In Australia’s first single-take feature film, Watch the Sunset, a man comes to grips with the power of his past when his estranged family becomes entangled in its web. The film’s Cinematographer and Co-Producer, Damien Lipp, chats to Australian Cinematographer Magazine.
Interview by James Cunningham.
Watch the Sunset owns its underlying theme about the effects of crystal meth and ice, a very real contemporary Australian issue. The story centers on Danny Biaro (Tristan Barr), an outlaw bikie member who wants to change his ways and start a new life with his estranged family. But his past quickly catches up to him and he is compelled to make a decision that will affect his life forever. The journey follows him rushing against the clock in order to save his family.
The one-take concept of Watch the Sunset allows the viewer to observe the harsh reality of this regional problem while cleverly keeping up the frenetic pace of a frantic story. Beneath the surface of the film we discover both a story of love as well as an unrelenting quest for redemption. The film was shot on location in the beautiful country town of Kerang, Victoria, with cast and crew able to follow the action through eight different locations. Using actors amongst a real community to bring true sincerity, honesty and immersion to Australia’s first single-take feature film.
Watch the Sunset is from BarrLipp Productions, which is made up of Tristan Barr (Co-Director, Writer and Lead Actor) and Damien Lipp (Cinematographer and Co-Producer). The duo have been creating work together for the last four years. “We do corporate work to supplement our creative ventures,” says Lipp.
Barr had written a scene based on two underprivileged young adults who had found hard times in a remote country town. During some monotonous jobs, the pair kept fantasising about shooting a feature film using Kerang, where Lipp is from. The story emerged as they went deeper into writing the characters, “This is a story which we felt needed to be told.”
The film depicts raw and astonishing visuals with genuine emotion, and the audience is left to feel as though they are right there in the middle of the action.
Barr and Lipp decided to shoot Watch the Sunset in a single take to give the audience a very intimate experience, “not giving them the chance to turn away from the film, making them and sometimes forcing them to feel a part of every scene.” They had big desires to shoot the film with the Red Epic, or even the Arri on the Movi system, but the size of the camera and the rig would not work due to the technicalities of the shoot getting in and out of cars and onto cranes. The results of this would point them to a much smaller system, being the Came 7800 gimbal with a Panasonic GH4, which “was a great little rig and still a challenge to carry for the duration of the film.”
“The film was actually shot in my home town Kerang,” says Lipp. This gave the cinematographer a greater understanding of the locations where they would be shooting. Both Lipp and the production team wanted to keep the town as authentic as possible. For them, it wasn’t a matter of dressing the locations but sourcing the correct location, particularly logistically workable within the one take framework.
“We went to Kerang as much as we could to work out the flow of locations. We became to know the town intimately, particularly with Jesse Gohier-Fleet (Assistant Camera) as the movements had to be choreographed precisely.” Gohier-Fleet had worked with Barr prior to working on Watch the Sunset, one thing led to another, and Lipp really liked his thoughts on how things may have become achievable when shooting.
Although Lipp had seen Alexander Sokurov’s 99 minute one-take Russian Ark (2002), it was a very different concept and so, “wasn’t actually on our radar.” They had also settled on the idea to shoot Watch the Sunset in one take before Sebastian Schipper’s Victoria (2015) was released, also a one-take feature film. “I managed to see Victoria at the Melbourne International Film Festival just after we shot Watch the Sunset,” says Lipp. “Although it was too late to take influence from it, it did reassure me that you can make a one-take feature film, carry a good story and continue to keep the audience engaged.”
Lipp says that he probably had the most inspiration from season one of the television series True Detective (shot by Australia’s Adam Arkapaw ACS) which featured a highly intense six-minute single-take scene in episode four, as well as the Australian feature film Boxing Day (2007) directed and shot by Kriv Stenders.
The rehearsal period started with Lipp and Barr going out into a park and doing tests with the gimbal and the cameras. “It was a good three weeks before we came to the conclusion that we would be able to do the one take,” said Lipp. “We first thought it might be individual scene. After we had a solid idea of camera movements, the next challenge was light.”
Lipp says they needed to keep in mind where the sun would be at the certain time to ward off any shadows that may creep into shot, as well as lighting the characters to assist with the story. The crew had five weeks of rehearsals before the shoot, and had not had a full run through with all actors until the first take. “It was quite the experiment”, explains the young cinematographer.
Working alongside Lipp was Jesse Gohier-Fleet (AC) as well as Lachlan Wright (Sound Recordist). “I had never met these guys before and spent majority of the shoot in my AC’s lap as we both had to travel in the car with the actors, so you could say we had to get along pretty well.”
“There were times when I would have to hand the gimbal to my AC so I could get out of the car and have the continuous dolly tracking shot through the interior of the car.” There are a lot of ‘trick shots’ in the film and Lipp says that without having Gohier-Fleet beside him the whole way there is no way that he could have accomplished what they did.
Wright, on the other hand, had to wrangle eleven microphones which were set up in different locations plus lapels on every actor and a boom pole in his hands. “He would follow the lead car everywhere and get out according to the scene.” Lipp says that Wright really delivered on Watch the Sunset and pushed beyond, “I definitely think we will continue making films together after this experience.”
Lipp had originally said he wasn’t happy with the abundance of interior shots that the film relied on and that he felt they needed to get an external of the car. This would require logistics get out of the car, and then have a mode of transport to have a tracking shot of a moving car. “When there is a will there is a way,” Lipp explains. “I had a van pull up beside the main actors’ car and with the van’s side door open and I would transition inside, get strapped in and hang on for dear life whilst holding the gimbal one arm outside the vehicle.”
“The acting from our team was phenomenal,” Lipp says. As was, he explains, the vision and understanding from all parties concerned in regards to camera movements. “Being a one take film you strive for perfection but there is a knowingness that you won’t get everything right all the time. If someone does let me know.”
BarrLipp Productions are in the final stretch of post-production on Watch the Sunset. “Once again I have been there everyday with the film so it takes some endurance,” says Lipp. Music composition on Watch the Sunset is by Richard Labrooy and Lipp says it has been imperative to the story and the journey of the audience, “We have found the film could be received in many different ways just by his choices.”
“Our CGI was done by Neil Rowe in London, I won’t spoil to much,” Lipp says, and the grading on the film was completed by Jesse Gohier-Fleet also. Lipp explains that he grade was a hard feat for Gohier-Fleet as lighting changed quite a lot throughout the film. “We were able to pass on notes, but after spending the past few months working with him, we left a lot of the responsibility to him.”
Before shooting the film, the team closely examined how the colours of each location in the film would feel as the audience travelled through. The school was a bright but also daunting area as the camera would be at an uncomfortable level giving a more claustrophobic feel. The church was dark and lit by natural and Stained glass window, the park turned grey and overcast which was a blessing as the scene unfolds. And as for the final shot, “I wont spoil it but it opened up beautifully leaving the audience with an uneasy, yet satisfied ending.”
Lipp says he is very happy with how Watch the Sunset has turned out. “If I was to change anything it would be to shoot it in a bigger car so that I could use bigger cameras and a bigger operating system. That is probably the only thing I would change.” Apart from that he is pretty positive about the work that the crew did and the feat that they pulled off.
Watch the Sunset delivers in spades. Cinematography-wise, also, the film cleverly manages to shift perspectives within its 82 minutes. Although unedited, it feels seamlessly edited and runs instinctively. Along with a brilliantly constructed screenplay Watch the Sunset is a thrilling and enjoyable film all round and the fact that it was shot in one take is not only a bonus for the audience but a demonstration of the highest skills of modern filmmaking.
Lipp is currently in post-production for a documentary on mental health within the entertainment industry called The Show Must Go On, and also in pre-production for BarrLipp’s next feature, Evo, a post apocalyptic film shooting this year. “Think Mad Max meets Children of Men,” says Lipp.
Damien Lipp is known for his work on Beckoning the Butcher (2014) and Nokturnal Bliss (2017).
James Cunningham is the Editor of Australian Cinematographer Magazine.