The Rise Of The Single-Shot Movie In A Hyper-Edited World

Feb 9, 2020
Originally published on February 9, 2020 5:06 pm

The technical wonder of a movie, 1917, could win up to 10 Oscars on Sunday. Filmed to look like a single shot, its view is glued upon two soldiers racing behind enemy lines during the ravages of World War I. This is the second time in recent years that a one-shot film swept up Oscar nominations. Birdman won Best Picture, Best Director and Best Cinematography in 2015.

"Once I had the idea that it was two hours of real time, it seemed like the natural thing to do, to lock the audience together with the central characters — in a way that they gradually began to realize, consciously or unconsciously, they couldn't get out of," director Sam Mendes told NPR's Weekend Edition in December.

The intensity and immersion of a one-shot film alters viewers' relationships with its characters, says Sarah Keller, a film professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston. "It forces you to sort of be with the characters," she says.

That total focus feels counterintuitive in our jacked-up world, crammed with competing screens. Keller notes one-shot movies are, in a sense, a relic from the past. The first movies were all single takes, usually just a minute or two long: For example, the 1895, Lumière brothers' short films Workers Leaving The Lumière Factory in Lyon or The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station.

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Once editing was invented, one-shot movies seemed primitive. While experimental films still played with one-shot techniques, they generally fell out of fashion, with a few exceptions. Alfred Hitchcock filmed his 1948 psychodrama Rope to largely look like just one shot. And the Orson Welles' noire masterpiece Touch of Evil, from 1958, begins with a startling three minute long take that still seems daring today.

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But one-shot movies went fallow for decades. Not until the rise of the Internet did they start appearing more in mainstream theaters. Perhaps when our attention started fragmenting, one-shot films carried more appeal. The 2000 movie Timecode follows four people simultaneously through an afternoon in Los Angeles. They're filmed in four long shots on one split screen.

When the movie opened, director Mike Figgis told Weekend All Things Considered that the Timecode cast committed to their roles more like theater actors than movie stars. "The ego works in a different way," he said. "The performance has a different dynamic. Actors become aware of the fact that they're performing for an editor; that therefore, it doesn't really matter if they muck up this bit but they know they're going for this 10-second moment or this look at the camera."

For whatever it's worth, Wikipedia lists only five feature films made – or seemingly made — in one single shot before the year 2000. In the past 20 years, that number's shot up 500 percent, ranging from the grandiose 2002 Russian Ark, which sweeps through the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg, to the audacious 2017 zombie movie One Cut of the Dead, from Japan.

At a moment when it's so easy to make a movie on a cell phone, Keller believes that the technical virtuosity required of a one-shot film marks its director as an auteur. And these films feel somehow pure — compared, at least to the CGI trickery and hyperactive editing of blockbuster superhero movies. "Sort of almost excessive cuts where it's cutting in fractions of a second," Keller says.

Movies are meant to wash over us like a dream. When we're tired, jumpy and overstimulated, Keller says, giving yourself over to one perfectly planned shot feels like a pleasure and a relief.

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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

The film "1917" is up for 10 Oscars tonight. This is the movie that was filmed to look like a single shot, the camera glued on two British soldiers behind enemy lines during World War I.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "1917")

DEAN-CHARLES CHAPMAN: (As Lance Corporal Blake) We need to keep moving. Come out.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Another film that looks like just one shot swept the Oscars in 2015. "Birdman" won best picture then, best director and best cinematography. So what is so appealing about these one-shot movies? NPR's Neda Ulaby explains.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Director Sam Mendes told NPR that "1917" just felt like one long take.

SAM MENDES: Once I'd had the idea that it was two hours of real time, it seemed like a natural thing to lock the audience together with the central characters.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "1917")

ULABY: The intensity and immersion of a one-shot film changes viewer's relationships with the people in it, says Sarah Keller. She's a film professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

SARAH KELLER: It forces you to sort of be with the characters.

ULABY: That total focus feels almost counterintuitive in our jacked-up world crammed with competing screens. One-shot movies are nothing new, Keller says. In fact, they're extremely old.

(SOUNDBITE OF KEVIN MACLEOD'S "AMAZING PLAN")

ULABY: The first movies, starting in the late 1800s, were all just one take.

KELLER: So something like Lumiere's "Workers Leaving a Factory" (ph) or a "Train Arriving in the Station" (ph).

ULABY: One-shot movies seemed primitive once editing was invented. Experimental films still played with one-shot techniques. But they generally fell out of fashion, with a few exceptions.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ROPE")

JOHN DALL: (As Brandon) We've killed for the sake of danger and for the sake of killing.

ULABY: In the 1948 movie "Rope," Alfred Hitchcock tracks, in one apparent long shot, two psychopaths who've planned the perfect murder.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ROPE")

DALL: (As Brandon) The power to kill can be just as satisfying as the power to create.

ULABY: The way the film "Rope" united space, time and action made it almost breathe. But one-shot movies went fallow for decades. Not until the rise of the Internet did we start seeing them in mainstream theaters. Perhaps there's a link between our fragmenting attention spans and one-shot films' appeal.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TIMECODE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Character) I'm waiting.

(CROSSTALK)

ULABY: In the movie "Timecode" from the year 2000, four people move simultaneously through an afternoon in Los Angeles. They're filmed in four long shots on one split screen. Director Mike Figgis told NPR his cast committed to their roles more like theater actors than movie stars.

MIKE FIGGIS: The ego works in a different way. The performance has a different dynamic. Actors become aware of the fact that they are performing for an editor, that, therefore, it doesn't really matter if they muck up this bit. But they know they're going for this ten-second moment or this look at the camera.

ULABY: Before the year 2000, for whatever it's worth, Wikipedia lists only five feature films made - or seemingly made - in one single shot. In the past 20 years, that number shot up 500%, ranging from the grand one-shot film "Russian Ark" from 2002...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "RUSSIAN ARK")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As Character, non-English language spoken).

ULABY: ...Which sweeps through the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, to the audacious zombie movie "One Cut of the Dead" from Japan.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ONE CUT OF THE DEAD")

ULABY: When it's so easy to make a movie on a cellphone, says film scholar Sarah Keller, a one-shot film marks a director as an auteur. And something about these films feels pure compared, at least, to the CGI trickery and hyperactive editing you see in Marvel movies.

(SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED FILM)

KELLER: Sort of almost excessive cuts, where it's cutting in fractions of a second.

ULABY: Movies are meant to wash over us like a dream. When we're tired, jumpy and overstimulated, Keller says, giving yourself over to one perfectly planned shot is a pleasure and a relief. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF BABY BRY BRY AND THE APOLOGISTS SONG, "JUST BECAUSE IT'S ART (DOESN'T MEAN IT'S GOOD)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.