Recently, Oscar winning movie Birdman was heralded, amongst other things, for director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s ability to make the whole movie seem like one long scene. If you watch closely you can just about spot the “joins” but Inarritu manages to make the movie feel like it is all one continuous take with no breaks or cuts. It is a skill and one to be applauded.
More recently, as if to one-up Inarritu, director Sebastian Schipper actually films his new movie, Victoria, in one long, uncut take. It isn’t faked or artificial, it is filmed as one-long scene. This is impressive as well but the question is; what does it add? Why do directors feel this is an effective story-telling device?
I am not Birdman’s biggest fan and although the idea of the film being one long, continuous shot is impressive, it didn’t add anything spectacular or necessary to the story. If anything, eventually, it becomes a distraction as with each passing of time being marked with no cut or obvious scene change, the audience is forced to make the connection themselves.
I haven’t seen Victoria yet but my understanding is that the movie takes place in real time. It isn’t cutting from day one to day two to a week later. The continuous shot works because we are seeing a passing of real time and ” real life.” This could prove effective but still doesn’t feel necessary and when this becomes a movie’s talking point, you can’t help but feel like it is more of a gimmick, being used for marketing reasons rather than to actually help push the story forward.
That doesn’t mean that single-takes or “one-shots” can’t be used and utilised effectively and there are examples when they are more than just a way for a director to “show-off.” The king of the single-take seems to be Alfonso Cuaron. He has used it notably twice. The more recent is Gravity, opening the movie with a single scene as the three astronauts, including Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, repair a broken satellite.
The reason this scene works as a single-shot because it highlights the three key characters and their place in the narrative. Clooney is constantly and calmly floating through space, always in contact but not always in shot, floating through and then back out again. Bullock is more focused and it is her perspective we see, nervous, unsure and calculated. Within this shot we hear the voice of the third astronaut but never see him properly, he is again a voice in the distance. It all adds to the effect of distance and being “alone.” If this was an opening scene with many cuts, Bullock’s detachment from her crew may not be as clearly felt.
Cuaron uses the same device to good effect in another movie of his, the earlier Children of Men. In this film there is a street-level battle that Clive Owen’s Theo is caught-in. Rather than shoot the scene high, encompassing the whole environment and scenario, Cuaron only views the battle, a particularly bloody and explosive one, from Owen’s “over-the-shoulder” point of view. The use of “one-shot” here means that we never break from the battle and it also feels real. There is no breathing space or change of effect and it just demonstrates how well this device can be used.
Using the “one-shot” technique in battle is also a good example in the original Oldboy. The scene in which the hero Dae-su Oh takes-on about fifty men armed with just a hammer has become movie history. It is a standard for how to frame a shot and why to use one continuous take; with no cuts the violence feels all the more. It was used to the same effect, almost a homage to Oldboy, in the recent Marvel Daredevil series when the hero took on his own group of men in one corridor.
Overall, these examples demonstrate that the single shot take can be used for very good effect but it can also fall into the category of gimmick too. I’m not sure how Victoria uses it or if it is effective but Birdman felt like it was an unnecessary addition. So far directors like Cuaron seem to know how to use the device effectively, bringing violence, action and a sense of character to the movie; so the reason for it’s use can either be warranted or in most cases, a marketing gimmick.