Going Up? – An Interview with Alon Isocianu
We caught up with director Alon Isocianu for a behind the scenes look at “Up We Go”, along with some advice on dealing with unforgiving eyeballs, confetti machine malfunctions, and the other perils of directing a one-shot video.
Listing Tarsem Singh, Wes Anderson, and Joseph Kahn among his influences, Isocianu is known for his irreverent concepts and eye-popping visual effects created by Reactiv post (where he serves as Creative Director).
Several recent collaborations with Canadian pop artists (Lights, Shawn Hook) have seen Isocianu showcase a more practical production style, forgoing VFX-heavy treatments for a series of light-hearted concepts that complement the tracks’ pop hooks.
Thus far the combination has been a successful one, with “Up We Go” generating strong view numbers on YouTube, and Hook’s “A Million Ways” currently in heavy rotation on MuchMusic.
“Up We Go”: The elevator pitch
The concept for “Up We Go” is simple enough: Lights gets on an elevator and hits a floor. On the way up she encounters a series of increasingly absurd scenarios, including grappling luchadores, escaping bank robbers, and giant eyeballs – all en route to a confetti-strewn finale on the top floor.
“There’s just something so mundane and rigid about elevators,” Isocianu explains, “we kind of take them for granted on a daily basis. I liked the idea of using one as a space for chaos where things escalate in absurdity, but then still framing it in this very static, deadpan sort of manner.”
Inspired by Wes Anderson’s experiments with action and perception, Isocianu plays with space and movement to create a layered experience that feels much larger than a simple elevator car.
As characters move in and out of varying field depths, Lights remains firmly in the foreground – unaffected by the increasingly chaotic scenes unfolding on each floor.
Shot in one day at Wallace Studios in Toronto, the video’s sense of upward motion is created by a series of sliding sets that are moved in and out each time the elevator doors close.
With only a single day on-location, rehearsals with the talent, art department, and lighting all took place on the day of the shoot. As a result cameras didn’t start rolling until about nine hours in, meaning the day was almost over before the crew grabbed a single full take.
After battling timing issues and a calamitous confetti machine malfunction, the third take proved to be the money shot (and also happens to be the one you see in the finished video).
Three keys to one-shot wizardry
Fresh off of the success of “Up We Go”, we asked Alon to share some of his experiences from the shoot, along with his advice for first-time one-shot directors.
1) Clarity is key
When you’re shooting a one-take video, giving clear direction is key.
To help the actors hit their marks, Isocianu created a detailed time code breakdown of the song, outlining exactly what should happen when. This breakdown was then used to create a cue clip that played on monitors during the shoot, calling out desired actions via a series of beeps and visual alerts.
“You can rehearse until the cows come home,” Isocianu notes, “but if everybody doesn’t know what they’re supposed to be doing, they’ll never know if what they’re doing is right or wrong – making it difficult to get a repeated good performance. The only way to handle it is to keep trying over and over, not to get discouraged, and to be clear in your direction.”
2) Roll with the punches
There’s a scene at 1:22 in “Up We Go” where the robber jumps up, grabs a ladder that’s out-of-frame, and pulls himself up through the elevator’s escape hatch. It’s a physically demanding scene, and the actor who was originally cast was having trouble pulling it off.
After watching him struggle to complete the escape, Isocianu made the change on the fly to use an alternate cast member (who was initially one of the masked actors in the office scene).
Given their unpredictable nature, Isocianu counts this ability to adapt and think quickly as key to a successful one-take production:
“Know exactly what you want before you step onto the set, but be ready to change some things on the fly if they don’t work. Because we didn’t have a lot of time to rehearse and shoot, for “Up We Go” it was important that I made some quick decisions.”
3) Rely not upon happy accidents
Given the number of unknowns on a one-take shoot, there’s no substitute for clarity and preparation. While there will undoubtedly be moments of unscripted inspiration, Isocianu cautions against counting on these to deliver one-take magic.
“It’s imperative that you know what you want and communicate it as clearly as possible to everyone on your cast and crew,” he notes. “Improvisation and happy accidents are great, but don’t rely on those happening when you’re on a tight schedule. Know what you’re after, and let “happy accidents” be just that.”
So what do you think of “Up We Go”? How do you think it stacks up against some of your other favourite one-take videos?
Let us know in the comments, or drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Special thanks to Alon Isocianu for his contributions to this post. An extremely talented and versatile director, you can count on seeing a lot more from Alon in the future.