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1917 Behind the Scenes (Universal)

Sam Mendes’ 1917 – and five other films that really are continuous single takes

Sam Mendes’ new film 1917, which will be in UK cinemas in January 2020, is looking like a frontrunner for awards season. The first world war drama tells the story of two soldiers who race against time and across enemy lines. They are tasked with delivering a message that will hopefully stop their comrades walking into a trap.

Mendes’ film also joins an exclusive club of continuous take films – and pre-release reviews have naturally focused on its bravura technique, calling it variously: “an astonishing cinematic achievement”, “a gravely virtuosic dispatch”, “a relentless, immersive experience” and “a protean display of virtuoso filmmaking”.

Behind-the-scenes footage also emphasises the technical and logistical challenge of producing the temporal and spatial realism of the continuous take – and the trailer shows more cuts than the finished film.

Ultimately, and despite what you may have read, the film isn’t a single take – it’s a composite of different takes stitched seamlessly together. Cinematographer Roger Deakins revealed at Comic-Con that no single take was longer than around eight-and-a-half minutes.

Many films fake continuous takes – think Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948), Andy Warhol’s 465-minute Empire (1964) and Alejandro Iñárritu’s Oscar-winning Birdman (2014), all of which stitched together shorter takes to produce the illusion of real time. In the case of the latter, hundreds of shots were combined with disguised edits, mostly in pans, to produce the impression of continuity.

Nevertheless, the long take (as distinguished from a long shot, which describes the distance of the camera from a subject) is one of cinema’s most spectacular effects. It requires painstaking preparation and is risky if re-shoots are required.

Feature films shot in a continuous take are relatively few and far between, although some have taken on the challenge. Here are a few of the best:

Timecode (Mike Figgis, 2000)

One of the earliest feature-length experiments with digital video, Timecode is four continuous takes, each of which occupies a quarter of the screen. All four tell a part of the story, about infidelity in Los Angeles during the preparations for a film shoot. A young actress aims to break into the film industry by exploiting her relationship with a director, which goes well until her girlfriend finds out by eavesdropping on her via a bug in her handbag.

The action weaves in and out of the four parts of the screen, which sounds more confusing than it is. To direct the viewer’s attention, the sound pans across the four segments, leading us to the most important action. Roger Ebert said the experimental film was unlikely “to attract anyone who doesn’t know what semiology is”. It features no fewer than three earthquakes.

Russian Ark (Alexander Sokurov, 2002)

Sokurov’s film is one 95-minute take. Commissioned by the Hermitage Museum in St Petersberg, the Russian filmmaker decided to experiment with digital video, as he said, “to try and fit himself into the very flowing of time.” Time is unbroken in the film, as an unnamed 19th century gentleman, referred to only as “the European”, leads our unseen protagonist through the 300-year history of the Winter Palace, from the grand spectacles of Catherine the Great to the second world war siege of the then Leningrad.

A discontinuous history told as an unbroken display of time, the film was a monumental undertaking. Filmed in a single day across four hours of natural light, it involved 33 studios-worth of lighting, 22 assistant directors, thousands of extras, 867 actors and three orchestras. The finished shot was the fourth take, with sound completed post-production.

And, if that weren’t impressive enough, we should remember that it was also filmed in a building filled with priceless artworks.

Victoria (Sebastian Schipper, 2015)

Schipper’s heist movie follows its eponymous heroine as she finds herself wrapped up in a bank robbery when a friend’s old debts need to be settled. It begins in darkness as Victoria dances the night away and leaves a club in the early hours of the morning. Because it was shot between 4.30am and 7am, the light changes as the sun comes up during the film.

Victoria’s trailer: emphasising the single take.

Due to the riskiness of the premise, Schipper promised his backers that he wouldn’t shoot the film as a single take. Across ten days, he shot a version comprising ten-minute sequence shots. With the backup version in the can, the crew had enough budget for three full takes of the whole film. The third produced the film’s two-and-a-quarter-hour finished version. Filmed across 22 locations with 150 extras, six assistant directors and multiple sound crews, its script was only 12 pages long, so most of the dialogue was improvised.

Lost in London (Woody Harrelson, 2017)

Harrelson pitched this as the first live cinema experience. On January 19, 2017, the film was beamed live into 550 cinemas in the US (in London, it was 2am on the morning of January 20). Based on a 2002 incident in which he broke an ashtray in a cab and spent the night in police cells, it follows a fictionalised version of Harrelson as he goes from one mishap to another after a tabloid revelation.

Shot in verité style, it captures the escalating misadventures involving a Middle Eastern royal family, superstar chum Owen Wilson and a race against time to meet Harry Potter.

Technically, it isn’t a single shot – it starts with a little pre-production behind-the-scenes documentary, interspersed with celebrity friends (including Ed Norton and Jennifer Lawrence) advising Harrelson not to do something so crazy. It ratchets up the tension for the live broadcast.

It’s an impressive achievement, especially if you want to hear Harrelson pathetically singing the theme from Cheers.

Utøya: July 22 (Erik Poppe, 2018)

Across a single 80-minute take, Poppe’s film portrays the 72 minutes of the attack on a Norwegian Labour Party youth camp on Utøya island on July 22 2011 by right-wing extremist Anders Breivik. Although based on survivor testimony, the characters in the film are fictionalised. We follow one young woman as she attempts to find her sister amid the chaos.

It’s impossible to marvel at the technical achievement of the film’s real-time device (it has just two invisible cuts for geographical reasons). There’s only the raw expression of human tragedy and the unrelenting terror of being under siege. The film has no music and there is only the briefest glimpse of the gunman.

Unlike 22 July – the Netflix version of the story which was released almost at the same time – there is no attempt to understand causes or repercussions, just the horror of the attack. The film was not without controversy, but it is undeniably visceral.

The “amazingly audacious” 1917 is merely the latest film to attempt the appearance of continuous time. The shift to digital recording (a reel of 35mm film is only ten minutes long) and the invention of new technology, such as the Steadicam and gimbal-mounted cameras, have made films such as these more achievable, so it definitely won’t be the last.