White Claw, the exclusive hard seltzer of Sundance Film Festival 2023 - the first to be held in person after a two year break - wanted to pay homage to the craft of filmmaking with a short film to be shown between the premieres. The advertising agency VCCP reached out to Laura with an open brief to give her the space to interpret the challenge without limits on her creativity; she then brought on her close friends at film company Farm League to produce.
‘First Light’, the short film from director Laura Gonçalves, with editing from Affonso Gonçalves, premiered at the festival on the 20th of January, 2023. Shot in stark monochrome, per the brand’s aesthetic, it follows the journey of filmmaker Erika Hinck as she prepares to capture a sunrise amid the harshness of Utah’s snowy mountains. It details the dedication and discomfort inherent to the craft of filmmaking while the theme is always universal, speaking to anyone who’s had to push in order to achieve something great.
Laura approached the film with efficiency, knowing that she had to fit a lot of ideas into a 30 second format. It’s her background in philosophy, however, that influenced the visual language, allowing her to explore and ask big questions through the medium of film. Achieving a feeling of authenticity was one of the main aims for all the parties involved and that meant shooting on location (December in Utah) and following in the footsteps of the film’s character - waking up before dawn, going to the mountain to set up the equipment, and dealing with the elements while getting the right footage. The metanarrative of shooting a filmmaker as she prepares to make her film added another dimension of realism to the production, complete with a frozen monitor and unbearably cold hands which Laura nevertheless pushed through.
The result is a succinct meditation on the craft of filmmaking, expertly edited to deliver the message in a short yet expansive-seeming 30 seconds. LBB spoke to Laura and her editor, Affonso, about the pressure of making a film for filmmakers’ eyes, the creative process behind First Light, and the pleasure of working together as a husband and wife team.
LBB> How did you approach the film direction for this project?
Laura> In the format of a 30 second commercial, the directing style has to be born from efficiency. Every frame has to help tell the story.
My background in cinematography is fundamentally influenced by the visual language of cinema, but the other side to me, from having studied philosophy, inspires visual metaphors and unanswered questions. Like if a student of Socrates was a film camera, who wears a satin jacket.
LBB> Tell us a little bit about the brief and how you first came up with your response. What did White Claw want to communicate with this short film?
Laura> The brief was simple: create a compelling film that ties White Claw to Sundance in a way that feels authentic to both. My first thought when I read the brief was, “What would an audience of filmmakers most relate to?” Then I thought of my own story as a director and cinematographer. Getting out of bed early to shoot sunrise is never easy, but that resistance is a parable for pushing one’s self out of their comfort zone. How the sometimes lonely and treacherous persistence of filmmaking often pays off in the most extraordinarily beautiful ways.
White Claw embraces that sense of adventure and invention, and their goal in this partnership is to support and embrace the creativity of young filmmakers, so I thought this idea could be inspiring and relevant.
LBB> How often do you get to work on open-ended briefs like this? Are they preferable to highly detailed ones or not?
Laura> Open-ended collaborations in the commercial world can be rare, but incredibly rewarding. I really appreciate the freedom the agency, VCCP, gave me. They wanted to do something special that supported filmmakers, and they backed my idea completely. It’s nice to feel trusted in your vision.
LBB> How did you come up with the final idea?
Laura> The general idea came about quickly, but really solidified as I remembered a quote from Albert Camus that’s always been a source of inspiration for me: “A man’s work is nothing but this slow trek to rediscover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart is first opened.” This thought sparked the moment of our filmmaker talent seeing the sun rise over the horizon, awe in her eyes.
LBB> White Claw’s campaigns are always in black and white. How did you feel about working with this colour palette?
Laura> I was so excited to shoot the landscapes that way! I love White Claw’s commitment to black and white, because clients can rarely commit to that. It allowed me to shoot monochrome, and infrared cameras, generously provided by RED cinemas.
LBB> You worked with a drone operator to get the expansive nature shots. Why was it the best option for this film?
Laura> We were incredibly fortunate to collaborate with the talented group of drone operators at Override films, based in Salt Lake City. I knew I wanted to get a very high shot, but also a specific graphic frame of our subject walking in a sea of snow at night. A drone was the best approach to get that shot in the middle of nowhere in order to show her true isolation.
LBB> As the editor, what was your brief on the project?
Affonso> Tell the story the most concise and precise way possible, Laura has such specific visual ideas, we stuck as close as we wanted to the original concept.
LBB> What was it like working together with your wife on the film? Did Laura have a specific vision she wanted you to bring to life with your edit or was it a more collaborative process?
Affonso> I love working with Laura. It was 100% a collaborative process, we watched the footage together and had a plan in place even before we started to edit. It was very smooth and fun.
LBB> Tell us a little bit about casting and working with a filmmaker as the actor in the piece. Did this affect the way you approached the filming process at all?
Laura> Erica genuinely lives this lifestyle and is a very talented filmmaker. I loved that she lives in Utah because I wanted to keep the story close to the Sundance community. Her energy and spirit was exactly what I was looking for. Usually the simplest and most effective path to authenticity is to set the scene with real players and get out of the way.
Laura filming Erica.
LBB> The film depicts a metanarrative of the filming process; having a creative vision, waking up while everyone else is asleep, setting up the shot. What was the shooting process like? How much of what’s depicted in the film did you have to go through too in your own experience?
Laura> Every day during the shoot we re-lived this narrative, which gave the whole crew a sense that we were on the right path. The snow was knee-high and the environment was tough, but the final product was so rewarding. A total parallel between on-camera and off.
Behind the scenes shot of Laura carrying her camera.
LBB> Your husband, Affonso Gonçalves, edited the film. Have you worked with him before, and what is it like to collaborate?
Laura> We have worked together before and it’s very fun and easy. It doesn’t hurt that he is truly the best at what he does.
LBB> The film will premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. Do you feel a different kind of pressure knowing that other filmmakers will be seeing the film first?
Laura> Absolutely. It’s a commercial that other filmmakers will see, and I hope people like it. Perhaps even see an echo of themselves in it.
Affonso> Yes, it's always daunting knowing that people are watching your work, you can only hope that they understand and appreciate Laura's vision for the project.
LBB> One of the aims of the film is to speak to filmmakers. How did your edit do that?
Affonso> With such a short amount of time to tell a story we wanted to be clear and specific with our choice of shots and with the rhythm, I think we achieved that.
LBB> Did you run into any challenges while filming? If so, how did you get around them?
Laura> Our monitors froze because it was so cold at night. My fingers stopped working at some point and we all had to take a break and warm up. It wasn’t easy, but it was really fun!
LBB> What’s the highlight of working on this project?
Laura> Getting the sunrise. Seeing the sunrise. That was so beautiful, and again, felt like life imitating art.
Affonso> Having a chance to tell this story, working on a short form project, it's always great to have a chance to tell a story but having to use just enough images to make it work.