to certain color combinations, and you don't necessarily always see blue and gold together. It's this idea of the dichotomy of good and evil and hope and fear. We thought the dual tonality would push across that feeling.
"I was walking a couple miles with the rig on. It's at least 50 pounds, going upstairs, going downstairs, doing a lot of it backward, in and out of cars."
Shooting outside on the streets of LA, you know you're going to be shooting in sodium vapor most of the time, so it's going to have a gold look. We just incorporated that into a lot of our lighting. In the nightclub, a lot of our accent lights are color-matched to the exterior, and they're matched across locations using LED lights exclusively on the film, whether it was ARRI sky panels or light mats or light strips.
We brought the blue in as an accent color. I turned a couple of windows in the house party into light sources, so we actually frosted the windows. We would push light through the windows to shade the quality of the light in the house, because it was just a big white box when we got it.
NFS: Did you see Victoria? Did you try to emulate any part of it or learn from it in some way?
Holleran: Yeah, we watched it as one of our main inspirations, just to see where the camera went and how they interacted with the characters, how they moved from different locations. We knew we were going to shoot a completely different style, but I still wanted to see what the camera did when there was nothing really happening.
NFS: What did it do?
Holleran: It found little pieces of the world. The fear with one-ers is that your sense of disbelief will overcome your immersion. You don't want to take the audience out of your film. And there's no way to hide any mistakes with cuts. So I looked at Victoria for that to see how they did theirs. They did an amazing job.
"The fear with one-ers is that your sense of disbelief will overcome your immersion. And there's no way to hide any mistakes with cuts."
NFS: It's almost a miracle you pulled off a single take.
Holleran: It was the craziest filming experience I've ever had. Without a doubt. Qasim and I looked at each other at the end, like, "We pulled it off!" I think that's why we're so excited to be here [at Sundance]. We didn't know what to expect when we shot it. A lot of kudos to Qasim and also the actors, Omari and Meagan, for improving and never making a mistake, never running out of something to say. That's really hard, especially when a lot of things are happening behind the camera that we couldn't control. That's very distracting.
NFS: Was it physically exhausting for you?
Holleran: Yeah! Holding any type of camera—even if it's a little Osmo handheld camera—for 90 minutes, your arms are going to get tired. But I was walking a couple miles with the rig on. It's at least 50 pounds, going upstairs, going downstairs, doing a lot of it backward, in and out of the cars. I had to prep for it like it was a game and I was an athlete. I had to stretch, meditate, hydrate, take 15 minutes before the shoot just to be by myself and think about how I was going to keep the composition clean and beautiful when sometimes I didn't know what was happening next.
NFS: How many people did you have on your camera crew?
Holleran: Six or seven. We had a lot of people as there were a lot of moving parts and we were sending wireless video feeds to Qasim and a couple of producers, so people were watching it behind us as we were shooting. There was a train of people behind the camera, and then whenever the camera turned, everyone had to hide or turn or disguise themselves.
"There was a train of people behind the camera, and then whenever the camera turned, everyone had to hide or turn or disguise themselves."
NFS: What about your communication when you were actually filming? Do you have any sort of nonverbal cues?
Holleran: There were some, but I was so inherently focused on the shot at all times that I couldn't really look at anyone else or do much. But we had headsets on, so there was some communication over the headsets to me. Everyone knew that I wasn't going to be communicating back, so I was just getting information filtered to me over the headset while we were shooting, like, "At the next location that you're going to be in two minutes, there's a car in the shot, and we can't move it, and there's an angry shop owner who's not happy that we're shooting a movie outside the shop, even though we're permitted to do it and she's closed." Things like that.
NFS: That's incredibly stressful.
Holleran: Yeah. And it came at me in really fast sound bytes with a lot of background noise, so you try to decipher it as you're creating shots. I had a camera assistant on me and I was actually walking with him the whole time in order to help me through certain doorways. I had to go backward through these doorways a couple of times, and with the rig on and the arms, it's a little challenging to navigate that while keeping two characters in a tight two-shot as you're moving. So he was a huge help. And he would tap me or he was very good about shifting me left or right in a way where I could still keep a nice frame. There was a lot of body language communication.
NFS: Are there any adaptive techniques that you learned from being on for 90 minutes like that that you'll incorporate into future projects?
Holleran: Yeah, there's a lot I learned from shooting this film. One of them is being able to create a nice shot out of nothing—finding a frame in a moment where you don't naturally see one. I think that enhanced my understanding of camera movement and immersive visuals. Shooting this film also taught me how to move really fast. I'll probably never shoot a one-er like this again, but there's a ton of things you take away from it, particularly when it comes to composition and movement.
NFS: This is definitely one of the most technically ambitious films here at Sundance.
Holleran: Thanks! I like challenging myself. I like watching the movie when I'm done and seeing something that I haven't seen before. If I can get the chance to do something like that, then that makes me really happy as an artist.
Watching this film again, I'm pretty excited to think that that's all one take. It was done with a lot of equipment that hasn't been put together before. The antigravity cam is a prototype body mount system that's just kind of coming out now. I had a prototype last year on my Netflix show, Fire Chasers, which we took out to the backcountry and used a lot. It takes gimbal use to a whole new level. Gimbals get pretty heavy once you load them up with gear, so you can't hold them for more than a minute or two just with your own two arms. Your arms will give out. You'd never be able to pull off a film like this without a mounting system like that.
Also take, for instance, the Sony and the anamorphic lens, which don't inherently go together. The lens doesn't even cover the entire 4K sensor on the Sony. But I knew that we could crop a 2K image out of the sensor and get the full frame. That was an experiment.
Rolling for 90 minutes is actually really difficult with modern-day cinema cameras because cards aren't set up to run for 90 minutes. We had to modify the A7SII. We ran an extra recording feed out to a special recording monitor just to roll straight for 90 minutes. We were worried about the camera overheating, too.
NFS: It's cool how there is an alignment with the ambition of this project and the story of A Boy. A Girl. A Dream.
Holleran: That was almost an instinctual thing. I don't know if we necessarily even knew at the time how it matched the story, but watching in retrospect, you almost get a little emotional thinking about how it all ties together so nicely, when at the beginning we were just trying to do something different and special. Nothing’s scary after this as a cinematographer. It took away the fear of shooting anything.
For more, see our ongoing list of coverage of the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. No Film School's podcast and editorial coverage of the 2018 Sundance Film Festival is sponsored by RODE Microphones and Blackmagic Design.