Soft and Quiet, Along With 6 Other Movies Shot in One Take
A Brief List of Movies Shot in One Continuous Take -- er, Supposedly
I recently watched the Blumhouse indie film Soft and Quiet, which premiered last spring at the SXSW Festival. While the film has too many twists and turns to discuss without spoiling, one noteworthy aspect about the project is how director Beth de Araújo chose to shoot it: all in one take.
“Whenever there’s a cut in a film, there’s a sort of inherent exhale where you give the audience a second to catch their breath,” Arajuo said in an interview with SXSW. “And so if you never give them that, they’re feeling the tension a little bit more effectively.”
The style of shooting with no cuts or breaks originated over 70 years ago (more on that later), but we rarely see directors incorporate this technique for a variety of reasons. For starters, this approach completely changes the story that the writer crafts. Writers traditionally follow a rule of thumb with their scenes: “Get in late, get out early.” In other words, start the scene at the latest moment possible when the audience can still understand everything, convey the important plot points, then move on to the next scene once all exposition has been delivered. Scripts usually cut anything mundane, even if it is true to real life, to avoid losing the audience’s attention. When directors shoot a film in one take however, they do not have this luxury of compressed time.
Additionally, shooting a feature-length film in a single take requires precision with camera and lighting setups, set design, and dialogue memorization that are very difficult to pull off with no break in the action. Thus, what many filmmakers shooting in one take have to do is rehearse ad nauseam before shooting the entire film a handful of times, ideally becoming more comfortable with each rep. The post-production crew will take the best run-through and, if needed, incorporate bits and pieces from other takes before smoothing it over to make it look uninterrupted.
Which genres does this style attract? Horror movies and crime thrillers choose the shooting style more so than other genres. Its immersive nature builds more suspense and anxiety in the audience, making it an asset to thrillers and horror. For instance, a hostage or home invasion movie, where you want the audience to experience arrested development, would be movies that may utilize this technique.
Here are a handful of such movies spanning several decades that embraced the challenge of presenting a story in one take:
Birdman (or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Best Picture-winner Birdman (or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) follows washed-up actor Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton) attempting to revive his career by creating and starring in his own stage play. Its use of the one-take method conveys the dizzying state of being a live performer, especially one with a troublesome personal life. In no scene is this more apparent than when Riggan is forced to run through Times Square donning only a pair of whitey-tighties in order to re-enter the theater and continue his performance. While many one-take films attempt a very grounded feel, Birdman dabbles in the surreal, using voiceover narration, pulsating non-diegetic jazz music, and the occasional telekinesis. Oh yeah, and Michael Keaton flying over Manhattan streets in a bird costume.
Director Alejandro G. Iñárritu stuck to a very rigorous and meticulous schedule, including both the lines and the blocking of the actors. He stuck mainly to one location and both rehearsed and shot the film in sequence, with very strict lines of dialogue and choreography (McKittrick, Creative Screenwriting).
1917 surrounds a pair of British lance corporals (Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay) during WWI sent into enemy territory to deliver a message that would halt a planned ambush. Winning multiple Oscars for sound mixing, visual effects and cinematography, the Sam Mendes picture uses its continuous take style to illustrate the very sudden nature of life-and-death situations in a war zone. It is not as graphic and gory as many other war films but nonetheless effectively illustrates that soldiers are never really safe, even in quiet moments.
The project was quite a commitment for all actors involved, as they spent 6 months in rehearsal prior to shooting. While the film appears to be one continuous take, Mendes concealed many edits through camera movements behind objects and the occasional black screen (i.e. dirt being kicked up in front of the lens, etc.).
Who better to take on a herculean filmmaking task than Alfred Hitchcock? Nicknamed the Master of Suspense, Hitchcock applied the one-take filmmaking aspect to his 1948 project, adapted from a Patrick Hamilton stage play by the same name of nearly 20 years prior. In the adaptation, two students, Brandon and Philip (John Dall and Farley Granger respectively), murder their classmate and hide the body in the same location of their dinner party later that evening. The point of their daredevil tactic is to test the precision for executing the crime. As Brandon’s guilt weighs on him Telltale Heart style, one of their guests, Rupert (Jimmy Stewart) grows suspicious.
Shot on 35mm film, Hitchcock had to resort to shooting a series of 10-minute takes and stringing them together due to the technological limitations at that time. As in Soft and Quiet, the camera heightens the effect of big revelations by panning around, zooming in and resting on particular props, such as a gun in one’s pocket, a message on a piece of stationary or a design inside a bowler hat.
Silent House is adapted from an Argentinian horror film titled La Casa Muda. It revolves around Sarah (Elizabeth Olsen), a young woman trapped in her family’s lakeside retreat with an intruder and no way out. Without spoiling the ending, Silent House utilizes the “unreliable narrator” trope and places the audience in Sarah‘s limited perspective, leading to a dark and shocking plot twist. The film doesn’t shy away from the jump scare method through lighting effects (or lack thereof), tight shots and sound mixing. Similar to Rope, Silent House was shot as a series of 10-minute takes edited to appear continuous.
Like the other films on this list, Mike Figgis’ Timecode filmed multiple run-throughs using the one-take style. Unlike the others, this particular selection incorporated a split-screen to show four takes at once. While this sounds like a battle of attrition for one’s attention span, the film foregrounds the audio of the screen that it wants the audience to focus on at any particular point. Timecode tells the story of a jilted lover (Jeanne Tripplehorn) discovering her partner’s (Salma Hayek) infidelity and listening in to a Hollywood production company’s casting call, located in the same place her partner was heading. The initially separate characters eventually intertwine, culminating in a tragic ending. Rather than containing meticulous dialogue and action as the other films on this list chose to do, Timecode consists largely of improvisation, with each actor and actress responsible for their own clothes, hair and makeup. Figgis shot the film fifteen times over the course of two weeks, always as a continuous take.
Sometimes, tourists who trust strangers can get more than they bargained for. Such is the case for the titular character, a twenty-something Spanish woman (Laia Costa) who leaves Madrid for Berlin and runs into a group of friends at a nightclub. After a fun and flirtatious start to the evening, Victoria finds herself coerced into a bank robbery with dire stakes and consequences. As is common in one-take movies, Victoria takes place in real time over one evening. The film contains many emotional swings, as the protagonist goes from guarded to trusting, euphoric to depressed and back multiple times. As Victoria is in every scene, we see the events unfold through her viewpoint. The limited perspective also drives home how loneliness can compromise anyone’s judgment.
Like Timecode, Victoria leaned heavily on its actors to improvise, with the original screenplay being just 12 pages long. While other one-take movies use clever editing to smooth out cuts, Victoria was shot as one continuous take three different times during the early morning hours in Berlin. Director Sebastian Schipper watched them all and picked the best run-through.
What are the takeaways? For starters, a lot of one-take movies are not actually one take. Editors tend to weave together clips in a way that appears continuous by using black screen, extreme close-ups and stagnant frames as in and out points. Movies meant to appear as one continuous take tend to require a lot of preparation, even relative to other detailed shoots. Some of the movies on this list performed well at the box office while others didn’t. Some received critical acclaim while others did not. The reality is that this style can be a turnoff for moviegoers who see it as a gimmick used to distract from a script’s gaping plot holes. Despite viewers' complaints, one-take movies can be done very well, as evidenced by the critical acclaim and accolades of Birdman, 1917, and others not on this list. It is yet another cinematic tool that provides directors, crews and cast one of the best things about art: an opportunity to challenge themselves.