Filming a long, extended take in a movie is one of the best ways to win some acclaim and show off a bit of your directorial prowess. But it’s often so complex and so ambitious that only a handful of directors have ever dared make their movie to appear as though it was filmed in one continuous, unbroken shot. Sam Mendes is the latest to attempt the feat for his World War I epic “1917,” and boy did he nail it. Here are some other films that helped pave the way for him.
The master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock was the first to attempt a single-take feature film, taking on a radical experiment with a big budget and A-list stars that included James Stewart. His movie “Rope” was inspired by a play by Patrick Hamilton and concerned a pair of men who murdered someone, hid his body in a large wooden trunk and then hosted a dinner party with the trunk as the centerpiece, all to prove they could commit the perfect murder. Hitchcock believed that if time passed between cuts, the suspense of whether the body was still in the trunk would be lost. The director actually orchestrated an elaborate ballet with his camera and actors and filmed the movie as though it were a play. But due to the technological time constraints of the time, he wrote the screenplay in 10-minute chunks and loaded his camera with the largest film canisters available, then placing the invisible cuts as the camera moved behind a chair or a table.
No discussion of unbroken takes would be complete without mentioning the Hungarian auteur Béla Tarr, who established himself as a master of the punishing long shot with his TV movie adaptation of “Macbeth” in 1982. Though it actually has two shots, the first is just five minutes long, and the remaining 57 minutes told in a single shot would be the basis for his future films “Satantango,” “Werckmeister Harmonies” and “The Turn Horse.”
For his experimental film “Timecode,” director Mike Figgis incorporated four, lightweight digital cameras each shooting in real time, then played all four shots, each 93-minutes in length, simultaneously in the four quadrants of the screen. The audio would be mixed down so you could hear the dialogue in a given quadrant when you needed to, and sometimes multiple cameras would see the same actor at once but from different points of view. It in effect proved that digital cinematography could accomplish as much, if not more, than could be done with film.
“Russian Ark” (2002)
While other filmmakers hid their cuts between invisible edits and other trickery, director Alexander Sokurov actually filmed “Russian Ark” in one continuous take. His 96-minute long film boasted 2000 actors on-screen alongside three live orchestras as they all traversed the massive Winter Palace of the Russian state Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, telling a story of Russian history spread across 300 years.
“La Casa Muda” (2010) and “Silent House” (2012)
Both the Uruguayan film “La Casa Muda” and its American remake “Silent House” starring Elizabeth Olsen claim to have been filmed in a single, unbroken take to capture the real-time effect of a woman venturing through a haunted house, with the story supposedly based on real events. However, it’s suspected that both films actually have cuts, as the original was shot on a shoestring budget with a digital camera that could only film for a maximum of 15 minutes at a time.
“Fish & Cat” (2013)
The Iranian film “Fish & Cat” from director Shahram Mohri starts off following one man carrying a mysterious bag that’s slowly turned bloody, but the camera then starts following new people each with their own perspective on the reality we’re seeing, as though the actors were passing a virtual baton between one another.
Alejandro Iñárritu’s Best Picture winner made a career resurgence for Michael Keaton, it won cinematographer Emmanuel Lubeski another Oscar, and it told an ambitious satire of an actor trying to escape his movie star past in the face of an encroaching industry and other outside pressures. The director said in an interview that we live our lives as though through Steadicam, without editing, and it was necessary for the audience to do the same with this character. “I wanted this character to be submerged in that inescapable reality, and the audience has to live these desperate three days alongside him,” Iñárritu told Variety.
German director Sebastian Schipper filmed the 140-minute “Victoria” not just in one shot but only across a handful of takes, choosing the best run through that became the final film.
“Son of Saul” (2015)
László Nemes’ intense Holocaust drama clings to the back of its lead character’s head, making him visible in almost every moment of the 107-minute long film as he witnesses the horrors of a German concentration camp. The film follows a member of the Sonderkommando, a Jewish prisoner held at the death camps who was forced to aid in the gassing of other prisoners for fear of his own life.
“Utøya: July 22” (2018)
Director Erik Poppe told the story of a Norwegian terrorist attack by staging it in real time, though using fictional characters, and filming it as though it were done in a single take across 90 minutes. Poppe’s film was released the same year as Paul Greengrass made his own movie, “22 July,” about the same terrorist incident.
“Blind Spot” (2018)
Norwegian actress Tuva Novotny made the film “Blind Spot” her directorial debut, telling the story of a mother and father’s life upended by tragedy in a single shot.
Cinematographer Roger Deakins told TheWrap that though “1917” is just conceived as a single take and has some invisible cuts, you’d never know where they are. Because Sam Mendes’ war epic never stays put in the same location and traverses incredible ground, almost all of it outdoors, the team had to carefully choreograph every moment in terms of how actors, crew and the camera would move, and they had to do much of it without the aid of Steadicam as seen in most other one-shot movies.