From the awards success of Birdman and the spectacular opening sequence in the latest Bond outing SPECTRE, to the hotly anticipated new German release Victoria, why are so many film-makers keen to master the most difficult trick of the trade, the continuous (or seemingly continuous) take?
Some see it as nothing but a gimmick, others as the most difficult artistic approach to cinematography. What nobody can argue, is the one-take film is slowly becoming more popular on the big screen, with acclaimed directors such as Schnipper and Iñárritu attempting the trick.
This sort of long take is already a well used technique in cinema, whether it be for spectacle (see the Copacabana scene in Scorsese's Goodfellas), for feeling (the opening 17 minutes of Gravity) or realism, as in the 18 minute uncut conversation in McQueen's Hunger. For some film-makers, however, a long take isn't enough - it's an entire movie in one take that they strive for.
Even though it took until the millennium for the one take film to be fully executed, the concept has been around for much longer. All the way back in 1948, master of cinema Alfred Hitchcock tried out “one of the most interesting experiments ever attempted”. Hitchcock wanted Rope, his film about two young men trying to commit the perfect murder, to play out in real time in one continuous, unbroken scene. However, due to the technology available at the time, Hitchcock was unable to complete one long take and had to settle with a series of 10 minute scenes and cleverly disguised edits between them. The cuts between the scenes are so seamless in fact, that many believe (apart from the initial establishing shot in the first couple of minutes of the film) that Rope is the first continually shot, feature length film.
After Rope, the one take film was seen as done and dusted, with no other mainstream filmmakers showing much interest in the technique for a while. However, the art world sat up and took note, and in 1964 Andy Warhol created his eight hour five minute film Empire using slowed-down continuous footage of the Empire State Building on ten rolls of film.
This art-film is recognised today for being culturally, historically and aesthetically important, yet it wasn't until 2000 when film-makers began to experiment with the continuous take again. This could be down to un-ambitious film-makers not wanting to stray any further than the long take, or the fact that the technology available before the digital revolution in cinema created too many obstacles to achieve pure continuity.
The feature film credited with being the “first ever actual one shot film” is Mike Figgis' experimental Timecode made in 2000. Not content with just one continuous shot, Timecode consists of 4 simultaneously and continuously filmed takes that are presented on screen at the same time, in a quartered split screen.
Though it's the first one take feature film, it's not the most ambitious by any means. In 2001, Russian film-maker Alexander Sokurov decided to tell the past 300 years of Russian history using an unamed narrator wandering through the Winter Palace of Saint Petersberg, in one continuous 96 minute-long take. Shot on 23 December 2001, Russian Ark's filming didn't go as smoothly as the filming of Timecode. With 33 rooms of the palace to move through and 2000 extras and actors to choregraph, it wasn't until the fourth attempt that the continuous shot worked. The over-ambitious nature of the picture and it's overall pay off is why Russian Ark is most probably the most well known example of one-take film.
Despite the critical success of both Timecode and Russian Ark, and the groundbreaking techniques used by each director, audiences weren't treated to another one shot film for another five years. In 2007, Columbia had their produced the much smaller scale film PVC-1, a thriller about a kindnapped women, made even more nail-bitting because of it's uncut 85 minutes playing in real time. Following this, the one-shot technique had a surge in popularity in 2013, with three pictures being released in this style; Rati Chakravyuh (India), Fish + Cat (Iran), and Ana Arabia (India), none of which, enjoyed the mainstream success of Russian Ark or Rope.
That was until the US decided to get involved and create the most sucessful, in terms of box office gross and awards, so far. Featuring an acclamied director, a well-known ensemble cast, and a story echoing it's lead actors real lives, Birdman took the 2015 awards season by storm, earning Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Cinematography for it's continuous takes and long tracking shots. Iñárritu left nothing to chance when filming Birdman, planning everything meticulously. Of the shoot, he said "there was no room to improvise at all. Every movement, every line, every door opening, absolutely everything was rehearsed." This constant rehearsing paid off, launching the one take film firmly back into the mainstream.
The most recent attempt using this style is Victoria, directed by Run Lola Run director Sebastian Schnipper. Shot in 3 attempts in the early hours of an April Berlin morning in 2014, the marketing for Victoria is relying heavily on the fact it is a single take, with the tagline “One Girl. One City. One Night. One Take”. At 138 minutes, Victoria is the longest one take film to date, however, will it live up to the success of Birdman? We'll have to see.
Victoria is showing at FACT from 1 April - click here to book tickets.