We’ve been wanting to share one of our favorite film techniques with you for a long time, and finally it’s time to talk about the single shot.
What is it? What are the effects it generates in the spectator? What are the technical tricks that determine the success of a single shot? We have answered these questions and written some other curiosities in the following paragraphs. Have a good reading!
Single shot: what is it?
Let’s take a step back and start with some premises to explain some terms accurately: during the viewing of a film (or a short film, a video, etc.) a specific part of the story that is told and composed of several shots is called a scene. Several scenes form a narrative sequence.
This is when we talk about a single shot: when several scenes are shown using one, continuous shot, without any cut or interruption. That single shot tells more situations with a change of plans, framing, and even location!
Long take VS single shot
Another term that could be mistaken for a single shot is long take.
In the long take the director or the operator linger for several minutes/hours on a certain part of the scene, the continuous shot instead describes more scenes, or even more sequences.
Just think of “Birdman – or the unpredictable virtue of ignorance”, where the subject is constantly filmed as he leaves the stage, heads into the dressing rooms or out of the theater and the camera continuously films him through single shots. On the contrary, an example of a long take taken to the extreme is “Empire” by Andy Wharol who takes the highest part of the Empire State Building in a static way for about eight hours. Sometimes it can be confusing that the term “long take” is also used to indicate the single shot, but just pay attention to what you are looking at and you will understand what it is.
007 Spectre, Sam Mendes, 2015
Until the last breath, Jean-Luc Godard, 1960
Tricks and the technical notes to be able to realize a (great) one and continuous shot
Once you understand what we are talking about, it is immediately understandable the work involved in the realization of this particular cinematographic technique. For a good success of the single shot, some carelessness or techniques in the production and post-production phase are important.
Production: internal editing
One shot to show several scenes. This inevitably leads to a succession of situations, dialogues or locations. And this is where internal editing is used, which is done directly from the camera. How? There are several examples and different modes. Take for example the internal editing of a dialogue: this can be done through machine movements or changes of focus between the various subjects, and these are just to name a few. Sometimes, the internal editing there is also in long takes.
Post production: ghost cuts
The ghost cuts are a ploy to join different shots and so simulate a single one. Many films have been made using this technique, such as “Rope” Alfred Hitchcock or the more recent “1917” by Sam Mendes.
What is it about? During the shooting phase, specific movements are made that allow the cutting and joining of two sequences in post production. Some examples can be the passage very close to the camera of a character, the change of location to a much darker or much lighter environment, very shaky and confusing shots, for example in a crowd, …
Some of the most famous movies with the presence of continuous shots
One of the first to make use of the single shot and long take techniques was Orson Welles in the 1940s. This was then theorized, and “made official” by the critic André Bazin.
Hitchcock shot the film with the use of several “masked” continuous shots with the passage of the actors in front of the camera, to simulate a single one. He could not make a single one because at the time the duration of the film reels did not allow it!
In 2002, Sokurov decided to shoot the entire film in a single sequence, lasting about an hour and a half, archiving the shot in real time on special hard disks.
The editor Lee Smith worked 9 months on this film and did not want to reveal the number of ghost cuts made. Try to find them 🙂
The effects of the single shot in the viewer
The main reason that leads to this choice is a greater immersion and a greater involvement of the viewer in what he sees and in the actions of the filmed characters.
In fact, the actors act in real time (without any cutting, slowing down, or speeding up) and we seem to accompany them in their events, as if we were their intangible travel companions.
This is just one of the motivations that made us fall in love with the sequence plan.
Many directors have adopted this technique to make some sequences of their films: Alfonso Cuarón for the opening scene of “Gravity”, Howard Hawks for the opening scene of “Scarface” in 1932, Michelangelo Antonioni in “Professione: Reporter” in 1975 or Ettore Scola for the opening scene of “Una giornata particolare” in 1977…
In any case it is always fascinating for us to observe the result of their work.
Thanks for reading!