Before the advent of digital cameras, the time limit of a take was set by the length of the film in a reel. Now that cameras can run the clock in excess of any celluloid reel, standard feature length films without cuts are possible. However, only a handful of releases have ever attempted such a feat. The process is certainly a gamble and it takes a confident or foolish director to eschew the all-important coverage that might save a sequence in the edit. Editing is more than simply a safety net, but, when falling through a single-shot shoot, the filmmakers might wish they had one.
Mistakes aside, a filmmaker's purposive narrative, meaning and style will most often change dramatically in the editing suite. Despite what originally might have seemed settled in the script and on the set, the keen focus with hindsight in the editing process has a way of turning what initially seemed prescient into the myopic. To go forward without the benefit of an editor requires that the puzzles that might present themselves in post-production are solved before you call action. Fortune favours the bold, though, and sometimes a limitation is a blessing. Certain films show that the create a distinct experience. While Hitchcock's Rope and Iñárritu's Birdman are masterpieces of single-shot fakery, they're to be disqualified for the advantages of hidden cuts and digital stitching. The focus here is on those audacious films that attempt to never require splicing of any kind.
This week sees the UK cinema release of German actor-director Sebastian Schipper's film Victoria. A two-hour thriller constructed as a single take, Schipper's daring gambit is just the latest in a short but remarkable line of single-shot feature films. Victoria sees the eponymous lonely soul, played by Laia Costa, meet her first friends since moving to Berlin, subsequently careening from nightclub flirting to armed robbery in the course of one relentlessly heady night. The film was plotted but not scripted or blocked, which meant improvisation from both cast and crew during each take. The production spent three months preparing and rehearsing, fastidiously working out the logistics, even down to how small issues like the opening of a door might derail an entire night's work. The hard graft paid off, three takes was all it took and the last one was a keeper.
While Schipper claims not to be directly influenced by other single-shot films, Victoria owes a debt to Mike Figgis' 2000 film Timecode. The first American studio film shot entirely on digital video, because of the technological necessity, it is also the first true example of a feature film without cuts. Containing not one but four separate takes, running at concurrent real-time in a split-screen format, Timecode operates somewhat like a bank of live broadcast monitors. The technique wasn't just a clever conceit, it allowed Figgis' to watch each 93-minute take the same day. This gave him a unique position to find inspiration and adaptation in hindsight to inform the whole narrative, all while still shooting. There was no need to head into an editing suit with baited breath, hoping that he was as smart as he thought he was. The freedom to truly solve perceived problems isn't often found in the edit, where the safety net can become a web if the footage doesn't match expectations. Barring expensive and often practically limited reshoots, a traditional edit is constrained by the footage delivered. Inspiration can strike when organising the pieces, but there might be little that can be done to actualise some new vision.
Figgis is a multi-instrumentalist, playing drums, guitar, and trumpet from an early age, and it's this musical nature that provided him with the key to working out how four simultaneous stories could work without cuts. He wrote the screenplay for Timecode on music staff paper in a string quartet format, with each line signifying one camera and each bar representing one minute in time. Like Victoria, the plot was simply outlined, and within that structure the performers and camera operators could improvise, making sure to correspond their movements with synchronised watches.
Listening to the same piece of music on separate occasions will result in a distinct experience, as your mind focuses on the interplay between different instruments. This effect is achieved visually by Timecode, with some interplay created by Figgis' precise notation, dialogue fading and the prepared intersection of the four storylines, but some occurring spontaneously as the viewer juxtaposes one shot with another through their own choosing. As the characters spiral and collide in Timecode, the viewer is given unique control, becoming somewhat of an editor themselves. Incidentally, the DVD version of the film gives the viewer the ability to direct the soundtrack, passing on even more of the role of editor to the viewer.
Victoria is also a film concerned with control. Unlike Timecode's sharing of control with the viewer, though, Victoria's gift is chaos. During production, Schipper told the cast and crew, "don't be afraid of mistakes, don't be afraid of chaos" and this philosophy is at the core of the film. Victoria gradually transforms in front of our eyes, from meekly obeying the rules of a toilet queue, through little rebellions, to finally breaking bad and committing a drug-fuelled bank robbery with gusto.
As Victoria confronts her fear of chaos, so too does the audience. The filmmakers may lack the safety net of editing, but the audience follows, tumbling through the bad decisions and confusion without the usual comfort of removal in omniscient perspective. The support of the organised reality in editing is lost. What's left in its wake is the authentic chaos of the unbroken line of conscious everyday experience, albeit one revolving around a somewhat preposterous robbery. Victoria's chaos provides the tension of immersive experience alongside the characters, but also a similar stress to those Youtube videos of death-defying Russian climbers hanging off skyscrapers. There's a nagging feeling that something is about to go wrong. The expectation of a cut has been drilled into our perception of moving images from childhood cartoons onwards, and surely a cut must come, but our enjoyment of the authenticity of the single-shot experience is under threat. This special anxiety in cinema is reserved for the single-shot film.
It's not just physical thrills that are produced by Victoria's single-shot conceit, as the format also produces a more active engagement from the viewer in understanding the meaning behind the imagery. Multi-shot films rely on the juxtaposition of images, created by cuts, to create authorial meaning through the Kuleshov effect, named after the Soviet filmmaker Lev Kuleshov who established the technique. One shot providing context for the next, and so on, in a weave of meaning. Alfred Hitchcock called the execution of this effect "pure cinema", and it has been common for so long that to point it out to even a casual film-watcher seems redundant.
The stock use of the technique is perhaps reason enough to celebrate a film that never engages in it. The French film critic André Bazin was a strong proponent of long-take aesthetics, arguing that an overuse of juxtaposition interrupted the audience's right to derive their own meaning. Victoria has no cut with which to elicit the effect, so the viewer isn't offered clear slices of film and directed to compare and contrast. The relational creation of meaning in the images is stretched throughout the film. This allows an interesting uncertainty to creep into the film. The juxtaposition of imagery occurs largely between the memory of the viewer and what's onscreen, as they actively engage with the experience. Is there a particular moment in Victoria's journey where she turns from innocent to good? When in Laia Costa's improvised performance does she feel her character has crossed that line, and do we share that moment? Victoria's single-shot structure perhaps offers a more interpretive form of deriving meaning than possible in multi-shot. The ambiguity here allows the audience more authority to decide meaning for themselves, similar to Timecode's four-way, mix-and-match juxtaposition.
While Victoria propels the viewer forward in vivid linear time, a single-shot film doesn't necessarily have to be linear in nature. Alexander Sokurov's 2002 historical epic Russian Ark proves that a lack of cuts does not have to mean a lack of temporal complexity. Condensing three-hundred years into a single 87-minute long Steadicam shot, Russian Ark moves through the many-splendored rooms and grounds of Saint Petersburg's Winter Palace, and also through Russia's tumultuous history. As we're guided by ghosts through space and time, the momentous and the mundane mix together. Coffins are built for the multitude of dead during the Siege of Leningrad while Catherine the Great hunts for a toilet.
A monumental building like Saint Petersburg's Winter Palace, which has seen royalty and revolution come and go, suffers from and adapts to the events surrounding it. This is what we mean when we say we can feel the history of a place. The evolving styles of architecture and design, weathered by bombings, lootings, and reborn through subsequent restoration, make the palace a patchwork image of Russia's history. In 1920, the Russian dramatist Nikolai Evreinov staged a recreation of the Bolshevik attack on the palace during the 1917 October Revolution. The mass performance was a form of ritual theatre, in the very place the original event occurred, as a celebration and revision of history that extolled the Bolshevik revolution. Russian Ark is a massive undertaking of revisionist ritual theatre of its own kind, and its setting could not be more apt.
The continuous movement of the camera through pockets of particular time encapsulates the experience of walking the halls of a grand monument to history like the Winter Palace. A cut in this experience would be as disruptive as in Victoria, breaking the illusion and forcing a more definitive meaning between one event and another. Rather than be definitive, the film uses the concurrent experience of past, present and future interacting as a challenge to our notions of historical representation. Three hundred years of Russian history escapes the frozen confines of chronological history as cause and effect, as seen in most historical epics, to convey a living history that cannot be simply parsed through the careful editing of separate moments.
Each of the three films here are considerably different, but all use the single-shot technique as a way to explore how time and perception are inextricably linked. They're remarkable not just because they're feats of daring, but because they shock our conditioned cinematic senses, sparking new ways of seeing and understanding film. Editors shouldn't panic yet, their careers safe for now, but more single-shot films are certain to follow, enabled by ever more elaborate technologies. With exponential advancements in 3D, 360-degree cameras and virtual reality, expect the single-shot format to develop in ways yet imagined.