The Art of the “One Shot” Film

Boiling Point - Stephen Graham

Capturing a large amount of story action in one continuous shot (without cutting) is time-consuming and stressful. But if approached correctly it can amplify a narrative’s emotions and help centre the actual filmmaking process in people’s minds. It is therefore no surprise that some filmmakers have attempted to make entire movies this way to showcase their talents.

Today we will look at four movies that either actually shot all of their action in one take or edited the footage to make their film appear like one continuous shot. And we will look at how this presentation style enhances each film.

Russian Ark (The Surreality of History)

One of the few films to actually capture all of its action in one unbroken take. Russian Ark, filmed in the Hermitage Museum and featuring hundreds of extras, uses the oner to create a surreal atmosphere. Which helps to facilitate its free-flowing exploration of Russia’s past. As we cross through various rooms we see Tsars and Tsarinas, lavish balls, intimate meals, beautiful artworks from centuries ago and characters from different times discussing Russia’s place in the pantheon of global history. It’s a fascinating art piece whose camerawork evokes the beauty of dreams. And acts as a unique ode to the vastness of Russian history.

Russian Ark’s one take, dreamlike visuals are a perfect way to envision the past // Credit: Artificial Eye

Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (Theatrical Beauty)

This Best Picture winner concerns an ex-superhero actor (Michael Keaton) trying to reclaim the spotlight by starring in a play. Along the way, he encounters troubles with family, fellow actors as well as others behind the scenes, critics, audiences, and himself. The continuous-looking shot (achieved through great editing) fits thematically with the theatrical centre of Birdman’s plot. The brilliantly flowing camerawork, courtesy of Emmanuel Lubezki, adds a level of real grace to proceedings. Additionally, it encapsulates the frantic pace and energy of live productions. And when combined with brilliant performances from Keaton, Emma Stone and Edward Norton along with brilliant effects, Birdman becomes a compelling look into the mind of someone obsessed with film and plays.

Trailer for Best Picture winner Birdman // Fox Searchlight Pictures

Utøya – July 22 (Realistic Immersion)

Utøya follows Kaja (Andrea Berntzen) as she experiences the 2011 Utøya island terror attack. Aside from the opening, which shows the events leading up to the Utøya attack, the rest of the film is done in one take. Utøya uses its camera to place us firmly alongside the teenagers and their desperate position on the island. Putting the human face of that tragic day on full display. Persistent gunshots really foreground the danger the characters are in. And every moment without a cut is a constant panic as we watch everyone wrestle with what to do next. The oner is used effectively to allow us to feel the terror of the situation. An arresting film that everyone should see.

Utøya is a nerve-shredding but human look into a tragic event // Credit: Nordisk Film

Boiling Point (Humanist Immersion)

Like Utøya Boiling Point uses its single take to immerse us within a particular setting. This time we follow restaurant staff during a busy pre-Christmas shift. But Boiling Point uses this technique to also allow us to get to know the characters. We spend time with everyone who is working. Including servers dealing with terrible customers, pot washers sneaking off for a cigarette, new employees adjusting to their stations, and the constantly stressed kitchen staff. By the end we have spent so much unbroken time in the restaurant with the team that we have an attachment to them. And while an edited film could achieve similar goals the one-shot approach helps us to experience the place and stress of the moment like the characters. It is the most accurate depiction of what working in the service industry is like.

Stephen Graham in the tense one-shot film Boiling Point // Credit: Vertigo Releasing

Those are four films that have used the one-shot (both pseudo and actual) in ways that have made their narratives better. Make sure to add these films to your watchlist if you haven’t already. And please tell us about any oner films we may have missed.

Also Read: The Perfect Batman: A Look At The Actor & Director Duos Behind The Films

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Posted by
Josh Greally

Writer and filmmaker. I have a masters in directing film and television and have written film reviews for several smaller sites in the past. Films are my life, but I also enjoy writing, reading, listening to music and debating.