Adam Suschitzky BSC and director Samuel de Ceccatty discuss filming a dramatic short in one shot with one lens on an impossibly complicated location.
Tasked by Fujifilm with showcasing the capabilities of Fujinon’s new Premista 19-45mm T2.9 zoom, Adam Suschitzky BSC and director Samuel de Ceccatty went overboard in creating a dramatically teasing, technically ambitious short filmed in a one-er.
“The brief was to find a director you enjoy working with, make a six-minute film and beyond that it’s up to you,” says Suschitzky. “I tend to alternate making big shows with short films that are completely the opposite with almost no crew and no lights just to get back to the bare bones of the craft. The opportunity to collaborate on something from the ground up was too good to pass up.”
We were attracted by the openness of the brief. This was a chance to have fun and flex our creative muscles. But before we had a script, we needed a cool location.Samuel de Ceccatty
The first part was easy. Suschitzky and de Ceccatty clicked when making the short The Energy Within (2018). Suschitzky had a short window before beginning prep on Apple TV+ drama Suspicion.
“The parameters were super tight,” says de Ceccatty. “When I got the call from Adam, we had just two weeks to do it all – script, prep and shoot. We were attracted by the openness of the brief. This was a chance to have fun and flex our creative muscles. But before we had a script, we needed a cool location.”
Even with ample time, locations require several days to find, procure and scout. Fortunately, de Ceccatty had one up his sleeve.
“I put a shortlist together for Adam but my favourite from the get-go was a house boat pontoon near Tower Bridge. My sister-in-law lives there and I’ve always thought it was such a unique, surreal place. It says ‘London’ but I’ve never seen it represented on screen. There are fairy lights and plants for texture, a grand piano on deck, an iconic backdrop and the soundscape of the water. Everywhere we point the camera there would be something of interest.”
While visiting the boat for story inspiration they learned that about once a year a human body washes up in the tide. “That was it, we had our end game,” Suschitzky says. “I instinctively wanted to make something in one take and I also wanted to do it all with available natural light on this impossibly complicated location to show what the lens is capable of.”
While de Ceccatty wrote the script, Suschitzky was busy planning the shot. There were a number of tests for the lens that he wanted to check off and choreograph to story beats.
“I want a zoom lens that is going to look completely seamless when I intercut it with Primes,” he explains. “I don’t want to compromise image quality when changing focal length so I planned to change the focal length throughout the shot so I could see any distortion on the widest part of the lens. I was delighted to find that it was completely distortion free.
“More than anything you want the quality of the glass to never let you down when you are using natural light. I wanted to see what the skin tones would be like at different colour temps, such as the hot lamp of the bedroom light. As the actors sit down at the table we deliberately push towards the windows. Shooting indoors using natural light is very contrasty for any lens to cope with. I also wanted to see day exteriors with bright skies and skin tones in the foreground and what the detail was going to be like in a wide shot.”
Operator Rob McGregor recommended using a Movi gyro head rather than Steadicam to better navigate the boat’s tight space. In particular, the shot called for moving up, down and around a staircase including a turn that would be impossible on Steadicam.
While McGregor carried, Suschitzky operated framing on the boat’s deck under cover of a tarpaulin. In the bowels of the boat, focus puller Elhein de Wet and second AC Drew Marsden on the zoom and the iris had to find different nooks and crannies to hide in whilst performing stop pulls and zooms guided over talkback by the DP.
Horizontal rain was an additional challenge for the October shoot. “Visually, the rain added reflections to surfaces and allowed us to use an umbrella which both enhanced the story’s intimacy and highlighted colours the lens could pick up,” Suschitzky says. “It meant that the deck was slippery for the crew, especially when moving backwards.”
Though no stranger to Alexa colour science, this marked Suschitzky’s debut with the Alexa LF. “When you go to large format you are always a little conscious there is going to be too much information that will detract from the story. This lens doesn’t have that. T2.9 is a sweet spot for all LF cameras and gives me the depth of field I really like. It’s just beautifully rendered.”
The filmmakers agreed that the aesthetic should feel like Birdman. “This isn’t a stylised piece but it should suggest a real world where extraordinary things can happen in the frame. So, with Gareth Spensley at Company 3, we set about creating a passage of time that subtly sped up the changes in daylight from first light to sunrise.
“When our actress wakes up in an inky blue of dawn, I wanted the skin tones to have certain warmth to them. As we travel through the boat, we start to show the light rising so by the time we come on deck the colours have changed. It continues getting lighter so that when they walk away at the end the sun breaks through on the horizon. Gareth has created a brilliant effect of deep red sunrise in the background. This reflects off the water but happens so gradually and naturally that maybe the first time you watch it you wouldn’t be aware of it.”
When you do something live and in one take it’s like a little orchestra all performing beautifully together. There was a real feeling of elation by the end.Adam Suschitzky BSC
They had one day to prep and rehearse and one day to shoot for a take planned for magic hour at dusk. There were a few false starts as they went through into darkness, pushing the ISO hard by the end.
“Fortunately, the sweet spot of the light was when we nailed it – thanks to the cast who were so consistent and the skills of Rob, Elhein and Drew,” says Suschitzky. “When you do something live and in one take it’s like a little orchestra all performing beautifully together. There was a real feeling of elation by the end.”
Musician Ollie Howell composed the film’s jazz score which he recorded live in one take while the film projected.
“It was very nerve wracking,” says de Ceccatty of Adrift. “I love Adam’s energy and calmness and that he is always trying to push further what we can do. He has an aura of ‘it’s going to be okay’ which is a rare thing on set.”