Best of 2020 (Behind the Scenes): How The Vast of Night pulled off its stunning tracking shot
If nothing else, 2020 was a year full of surprises ranging from the horrifically bad to the surprisingly good. Falling squarely into the latter category, The Vast of Night was one of cinema's best surprises. In a year full of shuttered theaters and constant release date delays, the little sci-fi movie that could became something of a sleeper hit when it started streaming on Amazon Prime Video in May. The film, which was produced on a micro-budget fully funded by director Andrew Patterson himself, follows plucky switchboard operator Fay (Sierra McCormick) and local radio disc jockey Everett (Jake Horowitz) as the two find themselves pulled into a Twilight Zone-esque mystery when they discover a strange noise coming through the radio and phone lines. The film garnered rave reviews and plenty of online buzz, in particular for a knockout tracking shot that traverses the entire fictional town of Cayuga, New Mexico, in which the film is set. Here, the first-time director explains to EW how he and his team created the unforgettable moment — from the visual effects to the lighting and score, and behind the scenes problems with rogue felines.
Patterson, who co-wrote the film with Craig W. Sanger, says the idea for the shot came to him in a "flurry of about 10 or 15 minutes of writing" in the summer of 2015. "I remember getting to about page 50, and we had set up our lead character Fay in the switchboard," Patterson recalls. "And she was told by the other lead character Everett to send her a signal, and then to not call him or interrupt him for 10 minutes, so there was going to be a pause in the movie. Interestingly enough, the script sort of took over, and the camera drifted out of the switchboard." The script pages below reveal how the scene was written.
The visual effects
When he first conceived the shot, which clocks in at over four minutes long, Patterson admits he had no idea how he'd make it all work but he knew it had to stay in the final product. "Here I was, an independent filmmaker with no financing and no way of pulling off what I just wrote, but it was in the script, and it felt like it belonged in the script," he says. Eventually, it became clear that the oner would actually be a series of four long shots digitally stitched together to give it the appearance of one continuous take. The four shots, in order, are: from the switchboard to behind the house in the alley area, through the parking lot and up to the gym's front door, the sequence inside the gym and up to the back window, and from the gym's back window to the town's radio station. Overall, the various sequences took more than 40 takes to get right, and the VFX team took the reins from there.
The final transition of the shot, when the camera pans to the back of the gym and out the window to make its final journey to the radio station, required particular VFX magic for two reasons. One, the back of the gym didn't actually have any windows. And two, the location where they shot the radio station was actually 20 miles away, not right down the street as it's portrayed in the film. "That transition is because our wonderful grip and electric team put a big green screen up in the back of the gym and lit it very well. And then our VFX house came in and painstakingly made it look like right out the windows was our next location, which is just not true," Patterson explains. He adds, "When the VFX team sent me the first versions of that, I think I literally laughed out loud because it was so convincing that I had no clue how they pulled it off."
In fact, Patterson wants it known that the visual effects team, headed by VFX producer Marcelo Garcia and VFX supervisor Rodrigo Tomasso, are the key ingredients that brought his vision to life. "Their work was above and beyond what I expected to get," he admits. "It was really the reason this all came together."
The film takes place in the 1950s in a small New Mexico town. And though the town may be fictional, all of the locations in the long shot are actually real places that can be visited to this day in Whitney, Texas, with the exception of the radio station. Fay's switchboard was built into the closet of the back of an interior design store, for instance, and most of the town looks pretty similar to how it does in the movie, albeit with a bit of period-appropriate dressing added to it. Patterson says "most of the production design budget" went into making the gym where the basketball game is being held look like something out of the 1950s.
The lighting and score
Since the film takes place over the course of a night, special care needed to be given to lighting the long shot. To get it right, Patterson credits the "brilliant work" of cinematographer Miguel Ioann Littin Menz, who brought in $15 IKEA lamps to light the middle of the street and then taped the lights with black tin foil — a process known as cutting the light — to eliminate shadows. The VFX team would later remove any lighting equipment in the shot. "The lighting, I think, was really key in us pulling this off, because there is not enough light in these communities. To do what we did, it took six or seven hours of lighting for the first quarter of the shot, and then several hours of pre-lighting for each of the next three legs of the shot," Patterson explains.
And since there's no dialogue in the scene to worry about, the score is given plenty of room to shine on its own. Initially, Patterson used part of Cloverfield's score — a piece titled "Roar" by Michael Giacchino — as a temporary track for the scene. He loved that piece of music so much, he was worried that it would be tough to come up with something that he felt lived up to that. He sent the completed scene to his composers, Jared Bulmer and Erick Alexander, who timed the score to the scene. "Hopefully the experience that the viewer is having is reflected by the music. So when you don't know what's going on initially, it's a little bit foreboding, and it's mysterious, and it's new, and then as you get back to familiar area with the gym, it's sort of a nostalgic space," he explains. His favorite cue in the whole film happens in the long shot, when the camera pans out the back window. "I remembered sitting in a sound studio with Erick Alexander, when he took a violin piece that we'd recorded a month or two earlier, and he lowered the volume on everything else and mixed it to where you just hear these three chords of a violin as we kind of float out the back window," Patterson recalls. "And I've always thought that was an inspired moment, and I can't take credit for it. I really have to hand that off to my guys."
Although the elaborate shot, which was filmed over four days in a 17-day shoot, ultimately worked out, according to Patterson, there were "many, many things [that] went wrong again and again." Because the whole process was very "do it yourself," as he puts it, the technology used was not exactly high-tech. For starters, the filmmakers used a go-kart, traveling at about 35 miles an hour, to get the shot — but that go-kart, which was borrowed from a local in the town and was several years old, didn't really like to turn. "So that constantness of having to rip the steering wheel to the left just to kind of keep the shot smooth was a big one," he says. There were also all the extras to keep an eye on, who could "accidentally mess up our shot by looking into camera." An unexpected feline appearance also derailed a take. "We had a shot where we had a cat run right in front of the go-kart, and they nearly hit it," he says. "Then they had to stop and then they had to [drive] back." The crew also ran into problems with anachronisms. "We're shooting this in 2016, and when it gets to be about 5:30 in the morning, everybody that works out in the oil fields and mechanics and so on, start getting in their cars, and just driving to work," the director recalls. "And so you would just see a shot, it was going beautifully, and then a 2016 Chevrolet truck would just pass right through the frame."
The end results
Clearly, thanks to some movie magic, it all worked out. For Patterson, the reaction to the sequence, and the film at large, surpassed his wildest expectations. "I thought it served the narrative in an interesting way that I hadn't seen in a movie quite like this. I hoped that it would really shock and surprise people, but also be the kind of thing that still fit into the fabric of the movie," he says. The helmer admits that, after working on the project for so long, he "didn't know that we'd done anything special" initially, but that all changed when people started watching the film and reaching out to him. He says, "It wasn't until people that I have incredible respect for and admiration for wanted to ask me how we did this, and what were our tools and what were our tricks, that I finally realized that it was something that had the impact that I wanted it to have."