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Did They Need to Make “Birdman” Look Like Virtually One Continuous Take?

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Before it even premiered, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman was drawing a lot of attention for the way it was filmed. Iñárritu and his brilliant cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity, Children of Men) had created the illusion that it was all done in one continuous shot, shooting very long takes and digitally sewing together the transitions to hide each and every cut.

This trick isn’t without precedent. Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948) was also made to look like one continuous shot and masked every cut made necessary by film roll changes. Alexander Sokurov’s 2002 fantasy Russian Ark went even further than Birdman or Rope, thanks to a digital camera hooked up to a high capacity hard drive - the entire film really was made in one single shot.

An impressive technical achievement, but many of Birdman’s detractors believe it to be unnecessary. Some critics even go so far as to dismiss it as virtuosic cinematography in the service of a mediocre story. ”An exercise in cinematic half-assedness,” according to Richard Brody of The New Yorker, “it tackles big questions and offers conventional answers.”

But consider what Birdman would lose had it been conventionally done. Unbroken takes often have a sustained sense of tension that cannot be relieved by a cut, and by involving a free moving camera, Birdman‘s “one-shot” aesthetic has a built-in momentum that feels very dynamic.

The film’s aesthetic also parallels its subject matter of a theatrical stage production. Unbroken takes often bring a film closer to live theater where performances are executed in one sustained attempt without the benefit of being pieced together by editing. In that sense, the style of Birdman can feel very organic to the film’s material.