This weekend, director James Nunn’s action film One Shot, starring Scott Adkins, premiers theatrical and on Video On Demand. True to its title, the movie about a team of Navy SEALs on a covert mission that goes wrong, is shot as if it were one continual 90 minute take.
A single-shot or continual-take film is one with no apparent edits, playing out in real time as a single camera records all of the action. Such films can be subtle or they can be showy, but they always demand a high degree of technical skill on the part of the actors and behind the camera crew. Because of their effectiveness in immersing the audience into their narrative, one-shot films are most often suspense or horror stories where the abrupt change of viewpoint from a simple edit could potentially dissipate any built-up tension within viewers. It is a technique not often used, but when it is, it is very effective.
Here is a look at some of the more key and/or interesting films to be shot in this style. Now it should be noted that some very early silent shorts appear to be one shot films, if interrupted by title cards. What we are looking at here is how the single-shot film was used for features, starting with the master of suspense himself.
Adapted from the stage play by Patrick Hamilton, Alfred Hitchcock’s 1948 thriller Rope was the first feature film to attempt to look as if it was done in one long continual take. In reality the film was actually assembled from ten separate takes ranging from just over four and a half minutes to just over ten minutes in length, with the edits hidden behind the camera moving up against or passing by something that would create a momentary black screen.
Due to the size of the Technicolor camera, Hitchcock was somewhat limited in how he could move through the set. He therefore opted to shoot the film almost as a play, with a three-walled set and the camera moving back and forth in the position that audience would be in if it were live theater. As the camera tracks the action back and forth through the apartment set, stagehands and prop masters just out of shot would move props and walls mounted on wheels to make way.
Although he viewed it as an experiment, Hitchcock deemed Rope a failure. He felt that the single continuous take conceit robbed him of to many of the tools he would normally use as a film maker such as different lenses for different shots, moving the camera more freely and the powerful moments that can be made through editing. It’s an understandable complaint, but one that feels exceptionally appropriate from Hitch given that his reported feelings about actors and how a continual shot film would have to rely more on the actors than on the techniques he would use as a director.
While it would be over seven decades before a major Hollywood studio would try to do a one-shot feature film, there were still a number of filmmakers who were looking to try and follow in Hitchcock’s footsteps.
Andy Warhol was never one to make conventional art and the extended to his work in film. Empire is a single-shot film, but has not cast or story. Instead, it is a single eight-hour long , slow motion shot of the Empire State Building as the sunset behinds it, night falls and the iconic buildings floodlights light up its art deco exterior. Warhol had already experimented with long-form films with his five-hour Sleep from the previous year. But in this case he took a six-and-a-half hour single shot from the 41st floor of the Time-Life Building of the Empire State Building and ordered the 24-frames-per-second footage to be slowed down to 16-frames-per-second, extending the runtime to just over eight hours. As the Auricon 16mm camera that Warhol used for the film could only hold film magazines that would last for about 33 minutes, the film has several edits, though the locked off nature of the camera itself makes them imperceptible. Empire was added to the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry in 2004.
Running Time (1997)
A runtime of seventy minutes may just barely qualify Running Time as a feature-length film, but director and co-writer Josh Becker managed to pack a lot of story into that space. Bruce Campbell stars as a newly released convict who immediately makes a beeline to join his old gang for a robbery while simultaneously trying to rekindle a romance with his former girlfriend played by Anita Barone.
Running Time is actually cobbled together from 24 separate takes all joined together by invisible edits. Thanks to advances in film making technology, Becker is able to make his camera to move more freely through each scene and around his actors than Hitchcock was ever able to do in Rope. It is that visual freedom, as well as Campbell’s performance and the gritty black-and-white photography, which helps Running Time rise a bit above its pulpy neo-noir roots.
Mike Figgis’s 2000 film Timecode can be viewed not as just one continuous shot movie, but four, all following separate storylines set in a film production office gearing up for a big shoot. The individual plotlines occasionally intersect with the others either singularly or in groups. Each storyline was filmed by a single camera with all four stories being performed simultaneously.
The resulting film, captured on the cast and crew’s 16th take, plays out with the footage from all four cameras displayed in quadrants on the screen. If that all sounds like it might be a bit cacophonous, Figgis uses the sound mix to direct to viewers’ attention towards which of the four storylines is most important at any given moment.
As a storytelling exercise, Timecode is an interesting variation on the single-shot idea. Even with Figgis’s audio cues, it allows the viewer to be their own editor, choosing which characters to focus on when the storylines interact such as when Jeanne Tripplehorn’s character sits in her limousine monitoring the listening device she hid in her girlfriend Salma Hayek’s purse. Multiple viewings also allow the viewer to watch the fullness of all the performances.
Russian Ark (2002)
Alexander Sokurov’s 2002 drama Russian Ark is an interesting work not just for the fact that he is experimenting not just with the single shot conceit but that he is playing with other storytelling conventions as well. His unnamed spectral narrator glides through the film occasionally breaking the fourth wall, occasionally fully immersed in the narrative. It may not always be successful, but it is fascinating to watch. Unlike other single-take films like Rope or 1917, Russian Ark is not a series of shots stitched together with hidden edits. It was shot digitally in one actual continual near ninety-minute take, although some portions were slowed down or speed ramped in post-production. It is a remarkable feat, considering Sokurov had to carefully orchestra the camera’s move through 33 separate rooms of St. Petersburg’s Winter Palace of the Russian State Hermitage Museum with the actions of 2,000 actors and extras and three live orchestras. After three failed attempts, Sokurov managed to capture the film on the fourth go. And since all four attempts were made on the same date – December 23, 2001 – Russian Ark is the first feature film with only a day-long shooting schedule in history. But it wouldn’t be the last.
Reportedly having given up a job as a software engineer for filmmaking, director Mohamad Issack’s first film literally got him into the record books. Clocking in at two hours and three minutes, Agadam, which tells the story of two men who have murdered a woman whose spirit returns to haunt them after they have buried her body, is considered by the Guinness Book of World Records to be the longest single shot movie ever made. Filmed in the southern Indian city of Chennai, the cast and crew rehearsed for a month before shooting the Tamil language film in one continual shot on December 7, 2012. Issack remade the film in the Telugu language, this time titled Seesa. That film also clocked in two hours and three minutes, with Issack tying his own record.
Director Alejandro Inarritu’s Birdman Or (The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance) is an unusual one-shot film as it does not take place over real time as one would expect. To cover the passages of time between sequences, Inarritu uses simple time lapse photography as we follow Michael Keaton as an actor who is trying to reinvent himself on the Broadway stage, but who can never seem to escape the shadow of the three blockbuster superhero films he did in the 1990s. Although almost entirely set in the confines and surrounding neighborhood of a Broadway theater, Inarritu shot the film at a number of different locations, stitching together the shorter sequences in a digital variation of how Hitchcock hid his edits in Rope. A critical and box office success, Birdman was nominated for nine Academy Awards and won four Oscars including Best Cinematography, Direction and Picture.
Lost In London (2016)
As much an experiment as Figgis’s Timecode, Lost In London takes the single-shot conceit and attempts to do something unique. In this case, actor-turned-writer/director Woody Harrelson set out to not only shoot a feature film in one single take, he was going to broadcast it live to cinemas at the same time. The story centers on the misadventures Harrelson, playing himself, gets into during an evening on the town in London. Owen Wilson and Willie Nelson also star as themselves. Again, using digital technology, Harrelson’s journey across the city is captured by a single camera and simultaneously transmitted to 550 theaters in the US. And like live television, the potential for something going wrong – though it never actually did – hovered ever-present in the background.
Last Call (2019)
Like Figgis’s Timecode, director Gavin Michael Booth’s Last Call is a single shot movie told from more than one perspective. In this film, we get two cameras following the film’s two characters – a man contemplating killing himself who calls a suicide prevention hotline and the cleaning woman in that hotline’s unstaffed office. Both sides were filmed at the same time, allowing for a certain level of spontaneity in the phone call. The result is a film featuring two strong performances that play off of each other in a way that they might not have if this had been shot in a more conventional manner.
Yes, we know that technically 1917, director Sam Mendes’ World Ward One drama of two men on a mission, isn’t a single shot film. There is a moment where a character is knocked unconscious for several hours and the screen goes black a few moments before the story resumes. (If the film had been a true one shot, the screen would have stayed black for those several hours before resuming and that would have not been a very fun cinematic experience.) But we are including it here because its artistry and its technical brilliance go hand in hand. As we have been seeing, digital film-making has opened up numerous possibilities for those making a one-shot movie. One such opportunity that 1917 cinematographer Richard Deakins took advantage of was the ability to use different lens to shoot different portions of the film. In total, he used three different focal lengths – 35mm, 40mm and 47mm – depending on what and where they were shooting. Somewhere, Alfred Hitchcock must have been jealous.
Crazy Samurai: 400 Vs 1
While previous one-take films have plied the suspense, horror or drama genres, director Yuji Shimomura’s frenetic Crazy Samurai: 400 Vs 1 is pretty much a balls-to-the-wall wuxia action film. Now granted, this film is not one single take for its entire 89-minute runtime. It opens with an eight minute scene that sets up the film and which is editedin a traditional mutiple shot format. But once it gets past the film’s opening title screen, hang on. Tak Sakaguchi (Versus, Godzilla: Final War) is the titular solo samurai who faces off against four hundred opponents in one long, bravura 77-minute segment. Other films have done fight sequences in long, single takes, but never like this.
Beyond The Infinite Two Minutes (2021)
A stark example of how digital film-making technology has been rapidly advancing, Japanese director Junta Yamaguchi’s delightfully twisty Beyond The Infinite Two Minutes was shot on a cell phone as opposed to the small digital cameras used just a few years before by Mendes and Deakins for 1917. Shenanigans ensue when a cafe owner and his friends discover that a TV monitor in the restaurant is connected through time to a similar monitor in his apartment upstairs and that they can have conversations with their two-minutes-in-the-future/past selves. A compact seventy minutes, Yamaguchi uses the continual take conceit to define the time difference between the two monitors as the cast first races up and down the stairs to talk to themselves, and then to increase tension when they inadvertently run afoul of a couple of local criminals.