A Brief History of One-Shot Films

‘1917’ is the latest movie to apply the technique, but ambitious filmmakers have been experimenting with it for decades.

1917
Universal Pictures

In Sam Mendes1917, two young British soldiers find themselves trapped behind enemy lines, tasked with completing a dangerous mission that could save thousands of lives. Elsewhere, Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers and Kathleen Hepburn’s The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open follows two Indigenous women whose paths unexpectedly collide following a domestic abuse incident. These movies are vastly different story-wise, though they share one thing in common: they adopt a one-shot approach.

One-shot movies (also known as single take or continuous shot films) have made some noise this year, but ambitious filmmakers have been making these technical marvels for decades. There’s an argument to be made that some movies unnecessarily apply this technique as a way of showing off, but the best examples make for immersive experiences that appear to unfold in real-time. Call one-shot movies a gimmick if you will, but they can be an effective one.

Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope was the first movie to apply the continuous shot to a full feature format. Or at least it tried to. The film rolls available for the 35mm cameras at the time only lasted 10 minutes, so it was impossible to shoot the entire feature without some cuts and filmmaking wizardry being applied.

Hitchcock and the film’s cinematographers, Joseph A. Valentine and William V. Skall, disguised the cuts with dolly shots that focused on featureless surfaces, with the following take beginning at the same point by zooming out. That said, the entire film consists of only 10 shots, which is impressive even by the standards of the technology that’s available today.

Hitchcock decided to shoot Rope in real-time because he wanted to recreate the claustrophobia of the play that the film is based on. Of course, the idea was also born out of the director’s ambition to push the medium of cinema forward. Most films until then were made up of hundreds of shots, each lasting between five and 15 seconds. Rope was more or less the antithesis of this trend and paved the way for films incorporating longer, uninterrupted takes going afterward.

Rope isn’t lauded as one of Hitchcock’s best efforts, with many critics dismissing it as an experiment that didn’t work out. At the same time, the film will go down in history as innovative for the way it challenged recording and editing techniques, and that’s what makes it an important entry in the director’s oeuvre.

The first example of an attempted actual one-shot film is Béla Tarr’s 1982 adaptation of Macbeth. Technically Macbeth consists of two shots, though the first one is only five minutes long and occurs before the opening title sequence. The second shot, meanwhile, encompasses the rest of the movie.

Macbeth adopts a docudrama style and the camera primarily focuses on the performers’ faces to accentuate the characters’ feelings, emotions, and words. The film isn’t really concerned with the events of William Shakespeare’s classic story and instead strips it down to the bare bones for a more intimate experience. Here, the one-shot approach is used to great artistic effect as it creates a sense of heightened emotion.

Following Macbeth, several films were created to appear as one long continuous shot, but in 2002, Aleksandr Sokurov’s Russian Ark received critical acclaim for doing so authentically. Shot entirely with an HD Steadicam, the film contains a seamless 90-minute shot that covers more than one and a half kilometers of distance to tell a story that dramatizes over 300 years of Russian history.

More than 1,000 actors and extras appear in the film, but bringing Russian Ark to life was an arduous task for the cast and crew. Sokurov didn’t want the movie shot this way for artistic reasons: he was simply tired of editing. However, the creation process required months of rehearsal and one day of intense shooting, so perhaps the workload would have been lighter if the movie was filmed more conventionally.

Russian Ark plays out like a dreamlike journey through the past, and the film’s ability to condense so much history into a single breath is nothing short of amazing. That being said, Russian Ark made history in its own right as the first movie to fully implement the one-shot technique for over 90 minutes. That alone makes it deserving of some high praise.

Sebastian Schipper’s Victoria pulls off the one-shot technique marvelously, and it’s the driving force behind the film’s narrative. The story follows a woman and a group of men whose night spirals out of control as they commit a bank robbery, resulting in a nightmare-inducing roller coaster ride for both the characters and the viewer.

Schipper and his DP Sturla Brandth Grøvlen shot the completed film between the hours of 4:30 am and 7:00 am. However, it took three separate attempts to make the film as the cast initially struggled to hit the right tonal notes, which is always a risk when it comes to making movies this way — there is virtually no room for error.

That said, in the end, they managed to find the right balance of emotions, and the improvised dialogue coupled with the real-time approach makes for an authentic viewing experience. Victoria is the closest most of us will come to experiencing a heist without participating in a real one.

Similarly, the 2018 Scandinavian films Utøya: July 22 and Blind Spot both use the technique to make viewers feel like eyewitnesses to unfathomable events. Utøya, which is based on the 2011 Norwegian white supremacist terrorist attack, employs the one-shot technique to eerie effect as it helps make for a convincing recreation of a real-life horror story. In this case, the one-shot tool — as well as the cast of amateurs — makes the movie feel like a documentary.

Blind Spot, which follows a family as tragedy befalls them, isn’t based on a true story, but the film’s objective to put the viewer into the characters’ shoes as they experience a perilous situation is similar to Utøya. The one-shot approach offers no respite from the sorrow and panic on display. Furthermore, Blind Spot is relentless in its dedication to creating dread, which is bolstered through its commitment to the single take approach.

The one-shot method is arguably at its best when it’s used to immerse viewers in realistic stories with high emotional stakes, but some filmmakers have used it for more fantastical purposes. Alejandro González Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki presented the illusion of uninterrupted continuity in Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), a movie that features Michael Keaton dressed as a bird and taking flight. While the film contains some hidden cuts, they are minimal and hard to find.

Birdman is a surreal movie in many ways, but the single continuous shot gimmick was used because Iñárritu wanted “this character to be submerged in that inescapable reality, [so] the audience has to live these desperate three days alongside him.” The film succeeds in that regard, and the illusion of being shot in one continuous single take makes the film’s outlandish qualities seem quite grounded.

The latest additions to the one-shot canon further establish how the method has been used to create some diverse and visceral movies. With 1917, Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins are out to pull viewers into the trenches with the soldiers, walk in their footsteps, and create maximum tension as a result. The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open, meanwhile, is a more intimate and personal story about human relationships and domestic issues that instills empathy in viewers. Both are equally powerful in their own way.

Whether they’re expertly faked or pulled off with aplomb, the best one-shot movies are transportive experiences and technical tours de force. They demand filmmakers and performers to be at the top of their game as one error can completely derail the films in question, but when they’re successful, they prove that cinema is capable of awe-inspiring feats.

Kieran is a Daily Curator for the website you're currently reading. He also loves the movie Varsity Blues.