Although one of my shorter films, “The Elements” felt like a culminating project of sorts.
That is, I collected all that I had learned in 2018 about the art and science of filmmaking—organizing the chaos of a one-shot film, utilizing color for an emotional purpose, and landing an optimistic ending—and stirred it into this one film. Nevertheless, this project really was a new venture for me: after all, it was my first attempt at the experimental genre.
In this blog post, I’ll discuss developing the concept with Emma Bertram and undertaking this ambitious one-shot film with a crew of four.
The Elements in a Nutshell
“The Elements” is a one-shot experimental film, maintaining a constant close-up of Emma Bertram for the entire 1:10 runtime. It is a story of grief, uninterrupted from start to finish. It covers this journey in four major stages which at times meld together: denial, anger, sadness, and acceptance.
In the film, each of the four phases is represented by an element:
- Denial: Air
- Anger: Fire
- Sadness: Water
- Acceptance: Earth
Accompanying the elements are colorful lights emblematic of conflicting emotions and a chaotic, tonally varying score.
Of course, I did not intend to portray everyone‘s mourning experience through this film. Each person deals with loss in her or his own way. Rather, I was telling an individual story which I hoped could reach many.
Elements of the Film
I don’t know where it came from, but the idea found me.
My vision was far from fully-developed. What I had was a logline and a few disjointed ideas:
Four stages of grief presented through the four elements:
- Air represents denial because it can be overwhelming but empty.
- Fire represents anger because once it ignites, it can be difficult to put out.
- Water represents sadness because of the tears we shed. Water also puts out fire just as sadness is what’s left when anger has dissipated.
- Earth represents acceptance because it is grounded, stable, and real: a foil to air.
With the creative aid of Emma Bertram, this primitive concept matured into a unique model of the grieving process.
Over FaceTime, Emma and I sharpened the concept and developed a more concrete plan.
Emma helped me make some changes which would be vital to the final product. First and foremost, I had only planned to represent the elements symbolically (through light, colors, etc.), but she convinced me to include each of the elements physically. Here’s how we planned to account for each element:
- Air: An overwhelming blast of air in her face. People offer her tissues, but they all blow away. It’s all just too much to take in at once.
- Fire: A match. It blazes in her hand until the water extinguishes it. It’s easier for her to be angry than sad.
- Water: A vase of water. With a shaking hand, she tips it over the flame. She drops slightly, having lost the energy the flame was holding for her.
- Earth: She lifts the vase to find a flower inside. Something beautiful has sprouted from her pain.
Emma also came up with the idea of wearing funeral attire to clarify from the start that the emotions she feels are derived from grief.
There was one detail we didn’t fully pan out: the cinematography.
I wanted to shoot the film in one long take because life (and thus grief) flows in one continuous stream. I also envisioned the camera slowly dollying in so the viewer could feel the character’s vulnerability heightening. However, we didn’t consider whether this would even be feasible with the equipment or experience we had.
But that’s a later problem.
The Color Spectrum
“The Elements” was my second time experimenting with color.
The first was “Inside and Out,” a dramatic short about a young woman (Emma Bertram) who struggles to overcome her agoraphobia to attend an outing. The film cuts back and forth between her physical approach toward the door and the continuous torture within her mind. For the insights into her mind, I illuminated the scene with red, blue, and green lighting to distinguish it from reality.
My use of color in “The Elements” was distinct in its purpose. In “Inside and Out,” the colors act as a key for the viewer to easily identify whether the scene is mental or physical. In “The Elements,” the lighting and colors hold meaning within her emotional landscape.
The lights flash on too brightly for the eye to adjust, so she covers her eyes. This is a physical representation of denial: the pain, like the light, is too strong for her to fully comprehend or even acknowledge, so she ignores it and grows numb to the world around her. However, this can’t last forever.
RED. The color shifts without warning from neutral to red just as her anger ignites in an instant. However, that slow and steady sadness creeps in (as it always must) in the form of a blue light gradually becoming more prominent beside the ambitious red.
As the flame goes out, so does the red, and all that’s left is that aching blue. It moves in and out like soft waves. Little by little, a neutral-colored light fades in, softer than the first light we saw. The blue is still present, but it’s more of an accent now. She will always have that blue glow inside of her, but it will live on dimly.
Sometimes You Miss, Sometimes You Score
Since the only sound in the entire film would be the score, I knew that I needed a powerful, tonally varying song that could dominate the auditory space.
My first musical find was a piano composition by Lucas King titled “Hate.” What caught me about the composition was the shift around 4:21. The drop from angry to weary aligned with the tonal shift I had planned for when the character puts out the flame, and her anger leaves her alone with her sadness.
However, the licensing link lead to a lost page, so I had no way of legally including the song in my film. For the weeks following, I attempted to contact Lucas King through multiple mediums but was unable to reach him.
Then the shooting day arrived. Having given up on receiving a response, I sought new music to carry my viewers along the visual journey. Multiple songs caught my ear, but none caught my heart. This film needed the song to fully engage the viewers, to heighten the colors and acting to their fiercest potential.
I found the song.
“Angry Youth” was not at all what I had expected (or been looking for), but the orchestral madness by Secession Studios stole me and wouldn’t let go. Although I had been seeking a piano melody, I couldn’t imagine any other song setting free the wild emotions of “The Elements” than the battle cry of Uyanga Bold undertoned by the thumping, tribal-sounding drums. At its core, the song held the chaos of nature, of the harsh outdoors, of the painful elements.
There’s no protection in the wild, just as there’s none in grief.
Planning the Shot (List?)
I almost made a decision which would have hurt the entire visual aesthetic of “The Elements.”
As I wrote earlier, the original plan was to shoot the film in one shot. I planned to dolly in slowly to highlight the increasing vulnerability of our main character. I love dolly shots, especially for emotional realizations or developments.
An ambitious shot like this seemed near impossible to complete, given all the other shenanigans I had planned for the crew to enact while filming. So, I gave up on it. I began to draft a shot list which became more wide-angle as the film went on. This way, I still captured that increasing vulnerability I had wanted with the single-shot plan.
However, the shot list grew stale. I repeatedly alternated between a front close and a side medium. It was boring. It was missing the spark all other aspects of the film possessed.
And worst of all: it was too easy.
I refused to give up on the film I imagined: an encapsulation of grief. We don’t get to look away from grief; we don’t get to cut to another shot, cut to a later date when colors have changed and magically find a glass of water in our fists. So why should we give the viewers such a luxury?
This was a one-shot film. It had been from the start, and it had to be in the end. Now that murmuring question remained: how?
I did change one detail about the one-shot plan which would ease it a bit: the camera would be stationary. Although I adore well-placed dolly shots, mine often look shaky and out-of-focus, as I do not have the proper equipment or experience to pull it off perfectly.
Dolly or not, this shoot would still be a rollercoaster. I only hoped that, as we would unbuckle and exit the ride, it would have been worth it.
Into the Garage
After some deliberation, I chose my garage as our shooting location.
First and foremost, I was able to play with water and fire without much fear of the floor getting ruined. It’s a garage, after all. (Of course, you always have to fear fire, but that would be true in any location.)
I also loved the texture of the garage as a backdrop: it felt rugged but not distracting.
Lights, Camera, etc.
This one-minute film took four hours to shoot.
Our actress (Emma Bertram) and our crew (Gabriella Diaz, Beth Polito, and Julia Schnarr) arrived at around 6:15 PM. We waited until after sunset so that sunlight wouldn’t shine through the garage windows and dilute our colorful lighting.
First, I explained to my cast and crew what would actually happen during the shoot. We set up the lights and props necessary for said plan. Gabriella brought a red gel and we used my pride flag for the blue lighting. Iconic.
Some trial and error. Did you know matches are hard to light, especially when the matchbox gets wet? Let’s switch to a candle.
Next, I assigned jobs for the crew to complete during the shoot. Since this film was packed with lighting and prop changes, each of us was occupied for the entire runtime:
- Beth turns on the light. I rack focus from the wall behind Emma to her face as she’s blinded by this sudden change.
- Beth turns on two hairdryers and points them up at Emma’s hair. Gabriella and Julia hold tissues in front of Emma’s face then release.
- Julia lights the candle in Emma’s hand. Gabriella turns off the bright light and switches on the red as Emma lifts the candle. I rack focus to the candle.
- Beth turns on a blue light from afar and approaches Emma. Julia hands Emma a vase full of water.
- Emma pours water onto the candle and drops it into a glass bowl (once she’s sure it has gone out). Gabriella turns off the red light and I rack focus to Emma’s face. Beth rocks the blue light back and forth, simulating the sea.
- Emma lowers the vase, and Julia places a flower inside. Gabriella covers the original light with a thin, white sheet and turns it away from the scene.
- Gabriella turns on the white light and slowly rotates it toward Emma, who lifts the flower-bearing vase. I rack focus to the vase.
We rehearsed this countless times before running it for real. It took over an hour to get the movements and timing down.
Oh yeah, did I mentioned we had to align this chaos with the score? To accomplish this (and allow Emma to act off the ferocious vocals and fervent drums), I blasted the song throughout my garage while we shot. I also directed my cast and crew when to enact their next cues.
Can I just say: the first take went surprisingly well.
Of course, that praise belongs to the unwavering diligence of my cast and crew. They really hustled through the entire take to get the job done as beautifully as possible.
While the first take went rather well, there were a few details which were off about it. For example, the candle (arguably the most difficult task to complete on time) was not lit on time for the lighting and sound cues. However, it was definitely a usable take, if necessary.
We shot around six takes before the one. In some, we messed up an aspect of the plan; in others, I simply knew it was worse than that first take. But when you shoot the take, you know it.
My only experience comparable to what I felt at the end of that take was during the shoot for “The Phone Rang.” At the end of the 11th take, everyone in the room knew we had done it. It feels pretty darn good when everything falls into place.
We wrapped up at around 10:15. Of course, I edited the entire film that night. I couldn’t wait to watch our experimental creation! (Of course, it helped that there wasn’t much to edit in this one-shot film. The only notable edit I made was adding a quote by Earl Grollman, partially in case viewers didn’t understand that the film was about grief.)
Gabriella and Julia shot behind-the-scenes footage with their phones, and I edited it together in a way that best highlights all the actions that took place.
Watch the video to see some orderly chaos play out!
Alright, gang. Here it is:
I’m very proud of this film. I feel as though I applied and improved all the new techniques I learned and skills I acquired in my film-heavy year of 2018 while also annexing the experimental genre into my portfolio. I’m pleased that I stuck through with this out-there idea rather than exiling it to the Island of Abandoned Scripts: it was a pretty fun experiment.
More than anything, I’m grateful for my stellar cast and crew. In my second film directing Emma Bertram, I’m even more impressed with her ability to pull a wide range of emotions from somewhere within. I’m equally impressed by my crew of three, who managed to complete their line of tasks timely and well. How lucky I am to be encircled by such talented and willing individuals!
NJ Film Meet-Up
Not long after I released “The Elements” online, Daryn Davidson asked if we would like to present the film and answer questions at NJ Film School‘s winter meet-up. Do I even have to say how we answered?
I enjoyed the opportunity to discuss a film with so much to discuss: concept, lighting, score, cinematography, and of course the shoot itself!
Of course, it was also an excuse to spend time with those people I keep raving about.
“The Elements” is a nosedive into the psyche of a young woman in grief, its visuals and sounds bearing an inextinguishable ferocity. In rough times, we are thrown into the elements, but it’s always possible to find shelter. Acceptance is a beautiful albeit bittersweet flower which can blossom if one is given the opportunity to grieve. I hope this film finds its way into a few eyes, a few ears; a few minds, a few hearts.
I’m so honored that The Patch wrote an article about my film’s acceptance into GSFF! Check it out!
Cut to red and blue and all the colors of the spectrum.