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The Brilliance of the Single-Take Video
THIS might not be the most obvious...
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area for discussion - but how often does one see music videos talked about?! I do think that, the more common videos become, the less inventive they are. Maybe there is not the same appeal making a video that is unique and blows the mind. Artists are not featured on MTV the same way and a lot of viewing figures on YouTube comes from the popularity of the artists rather than the quality of the video. Every year brings great videos and, whether low-budget or big and flash, there are still some pretty damn good directors pushing things and doing something different. I am interested in all types of videos and there are so many styles and perspectives that can get under the skin. The reason I wanted to look at the single-take video (or the one-shot, if you want to call it that) is because of the sheer ambition and risk. I will look at more modern artists who are doing the single-take but, when it comes to the classics, you cannot beat Lucas with the Lid Off!Most people will raise their eyebrows and look confused – when the hell did that song come out?! The video for Lucas’ song arrived in 1994 and was directed by the incredible Michel Gondry. He is my favourite director because, at every stage of his career, he has pushed that a director can do in that medium and shows such imagination.
I have a definite top-five when it comes to Gondry’s videos but the top of the pile one would Lucas with the Lid Off. There was an alternative pitch for the video where the camera kept panning right and Lucas was on a train; he would exit from one side of the frame and keep reappearing in the shot as we moved between carriages. That sounds pretty interesting but nothing matches the complexity and execution of the original video. As you can see from the video, it is all done in a single take and shot in black-and-white. I am not sure how many takes were attempted but I know Lucas himself was injured during various takes because he was rushing between sets and bumping himself. The fact that Gondry and his crew managed to pull something like that off in 1994 is amazing. There were definitely not many examples of a single-take video up until then and, whilst other artists have topped it in terms of scope and ambition, the 1994 video was definitely unusual. It is risky for any big artist to try a one-take video so Lucas, a relative unknown, did not have to worry. I feel if it was attempted with a major artist at the time then the concept would have to be huge and pulling off a successful take would be tricky.
Gondry created this world where we saw the production and progress of a song – the song we hear in the video. It is quite meta and clever and there are a couple of shots that I cannot figure how it was done; how they managed to get that effect – considering there were no cuts and edits. It is understandable there was no a huge rush regarding directors trying to best Michel Gondry’s effort – aside from the man himself! Gondry would helm at least three other videos that relied on the one-shot technique – including Radiohead’s Knives Out and Cibo Matto’s Sugar Water – but I think Gondry definitely helped popularise the technique. There were some less-ambitious single-take videos in the 1980s – including Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush’s Don’t Give Up and Shakatak’s Down on the Street – but Gondry’s work with Massive Attack (Protection, 1994) and The White Stripes' (The Denial Twist, 2005) helped up the game and, essentially, see a lot more movement from the camera. In effect, the single-take changed from a more static, theatrical look to something more cinematic and fluid. Modern examples like Betty Who’s Ignore Me showcase trickery, dance choreography and extras and you are still amazed how it all came together. Even the slightest stumble or wrong move would mean starting from scratch and doing it all over again. I have talked about Gondry spearheading the one-take video but, in terms of ambition, that might have been the case.
If you want to look back at the first video that mixed the single-take approach with something quite ambitious then you could go back to Massive Attack’s Unfinished Sympathy back in 1991. Baillie Walsh directed that and, although most of the video is a singer walking down the street, it is still arresting to see. We never cut away and get that single point of focus. Mixed with people on the street and life passing by, it is amazing to watch. Not many films in general keep on the same shot for four or five minutes and, given the time it takes to shoot a scene with multiple takes, it is not an advised move. 1994 was a big year for big artists doing the single-shot thing. They ranged in terms of impressiveness and ambition but, among them, we had Weezer’s Undone – The Sweater Song (Spike Jonze); Nine Inch Nail’s March of the Pigs and Lisa Loeb’s Stay (I Missed You) – directed by Ethan Hawke. I feel like, as MTV started to explode more and there was this zeal to create something genuinely different, these one-shot videos became even more intense. Consider the man-alight-running-down-the-street video for Wax’s California in 1995; the Spice Girls running amuck in 1996’s Wannabe and Garbage’s Milk in 1996. It was all well and good seeing the more traditional video on MTV but there was something about the excitement and rush of a one-shot video that captivated.
I still look back at those frontrunners from the 1990s and am amazed by the techniques. Technology has moved on to the point where you could simulate and replicate a one-shot video without actually doing that but there were fewer crutches back then. Even a simpler and less extravagant single-shot video like Fiona Apple’s Never Is a Promise forces you to focus on the singer and concentrate. If there were multiple cuts and flashy scenes then it would detract from the purity of the song. In many ways, the one-take/single-shot video shines because you can either have the singular and simpler style that relies om a fluid movement or one with more props and people that has this different aspect. If a lot of the 1990s’ best one-take videos were being made by alternative artists in genres like Trip-Hop and Rap, more Pop artists were stepping into this realm by the turn of the century. There are a lot of great single-take videos that happened in the first decade of the 2000s but I feel two of them stand out: Feist’s 1234 in 2007 and OK Go’s Here It Goes Again the year before. By this time, MTV was almost a spent force and there was not quite the allure of getting onto the screen. Maybe that is why we saw a transition to Pop artists. Maybe there was less risk and commercial judgement if they went a bit arty and off the wall.
Artists like Feist would do the one-shot video again but OK Go are the band who sort of popularised the one-take video for the modern day. Here It Go Again remains their most dazzling work. The fact there is perfect choreography and so much going on in a video makes it remarkable it got filmed at all – let alone in a single shot! Vampire Weekend created two great 2008-released single-takers: A-Punk and Oxford Comma are both different but the effects are wonderful. I think the biggest transition from the 1980s and 1990s to the new century revolved around ambition. Greater technological advance meant that there was the chance to evolve and produce something truly staggering. A lot of the best single-take videos rely on the perfection of great choreography and having these busy scenes. Having the camera tracking through these colourful and complex scenes without breaking away stunned people. Maybe it is that dance element and the fact it is like watching this rather strange ballet that appealed to artists and directors. What of the 2010s, then?! If anything, a great variety of artists have tried out the single-take video. In 2010 alone, there were at least a couple of dozen single-take/shot videos. OK Go were back at it with White Knuckles; we had Kelis’ Brave and FKA twigs’ Two Weeks. In some cases, we need to mark a difference between a one-shot and single-take.
Maybe the terminology needs to be ‘continuous track’ and ‘one-shot’. There have been videos where the camera has focused and we have not panned away and moved at all. There could be several visuals presented but, in these cases, there are edits and it is not, technically, a single-take video as there are edits and effects added in. The best of the breed are the ones where the camera never breaks away and we keep with the same scene – there are no edits or any sort of visual effects added. A lot of artists, even now, are sticking with a simple concept that involves dancing and movement but I like where artists take more of a risk and see how complex they can get. That fear still remains regarding the precision needed to execute a single-take video where everything needs to go to plan! Tove Lo’s True Disaster (Part of Fairy Dust) is what I am talking about! That video was released in 2016 and sees this quite haunting scene of a car burning and a would-be attacker. The camera never breaks away but, instead, moves around the singer and tracks back. This means we get various emotions and expressions and there is this feeling of constant movement. The choreography is not too complex and intricate: instead, there are bigger gestures and moves that mean the camera has to adjust and keep moving to allow everything to remain in the same shot.
Although very few of the mainstream’s biggest names attempt the single-take video – they have bigger budgets and one suspects their patience would not hold that long! – it is interesting seeing artists try the technique more and more. Arcade Fire and HAIM attempted their versions in 2017: Creature Comfort and Want You Back respectively. HAIM’s video saw the band moving down a street and the camera sort of panning in and out. Various members come in and out of shot and you get that constant flow. Creature Comfort is a studio-based live gig sort of feel where there are words scrolling at the bottom of the screen. I think more big mainstream artists need to break from the big-budget attempts and take a chance with the single-take. Pop newcomers like Billie Eilish (when the party’s over) and Halsey produced great one-shot/single-take videos last year. Look at Eilish’s and, although the set is quite simple – her on a chair and a glass of drink – the way the camera moves and the fact it was all created in a single take makes it quite remarkable. Halsey’s Sorry is more ambitious regarding money and set. Halsey walks through rumble and carnage as we see bodies on the ground and, again, this is an example of the variations with the single-take. Billie Eilish can grip you with something simple: holding a glass and sitting on a chair; the potency of the lyrics matched with the visuals works wonderfully.
On the other hand, you have Halsey who is in this film-like wreckage and the camera follows her and the most impressive thing is the fact there are extras (playing corpses) and fires burning. This is not the sort of video you can afford to shoot too many times so it would be interesting to know whether they nailed it on the first run-through. Although there have been some clear examples of the single-take video through the years, there are a few that have been discredited as one-shot/take. Jamiroquai’s Virtual Insanity – directed by Jonathan Glazer – sees the camera tilts a few times and transitioning to a different shot; The Verve’s Bittersweet Symphony has a few cuts and reverse angles; Beyoncé’s Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It) looks one-take but is not; Dua Lipa’s IDGAF has an editing process like Virtual Insanity but, again, is not a single-shot/take video. In fact, even though OK Go created some pure one-shot videos, a few were actually miscreited as such. This Too Shall Pass (2010) sees a cut at 2:27; Upside Down & Inside Out (2016) required a little bit of trickery and The One Moment (2016) had to use multiple shots spliced together because of the high-speed nature of the video and the complexity of capturing it all in a single take. Kanye West’s 2012 video, Mercy, looks like a single-take video but there are multiple long takes superimposed over the other.
It is great that people are attempting to make a video look one-take: it is clear the form is challenging and provides real sense of excitement for artists big and smaller. Whether you plump for Taylor Swift’s We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together or Destiny Child’s Emotion – relying on the screen being split into three and there being three different one-shot stories; Michel Gondry did this a few times too – there are lists like this that countdown the very best. Lists like this take on a different view regarding the finest and, whilst OK Go can be seen at the top of many lists, there are videos you half-forgot that come back to mind! Older-days classics like Bob Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues and newer inclusions like Lorde’s Tennis Court can be seen on this list but it seems like nobody can defeat the current frontrunner, OK Go’s The Writing’s on the Wall! In a way, there is a challenge for musicians to try and top that. Could we ever see someone like Kendrick Lamar creating a one-take video with a big and extroverted pitch?! Might we see a new band emerge that do a great one-shot that parodies famous T.V. shows, films and moments in a continuous flow?! Maybe someone big like Jack White will team up with Michel Gondry again (as he did as part of The White Stripes) and really push boundaries.
This year, to the best of my knowledge, has not seen any single-take videos but I am sure they will come through. I started with Michel Gondry’s Lucas with the Lid Off because, in 1994, it was rare for a director to do a single-take video where the camera not only kept moving but the actual concept has intricacies and trickier times. I feel there is nothing wrong with a bare scene where there is dancing and few additions but I like when you get something incredibly challenging like OK Go’s The Writing’s on the Wall. It might have been frustrating to film but it mixes the live feel of theatre with the ambition and visuals of film. I would love to film a one-take video that would seem impossible to realise. I have a few concepts but the one that seems most ambitious starts with two beating hearts in jars on a table – stay with me! There would be a screen in the back of shot that would show a split screen. One side would see a man going about his day and the other would see a woman doing the same. Like some of Michel Gondry’s work, one story would work forward (in colour) and the other would be backwards in black-and-white (maybe a bit like Christopher Nolan’s Memento). The camera would never cut but, instead, we would pan in on the screens and the hearts would remain in shot – being seen as part of different scenes (on the screen) and seamlessly integrated from the live action to the pre-filmed narrative.
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The story would continue and there would be this sort of mystery and drama that would unwind. Clues and little visual tips would appear in each story so that you’d need to play the video a few times to understand what happened. The apex would be a car crash where the man and woman, one having a good day and one a bad, collide and there the film goes from normal speed to slow-motion. The hearts would zoom into the bodies and then, as the cars collide and that impact happens, we would then transition to hospital beds where they are being operated on. Again, without a cut, there would be the final moments where the two would be declared dead and there would be twists right at the end – how did they know each other and was there a third party responsible for the crash? You would be guessing right until the end but the final shot would see the autopsy and the camera panning into the bodies as the screen goes black. The hearts would remain in jars and they would stop beating as the final shot sees someone come in and unplug a machine keeping the hearts beating; the lights would be turned out and that would be it. I think THAT could beat the OK Go’s milestone - but f*cked if I know how to realise it!
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That video has been in my mind because nobody would believe it is a single-take video and, instead, it relies on some clever camera angles/pans and incredible pre-shot scenes. That would not be betraying the format at all: a one-take video can use pre-filmed bits so long as they remain one-shot themselves. It is complex in terms of semantics but I feel a pre-filmed segment with cuts used in a live-action one-shot would, technically, still be a one-shot video – as there would be this main camera/cameras that films everything together; if they do not cut then that all counts, right?! Maybe Bob Dylan is the earliest example of a one-shot video with Homesick Subterranean Blues in 1965; there was this sort of new explosion from 1994 and, in 2006, OK Go released Here It Goes Again – that has not really been topped in nearly thirteen years! I love the fact everyone from Indie bands to Pop artists are trying to create something iconic and not having to rely on cuts, editing and trickery to create these videos. I love the rush and skill involved with getting a single-take video done and not messing it up too often! The frustration of having to reshoot the video if you mess up a few seconds before the end would kill you but that is the beauty of the format. Look at the videos I have mentioned but do a bit of research and have a look at others not included. If you are a music video director and want to try a one-take video, you do not need a huge budget and loads of crew. Even if it was a video racking through a busy street and filming a band coming in and out of shot, that could be realised with little money – although there would need to be a lot of pre-planning and rehearsals! If you are bored of the rather mundane and obvious music videos then spend some time looking at the very finest...
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SINGLE-TAKE videos ever.