‘One Take Movies’ and the Art of Practical Special Effects (Video)

We tend to associate web series with terms like “low-budget” or “mumblecore,” which implies a level of impromptu haphazardness one expects from high school kids messing around with dad’s camera after school.

But nothing could be further from the case with “One Take Movies,” a series by the comedy site Above Average, which is part of Lorne Michaels’ Broadway Video family. As the name implies, the mini-films–whimsical parodies of genres like “The Disaster Movie” or “The Heist Movie”–are all shot in one continuous take, a particularly tricky challenge when having to show an asteroid destroying the earth or a superhero battling robots.

“I’ve always been a fan of Michel Gondry’s practical special effects,” says co-creator Avery Monsen. “That sort of handmade aesthetic.” Mr. Monsen, who wrote the famed ironic gift purchase All My Friends Are Dead and has written for the FUSE show Billy on the Street, came up with the concept for One Take after being asked to work on Above Average’s social media campaigns. “They wanted me to do Vines, so I thought I should pitch them something with a similar aesthetic.”

“Specifically, there was one Vine I made, Abraham Lincoln becomes a manager at Hot Topic. It was a tearaway costume and dropping in backgrounds.” With friend Jon Bershad and UCB Maude teammate Jon Bershad, Mr. Monsen wrote several scripts for the five minute series that both evoked a child’s diorama project and was “incredibly stressful to make.”


“We could only shoot for 10 hours, and we filmed entirely in this circus training center in Williamsburg called the Muse, where our director Ryan Hunter lives,” Mr. Monsen said.

Shoots would generally begin setting up at three in the afternoon, and filming would go until early in the a.m. In addition to the five to nine actors in every video, there are approximately 10 people in full black body suits (and hoods) who act as a live stage crew, turning the production into a giant game of Mousetrap: if just one of the “scenes” gets screwed up, everything would need to be reset and start again.

“We would just be shooting takes over and over and over again until 3 am,” said Mr. Monsen. “The third one, we didn’t have a usable take until 2 am. We started to think, ‘What if we get nothing?’ With this insane one-take thing, it’s possible to just run out of time. You put in all this effort, and you get nothing.”

Mr. Monsen made all the props, which have included a giant talking pile of money, a city-destroying robot, and the aforementioned asteroid. “We didn’t know what we were doing,” Mr. Monsen laughed. “In the scripts it would just say things like ‘Avery transforms into a pile of money.’ And then there’d be a parentheses, ‘We’ll figure it out later.’ We basically wrote things that we thought were funny, without thinking of whether or not it was physically possible.”