One shot: Capturing the heart of our new quake house

One shot: Capturing the heart of our new quake house

Our Earthquake House has had a makeover. It includes a new immersive video experience created in collaboration with Storybox and National Park, featuring actors Rachel House and Rākau Tamaira. Making the new video was no simple task – particularly as the whole thing had to be filmed in one shot. Experience developer Ralph Upton describes what filming was like, and why the earthquake house had to change. 

It’s after 3pm. We’re all crowded around the monitor in the corner of the kitchen. 

Jo, who shakes the lampshade and the clock, is watching the monitor. So is Toby, who shakes the table. So is ‘tall’ Paul, whose job it is to pull the microwave over. Also ‘handsome’ Paul, who waves the trees outside (‘tall Paul is handsome, but handsome Paul’s not tall’, says Dean, the director).

There are other people here too – I won’t introduce them all; the dish rack jiggler, the cardboard box stack shaker, the sound recordist, the producer, and others. It’s a full kitchen.

The cast and crew gather around the monitor to review the latest take, 2019. Photo by Ralph Upton. Te Papa

Close but not close enough

We’ve got this one day to get one shot – a single, 4 minute take for the refurbished earthquake house. This last go-through looks pretty much perfect. Rachel’s delivery is spot on. Good pace – Rākau’s nimble on his cues. Nice turtling when the ‘quake’ strikes – both of them covering their head and neck. The stack of cardboard boxes and their contents fall the right way.

But we can’t use the shot.

We hadn’t realised it, but the table that the two actors get under during the scene has an extendable section that sits underneath. In, this, the fourth or fifth take of the day and the best, it jiggled loose and came to rest on the actor’s backs. It’s not unrealistic, but it looks weird. It clomps awkwardly to the floor as they get up at the end of the scene. No good. Reset.

The crew gets ready for another run through, 2019. Photo by Ralph Upton. Te Papa

Why would we change it, anyway?

I don’t know if you visited the old Earthquake House, but it was adored by millions.  Although it gave you a feeling of what an earthquake might be like, it was a fairly passive experience. You stood your ground as the place did its jelly-wobble.

Visitors taking pictures of the old earthquake house
The old earthquake house that featured in the exhibition Awesome Forces, 2018. Photo by Jean-Claude Stahl. Te Papa (105813)

The quake house was always coming back for the new exhibition, but there was never a chance that we would leave it unchanged – not after the human impact of the Canterbury and Kaikōura quakes. Like the tsunami tank nearby, and the shake table next to that, the new house is focused on preparedness and action. 

Don’t just stand there the plan for the new quake house

The concept was simple enough. You, the visitor, wander into the house and see, via a big screen, a view into an adjoining kitchen. The new owners ‘enter’ and offer you a cup of tea. They chat about the renovations they’re doing to the old place. 

While you’re there, an earthquake happens. You drop, cover, and hold with the actors, and get a reminder about making your own home safer. Active, memorable, and hopefully still fun – at least as much as an earthquake should be.

But it’s 3pm, and we still don’t have the shot for the video that has to fill that doorframe.

Easy, right?

Here are five of the things that have to go right in the hour or two we have left:

  1. In a single 4-minute take, two actors have to hit all their lines.
  2. Boxes, bottles, and kitchen objects have to fall in the right direction. 
  3. Rākau has to not stand too far forward when he turns to camera – if he does, his foot will disappear out of frame, ruining the illusion. 
  4. He has to deliver a line after drinking apple juice, and another with a mouthful of biscuits. Microphones have to not be scuffled as they drop under the table. 
  5. Planes have to not fly overhead.

Of course, a whole lot of things have gone right already, to get us to here.

  1. Testing showed that audiences wanted to drop, cover and hold in the house (the kids at least).
  2. Rākau gave a great audition and has the charm you need to instruct complete strangers on earthquake safety unprompted.
  3. Rachel House, our first choice for the role of the aunty, said yes (and she’s killing it).
  4. Dean took the script and punched up the jokes, making it funnier.
  5. The team at Storybox worked small miracles with the set dressing, practical effects, and the location, which matches the house.
  6. The test footage, shot the week before, looked great on site.

    Ralph (pink hat) and other members or the crew test the illusion on site using using a projector. The final version is a large TV screen, 2019. Photo by Rachael Hockridge. Te Papa


We’re ready to go again. Rākau’s doing great but he’s nine and it’s been a long day.

The crew get into position. They’re huddled on benches and in nooks just out of shot, looking to Dean for their cues. The late afternoon light is sneaking in more to the left of frame, past where he is standing. If he ‘conducts’ the quake too vigorously, he’ll cast shadows onto the floor. He holds his arms close into his body – chest height for light tremors, head height for intense shaking.  Someone pipes up: easy on the clock this time – it’s an earthquake, not a poltergeist.

We start this take, like the others, with 40 seconds of stillness. That’s because, in the museum, we’ll need a break for the audience to change over, during which time you’ll see an empty kitchen. During the wait, Dean gives a last note or two to Rākau: remember where to put those feet.

I think about what can and can’t be controlled in life.

Three months later

I’m standing in the quake house a week after opening day. The late afternoon light from that day looks great in the frame as Rachel and Rākau nail the scene. A family is dropping and holding together under the table. ‘Good turtle’ says their mum. 

It was a shaky ride, we got there.


Kids in the new quake house, 2019. Te Papa


  1. Lovely post Ralph, beautifully written.
    What great mahi you do… x

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