By IAN FAILES
The award-winning definitive authority on all things visual effects in the world of film, TV, gaming, virtual reality, commercials, theme parks, and other new media.
Winner of three prestigious Folio Awards for excellence in publishing.
By IAN FAILES
Some say we are in the golden age of television – it may also be true we are in the golden age of the ‘one-take,’ those long, uninterrupted shots that are now so common on the small screen, but which still seem magical to viewers.
Also known as ‘oners’ or ‘long takes,’ these kinds of shots tend to follow a character on the move or give a lengthy view of the action. Shows such as Daredevil, True Detective, Mr. Robot, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and The Haunting of Hill House, for example, have all used oners to illustrate specific story points.
Oners take a great deal of skill to pull off in terms of planning, on-set choreography, stunts, cinematography, editing and, increasingly, visual effects to stitch takes together or add in necessary elements into the frames. VFX Voice looks at several episodes from recent series that have used the oner, and how visual effects helped make the shots possible.
Soon to begin its sixth season, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. on ABC regularly features long takes. One such shot occurred in Season 2’s “S.O.S. Part 2” episode, when the character Daisy (Chloe Bennet) takes on the Inhuman Alisha (Alicia Vela-Bailey), who replicates herself into multiple ‘twinned’ versions.
“The traditional approach to this kind of thing would have been to have the stunt guys choreograph their fight sequence, and then you would have, say, photo-doubles, and you would do it in cuts,” suggests Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Visual Effects Supervisor Mark Kolpack. “Billy Gierhart, who was the director of this episode, thought, ‘Well, we could do a oner here.’ Then Garry Brown was the second unit director who I shot this with to make it a one-take.”
The fight scene was not actually filmed as a one-take, but instead programmed as a motion-control move with separate passes. This employed Camera Control’s Bolt Cinebot, a high-speed rig that would allow the team to factor in speed ramps into the shots and repeat the moves since they would involve multiple takes of the same actress.
During the shoot, several actors were present: Bennet, Vela-Bailey and four photo-doubles. There were moments during the fight that the photo-doubles could be utilized directly, such as if they were knocked down. Other times, replicas of Vela-Bailey needed to be visibly present in the scene, which is why separate passes using the Bolt were necessary.
“We did something like 75 takes that were hooked up into one move broken out into four different sections, all playing as one,” states Kolpack. “We shot everything at 120 frames per second so we could build in the speed ramps.”
Pixomondo composited the takes – which were mostly acquired on set but also included one or two separate passes on bluescreen – together for the final oner to appear as if the camera is moving around the fight. “It was a very cool shot because we were able to repeat Alicia in all these additional passes and get her in the frame, all choreographed perfectly,” says Kolpack. “It was all about selling the idea of, ‘here’s a girl who can split five times.’”
The Netflix miniseries Maniac, created by Patrick Somerville and directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, incorporates a dynamic oner in Episode 9 “Utangatta,” in which the characters Annie Landsberg (Emma Stone) and Owen Milgrim (Jonah Hill) – connected during a pharmaceutical trial – are involved in a hallway shootout with several agents.
“The brief was to get something feeling as exciting, dynamic and slick as possible, with limited time and resources,” outlines Maniac Visual Effects Supervisor Ilia Mokhtareizadeh. “VFX was fully involved at every stage, working closely with Cary, the actors, stunt team and special effects. Due to the nature of the shot, we were required to travel through the same environment over and over again, so we had to ensure that we maintained the damage for continuity.”
Interestingly, the oner did not make use of any stitching of takes. “Cary wanted the scene to feel natural, and the free-flow camera work on the Steadicam did not really provide us with any ideal stitch points,” notes Mokhtareizadeh. “We spent extra time in rehearsal knowing that we wanted to get everything in a true one-take shot. In the edit we discussed a potential stitch halfway through the shot and decided against it as we preferred the flow of the unadulterated original take.”
Visual effects were used, however, to add in muzzle flashes (including for a mini-gun), bullet and blood hits, and some other effects. For that reason, a workflow had to be established to un-distort and re-distort the anamorphic lens photography. “Photogrammetry and set diagrams were used to recreate the environment in 3D, allowing us to run a single match move across the entire shot,” explains John Kilshaw, a Creative Director at Zoic Studios, the studio behind the work.
“[Director] Cary [Joji Fukunaga] wanted the scene to feel natural, and the free-flow camera work on the Steadicam did not really provide us with any ideal stitch points. We spent extra time in rehearsal knowing that we wanted to get everything in a true one-take shot. In the edit we discussed a potential stitch halfway through the shot and decided against it as we preferred the flow of the unadulterated original take.”
—Ilia Mokhtareizadeh, Visual Effects Supervisor, Maniac
Blood hits were handled via Zoic’s library of elements, while larger sprays were generated in Houdini. “Cary provided great reference for the stylized impact he wanted the mini-gun to cause, and we were able to match that exactly,” adds Kilshaw. “We referenced period footage to ensure that all other muzzle flashes and impacts were accurate to all the other weapons employed.”
Amid the chaos, Mokhtareizadeh was cast as one of the agents during the shoot-out for the one-take. “I’d been semi-jokingly badgering Cary about letting me be in the show for a while,” he says. “We were on set out in Roosevelt Island the evening before the oner when my wish was finally granted. I Uber-ed back to Silvercup Studios while everyone was setting up the next scene, got fitted for a suit and rushed back to continue supervising. The next day was pretty fun. I needed the haircut and shave badly! John from Zoic covered the supervision for me as I spent the day being shot by Jonah Hill.”
Showtime’s Escape at Dannemora, created and written by Brett Johnson and Michael Tolkin, and directed by Ben Stiller, tells the true story of a daring jail escape at the Clinton Correctional Facility in 2015. ‘Part 5’ showcases – in one nine-minute one-take – prisoner David Sweat’s (Paul Dano) trial run at the breakout, with the camera following him through walls, along tunnels and even crawling through pipes, before he emerges out of a man-hole outside the facility.
“Doing it as a oner for Ben was completely about storytelling,” says Visual Effects Consultant Jake Braver, who had some previous experience with oners on the film Birdman. “It wasn’t about showing off. It was about taking this journey with the character the whole way, and realizing how hard it was and how tough it was, and how much ingenuity was required to get out. The idea of not using cuts was Ben’s way of saying, ‘Sweat didn’t cheat, so we’re not going to cheat.’ But it became very clear that we were going to have to cheat because it was physically impossible to shoot it all in one place.”
Ultimately, four different places – a mix of real locations and stages – would be used for filming of the one-take, which became known as ‘Sweat’s run.’ Previs, led by Proof’s George Antzoulides, helped plan out how it would be shot and where edits and stitches could work. Shooting the takes would be complicated enough; they involved careful collaboration between departments, and specific rigs and actions allowing for cameras to go through walls or for camera hand-offs. The visual effects team from Phosphene would then take the original photography and incorporate seamless stitches between multiple takes, as well as add in CG pieces of the underground environment, pipes and wall coverings, while sometimes removing safety gear and other elements from the plates.
Among the most complex stitches was one involving Sweat climbing down a wall after leaving his cell and making his way along a series of catwalks. “There were limitations of the stage where we shot this,” describes Visual Effects Supervisor Djuna Wahlrab, “in that we couldn’t actually build any higher than three floors of the catwalks and the cells, and we needed a basement. That meant that we actually had to duplicate that section of the catwalk elsewhere in the stage and stitch it so that we could have the full length of Sweat going from the third floor all the way into the basement. Finding a place where we could stitch on Sweat and have him not leave the frame was a huge challenge.
“The problem was,” continues Wahlrab, “that we were on a fairly loose handheld camera. The camera was on a cable coming down the side alongside Sweat, starting on his face and then coming down to his feet. It’s during that shift downwards, getting underneath Sweat, that the stitch takes place. Being able to keep the camera moving and Sweat moving, and also contend with the shifting perspective of a handheld, positionally moving camera, was the real challenge.”
“Getting underway on the most challenging sequence [‘Sweat’s Run’] this early, while still shooting, gave us a great opportunity to ease into the process with the director. [Director] Ben [Stiller] saw a few stitches work seamlessly and that led to some pretty fun, creative conversations.”
—Djuna Wahlrab, Visual Effects Supervisor, Escape at Dannemora
The planned stitches were all intended to be as invisible as this one, with no obvious seams. “It wasn’t a case of trying to hide anything in the shadows,” notes Visual Effects Producer Matthew Griffin. “Or trying to have moments where it feels too dark, that would make the audience say, ‘Oh, there’s the stitch.’ We didn’t want any of those moments. So it was so important to keep everything lit, to keep everything in frame, to keep everything moving, so you did have that sense of fluidity.”
The climb-down stitch was only the first of many to come, with Wahlrab noting that Phosphene Lead Artist Tim Van Horn was able to get started early on with these initial stitch shots and provide some confidence to the filmmakers that they would convincingly sell ‘Sweat’s Run.’ “Getting underway on the most challenging sequence this early, while still shooting, gave us a great opportunity to ease into the process with the director. Ben saw a few stitches work seamlessly and that led to some pretty fun, creative conversations.”
Braver recalls, too, that Stiller “was really fond of saying, in relation to the stitches, ‘I don’t want the audience to know what they’ve gone through until they’ve gone through it and Sweat takes a breath of fresh air at the end. Then people can go, ‘Wait, did they just do that?!’ You were just with this obsessive guy on his obsessive journey to free himself.”
A much-lauded oner from recent years appears in Better Call Saul’s Season 2 “Fifi” episode, which follows the action at a US/Mexico checkpoint. The one-take lasts for 4 minutes 22 seconds, totaling 6,300 frames. It required 1,308 compositing layers made up of matte paintings, 3D and 2D elements, animation, matte paintings and significant rotoscoping.
To shoot the scene – which goes through a line of trucks, over the border fence, into an inspection bay, and finishes on the back of a hero truck – a Steadicam operator began on foot before being transferred to a Titan crane, going back on foot, and then joining a golf cart as the move continued before ending once again on foot.
“The enormity of the shot wasn’t revealed until we got into post-production,” says Visual Effects Supervisor William Powloski, “where they wanted to marry different takes that weren’t designed to be put together. And then having to deal with light changing outside over the course of the day. That’s probably the most invisible part of the shot – replacing lighting or keeping lighting from an earlier take and applying it to a second take.
“The shot,” adds Powloski, “was one of those where the producers of the show wanted the audience to say at the end, ‘Wow, where was the cut? I didn’t see any cut in this!’ And then they’d go back and re-watch it. That was very important to the producers – that the visual effects could hold up with somebody trying to analyze and figure out how it’s being done. I think that planning would have made it feel too choreographed, and I think that they were trying to avoid that.”