Hot takes: a short history of the one-shot movie in 11 attempts

From Hitchcock to 1917: why the history of the single-take film is a story of cheating, ingenuity and crazy ambition.

1917 (2019)

“No doubt about it; films must be cut,” said Alfred Hitchcock to François Truffaut in 1962. They were discussing the former’s 1948 film Rope, a picture famous for its apparent absence of cuts. “I undertook Rope as a stunt,” said Hitchcock, “that’s the only way I can describe it. I really don’t know how I came to indulge in it.”

Unfolding continuously across a single evening, with no jumps in time or location, it was the constant present-tense of Rope’s action that led to an unprecedented formal experiment. Hitchcock had the “crazy idea” to capture the film in a single shot – or rather, given the limitations of how much film a given magazine could hold (about 10 minutes), a series of shots ‘invisibly’ spliced together to create the illusion of a single, 80-minute take.

“To maintain that continuous action,” Hitchcock explained, “with no dissolves and no time lapses, there were… technical snags to overcome, among them, how to reload the camera at the end of each reel without interrupting the scene. We handled that by having a figure pass in front of the camera, blacking out the action very briefly while we changed from one camera to the other. In that way we’d end on a close-up of someone’s jacket, and at the beginning of the next reel, we’d open with the same close-up of the same character.”

Rope (1948)

It would be another 34 years before anyone attempted a technical challenge similar to that of Rope, once the storage capabilities of video and digital photography had removed the limitations of shooting on film. The sophistication of today’s digital editing techniques may have overcome Hitchcock’s “technical snags” in the ability to render any cut truly invisible, but the principles he pioneered remain a mainstay of the one-shot picture. If the post-production resources are there, breaking a oner into chunks while maintaining the illusion of unbroken continuity affords the possibility for greater complexity within a given take.

The unbroken shot doesn’t mean the classical cinematic language established by D.W. Griffith at the turn of the last century has to be abandoned, as Hitchcock described when talking about the visual schemes of Rope. “When I look back,” he said, “I realise that it was quite nonsensical because I was breaking with my own theories on the importance of cutting and montage for the visual narration of a story. On the other hand, the film was, in a sense, pre-cut. The mobility of the camera and the movement of the players closely followed my usual cutting practice. In other words, I maintained the rule of varying the size of the image in relation to its emotional importance within a given episode.”

It’s debatable as to whether audiences care about the purity of a one-shot film, so long as the effect remains. Two of the most highly decorated examples employed digital fakery as a means to an end, with Alejandro González Ińárritu’s Birdman (2014) taking the Oscar for best picture and Sam Mendes’ 1917 (2019) the same at the Golden Globes. But knowledge of a true oner’s means of production adds a serious thrill to the watch, to which the standing ovations – and Silver Bear for outstanding artistic contribution – that followed the Berlin premiere of Sebastian Schipper’s Victoria (2015) can attest.

One April morning in 2014, Schipper and his crew assembled in the Kreuzberg neighbourhood of Berlin for their third stab at nailing the single 140-minute shot that would stand as the longest ever attempted. It was their last chance to get it right, the budget only allowing for three run-throughs of the improvised script; only permitted after a 10-day shoot that followed the Hitchcock method of 10-minute ‘safety’ takes that could be cut together through a series of jump cuts if the oner failed.

These last chance pressures are up there on the screen, infecting the adrenaline rush of a heist narrative that sees the titular character caught up in a bank robbery and its fallout. As far as genre cinema goes, it’s the most effective marriage of form and content in the oner canon, lent both urgency and scale by its real-time hurtle through the streets of Berlin, without sacrificing the intimacy afforded by the insistent subjectivity of its protagonist.

Victoria (2015)

Such intimacy is magnified tenfold in the earliest example of the one-shot picture to follow Rope. Macbeth (1983) is a television experiment by Hungarian maestro Béla Tarr, consisting of a five-minute, pre-credits take followed by an unbroken 57-minute shot. Shot on video, and by virtue of its length, stripped down to the barest of essentials, Tarr emphasises the play’s psychological violence in relentless close-up. Faces are crammed into his frame – almost lip to lip in the two shots – as the camera evinces the elaborate staging that allows for the (mostly) seamless transition between scenes.

Clearly an experimental work, one that repeats an exercise in literary adaptation that Tarr needed to fulfil his course obligations at film school, it’s also a transitional piece in the director’s filmography, one that bridges the static, documentary realism of his first three features with the monumentally complex shot design that would make his international reputation on the films that followed.

Macbeth (1983)

The inherent subjectivity of the feature-length oner seems a natural fit for the horror movie, putting the viewer in the shoes of the distressed protagonist. Uruguayan filmmaker Gustavo Hernández made claims for his 2010 film La casa muda (remade the following year in the US as Silent House, using the same techniques), suggesting the 88-minute feature, shot on a shoestring budget over four days, was captured in a single take; only to be called to account when it emerged that the camera he used was only capable of recording 15 minutes of footage at a time. Whatever the truth of the matter, both Hernández’ film and its English language remake are impressively effective, especially the former, given its limited means.

The two Silent House films may be the only horror movies proper to employ the oner – although episode six of Mike Flanagan’s Netflix series The Haunting of Hill House (2018) deserves special mention – its potential for traumatic, first-person immersion has been utilised to dubious effect outside the confines of genre. Béla Tarr protégé Laszlo Nemes took home an Oscar, a Golden Globe, a BAFTA and the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes for his debut feature, Son of Saul (2015), a virtuosic tour de force of fake-oner technique set within the crematoria of Auschwitz.

Utilising a shallow depth-of-field and rarely leaving the shoulder of its protagonist, the horrors of Saul’s world blur and bleed into the corners of his frame. There’s little doubting its remarkable credentials as a piece of cinema, but no film violates Claude Lanzmann’s mandate against aestheticising the Holocaust with more calling-card precocity.

Well, maybe one does. With the camera by the side of a fictional protagonist for every one of the film’s 93 minutes, Norwegian filmmaker Erik Poppe let his reenactment of the 2011 terrorist attack on a children’s summer camp play out in real time with Utoya – July 22 (2018). “The idea was to try to see if it was possible to show the states of mind of those on the island,” said Poppe, “so that we could try to start to understand and experience this from another point of view than what we’re used to seeing in film.” Critics and audiences were split on the use of such formal showboating to illustrate a real world atrocity. It’s hard to call its present-tense effectiveness into question, even as its moral position will be for each viewer to decide.

Every filmmaker and cinematographer that embarks upon a feature-length oner hits the media rounds afterwards with their war stories of logistical nightmares. It’s therefore a brave filmmaker that chooses to complicate matters further. Following the commercial failure of his 1999 features The Loss of Sexual Innocence and Miss Julie, British director Mike Figgis embraced the single-take potentials of digital filmmaking with Timecode (2000). Not content with just the one unbroken 97-minute shot, Figgis divided the screen into four quadrants to allow four oners to run simultaneously from different starting points. Drawing audience attention between respective sections of the screen through the sound mix, it’s at once exhilarating and headache-inducing, its audacious technical effects undermined by melodramatic plotting and over-eager improvisation.

Timecode (2000)

While sticking to just the single oner, actor-director Woody Harrelson’s obstruction of choice was to broadcast his 2017 film Lost in London live to cinemas as it was being shot. The charmingly indulgent story recreates the tabloid-ready run-in with the British constabulary – involving a shandy too many and a taxi ashtray – he had back in 2002. While the screenplay could have done with another once-over, it’s about as ambitious an experiment as first features come, necessitating the placement of radio transmitters across two square miles of London while managing to smuggle in a nifty two-vehicle car chase.

Lost in London (2017)

Any glance back at the history of the single-take movie, however, has to either begin or end with an appreciation of one film. Aleksandr Sokurov’s Russian Ark (2002) is the one-shot-wonder’s ne plus ultra; the real deal, magisterially captured by German cinematographer Tilman Büttner on a cold St Petersburg morning in December 2001.

A guided tour through the city’s Hermitage Museum, home to one of the largest art collections in the world, doesn’t begin to describe the experience of Sokurov’s “film in one breath”. A spectral reincarnation of three centuries of cultural history gets a little closer – a high-art Night at the Museum (2006) via The Shining (1980) with a dash of Patrick Keiller in the accompanying commentary, if we’re being especially glib. In development for four years ahead of the single day allowed for shooting in the museum itself; three takes failed, the fourth (successful) take subject to extensive FX work after the fact.

Russian Ark (2002)

Sokurov described it as, “a simple idea, with simple words, expressed in simple terms,” but there’s little simple about the symphonic feat of technical engineering that the Ukrainian maestro orchestrates. It’s the one-shot miracle to which all other pretenders can but bow.

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