One-Shot Filmmaking

At the end of July, the long-running medical drama Casualty wrapped its 31st season with a finale completely composed of a single, 48-minute-long shot. Although some viewers may not have enjoyed it – complaining that it left them feeling queasy – it’s indisputable that one-shot filmmaking is a testament to patience, perseverance and practice.

While this may have been relatively innovative for British television, continuous shots have been around for several decades, perhaps the most prominent early depiction being Alfred Hitchcock’s 1948 crime thriller, Rope. Often considered a true feat of collaboration, a high degree of choreography and rehearsal is required, not to mention the gaffers’ headache of having to ensure actors are adequately lit throughout the shot.

There are several reasons for using this method, but in particular it’s an effective way of building tension – as seen in Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 horror, The Shining. As the young Danny Torrance rides his tricycle around the labyrinthine Overlook Hotel, the camera that constantly hovers over his shoulder ominously reminds the viewer that the Hotel is a character in its own right. Garrett Brown’s invention of the Steadicam is what made this iconic shot and so many others possible, the smooth glide maintaining the suspense.

“One of my favourite examples of the long take is in Martin Scorsese’s 1990 gangster classic, Goodfellas.”

Since then, long takes have developed for other purposes too – in fact, exposition that might have been boring can be elevated by one-shot filmmaking. One of the oft-parodied, trademark features of Aaron Sorkin’s loquacious magnum opus, The West Wing, is the walk-and-talk, popularised by director Thomas Schlamme. The continuous shot gives the gift of mobility to an otherwise dialogue-heavy scene, thus making it far more interesting to watch.

One of my favourite examples of the long take is in Martin Scorsese’s 1990 gangster classic, Goodfellas. When the mobster Harry Hill (Ray Liotta) takes his lady-friend Karen (Lorraine Bracco) into the Copacabana club, instead of taking the main entrance he walks through the back, weaving his way down private corridors and through the kitchen, greeting anyone and everyone. If the glorification of organised crime is Goodfella’s entree, then this scene is the piece de resistance, because it shows the audience the ideal that drives Hill’s ruthlessness.

“Although it may seem simple on paper, it was rather more difficult on execution – personally, that make me love this shot all the more.”

In a 2015 interview with Filmmaker magazine, Larry McConkey (the Steadicam operator for the scene) outlined the difficulties he faced, solved by editing ‘within the shot’, so to speak. This included Liotta walking slowly enough for McConkey to keep up, while also turning around so that his face could be seen, while making sure these movements appeared natural. Although it may seem simple on paper, it was rather more difficult on execution – personally, that makes me love this shot all the more.

In recent decades, this mode of filmmaking has gradually become ubiquitous. Alfonso Cuaron in particular is known for his employment of it – the unbroken 17-minute shot at the beginning of the 2013 film Gravity is breath-taking, but it’s the 4-minute ambush scene in 2006’s Children of Men that captures my attention. It perfectly encapsulates the unpredictability of the dystopian landscape in the film, offering a mesmerising experience.

However, while most one-shot movies – from 2000’s Timecode to 2002’s Russian Ark – occur in real time, Alejandro G. Inarritu’s Best Picture-winning 2014 film Birdman transformed the method by depicting (through the magic of seamless editing) a single shot that occurs over several days, despite its running time of 119 minutes.

Poster from the film Birdman.

A lot can be said about Inarritu’s choice to tell this story in this way – I like to think that it hammers home the film’s point of relevance being fleeting in the modern day. But if one were to compare Birdman (and other recent examples, like the vastly acclaimed 2015 German film Victoria and this year’s live film, Lost in London) to that first major attempt at one-shot filmmaking back in 1948, the technological advancements are dazzling.

And with virtual reality popping up increasingly frequently, even in Inarritu’s own recent short film, Flesh and Sand – who knows where cinema could go. Maybe next time, we’ll be on the tricycle instead of behind it.

Sarah Quraishi

Featured image courtesy of ‘Eirik Solheim’ via Flickr.

Article image courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures via IMDb.

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