Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
We may earn a commission from links on this page

One-shot wonders: From Goodfellas to Guardians, these extraordinary "oners" pack a punch

Directors like Kubrick, Scorsese, and Altman love mind-blowing single-take shots, which can elevate films like Extraction, Creed, and John Wick: Chapter 4

We may earn a commission from links on this page.
Clockwise from top left: Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 3 (Disney), The Shining (Warner Bros.), Creed (Warner Bros.), Goodfellas (Warner Bros.)
Clockwise from top left: Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 3 (Disney), The Shining (Warner Bros.), Creed (Warner Bros.), Goodfellas (Warner Bros.)
Graphic: AVClub

All hail the oner! Moviegoers love great acting, brilliant visual effects, a soaring score, and palpable chemistry between the stars, but few things wow an audience more than the single-take shot, aka, the oner. Great oners can serve several purposes. They can immerse you in an event and let you witness what’s happening all around a character or characters, heightening the stakes in the process, like in the opening scene from The Player (more on that in a moment). Similarly, they can put you in the shoes of a character (or situate you right behind them) so you see exactly what they do, in real time, like Stanley Kubrick tracking Danny’s Big Wheel ride in The Shining (more on that too). It makes the goings-on very, very personal.

The best, most recent oners include the staircase fight from John Wick: Chapter 4 and the corridor fight in Guardians Of The Galaxy, Vol. 3. Indeed, James Gunn knows how to direct action, and he tops himself with the oner in Volume 3, which pits Peter Quill, Gamora, Drax, Rocket, Groot, and the rest of our heroes against some formidable villains in a nonstop, minutes-long, continuous orgy of action, stunts, body horror, comedy, camaraderie, VFX, flying body parts, and spurting fluids. One bit sends the camera through a gaping hole in a baddie’s belly, while another finds Rocket climbing atop Groot, thus recreating a moment from the first film. And the sequence ends with a shot of the whole group, exhausted and in pain, not only having won, but doing so together.


Not surprisingly, that scene required months of preparation that encompassed storyboards, choreography, animatics, stunts ... and five days to film. And while it looks like one shot, the sequence is actually comprised of nearly 20 shots, all seamlessly edited and enhanced with CG. Consider: the creatures didn’t exist, stunt performers needed to step in for the stars in key moments, and, well, the five days of filming. Whether all that trickery makes a oner less impressive is up to the viewer to decide. However, there is something special about a very long take, when it’s obviously done without CG enhancements or 21st century technology, that engages the viewer in a deeper way than sensing the dozens of technicians at a North Hollywood post-production house who are making that “oner” look seamless.

Oners are as old as the movies

Opening scene of Scarface (1932)

You could argue that oners started with silent movies. Edwin S. Porter’s 1903 one-reeler The Great Train Robbery comes to mind, although its lengthy takes were more of a necessity than a creative choice. (However, Porter’s use of cross-cutting, which he experimented with in 1903’s The Life Of An American Fireman, were game-changers in the art of film editing.) Among early talking pictures, Howard Hawks’ Scarface (1932) features a remarkable cut-free three-minute opening sequence. Orson Welles’ legendary Citizen Kane (1941) includes long takes and oners, as does his Touch Of Evil (1958). Alfred Hitchcock’s famous experiment, 1948’s Rope, where the entire film played as a oner, was actually comprised of four scenes deftly edited to play as 80 uncut minutes. Someone walks in front of the camera? That allowed for a sly cut. Critics at the time mostly dismissed the movie’s plot and considered the oner element more of a gimmick than anything else.


Moving forward in time—and sticking with American films—we can point to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), with its masterful and unnerving Steadicam tracking shot of young Danny riding his Big Wheel around the foreboding Overlook Hotel. The viewer is with Danny, but in this instance, not Danny (we’re seeing/experiencing much of what he’s seeing, but we’re following him). Jumping a decade to 1990 bring us to Goodfellas, in which Martin Scorsese’s camera, over the course of two scintillating minutes, follows Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) and his mighty impressed date, Karen (Lorraine Bracco), as they walk from the street, into the bowels of the Copacabana, and to their table, with Hill glad-handing cronies, greasing the staff, and soaking in the respect of everyone. He has it made, man.

Goodfellas | 1990 - Full Steadicam Tracking Shot 60fps 1080p HD

In 1992, Robert Altman reignited his career with The Player, a scathing look at how the sausage is made in Hollywood—and by whom. The eight-minute opening scene drops us into a bustling movie studio where we see peons and movers and shakers alike in action, walking, talking, pitching (The Graduate 2!), crashing, and more. We’re at times on the outside looking in or on the inside looking out. There are insider cameos, references to tracking shots in Touch Of Evil and Absolute Beginners, and, best of all, into view comes the postcard that sets the plot in motion.

We can cite numerous other films boasting great oners—and we’ll include a few foreign favorites here along with other Hollywood titles: Hard Boiled (1992), Oldboy (2003), Atonement (2007), The Adventures Of Tintin (2011), Creed (2015), Spectre (2015), Baby Driver (2017), and Atomic Blonde (2017). Over the course of one insane 10-minute sequence, Atomic Blonde delivers gunfights, hand-to-hand battles, brief respites, and character development. And there are two relatively recent movies, Birdman (2015) and 1917 (2019), directed and shot, respectively, by Alejandro González Iñárritu and Emmanuel Lubezki and Sam Mendes and Roger Deakins. These were filmed in chunks (mostly 10 to 15 minutes), assembled with great craftsmanship and subterfuge, and presented as full-length oners. Not surprisingly, both Iñárritu and Lubezki won Oscars for their efforts.

The oner comes of age thanks to technology

The modern master of the oner is, without question, Alfonso Cuarón. The two-time Best Director Oscar winner has crafted many memorable sequences in his movies. Consider Children Of Men (2006) and Gravity (2013). Children Of Men features 16 shots of 45 seconds or more and two exceptional oners. In one, Clive Owen traverses a war zone. The more famous oner finds Julianne Moore, Clive Owen, Clare-Hope Ashitey, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Pam Ferris driving across a dystopian landscape when they’re ambushed by a large gang. The car moves forward, is banged and shot at, and hightails it backwards. Add to that dozens of extras, explosions, spurting blood, and motorcycle stunts. Amidst all that, Moore’s character takes a bullet to the neck and bleeds out. The production team (which included the aforementioned Lubezki as cinematographer) chopped up a car, installed hinged seats, erected a moving rig, set up mobile cameras. There had to be cuts, but we challenge you to find them.

Children of Men 2006 Long Take 2

The Cuarón-Lubezki tandem reunited for Gravity and both deservedly won Oscars for sending moviegoers to space—and leaving them (and poor Sandra Bullock) stranded there. The movie opens with a 17-minute oner that shows us Earth from outer space, presents the crew of a shuttle working on the Hubble telescope, sends debris hurtling at them, ultimately kills George Clooney, and leaves Bullock all alone. Cuarón sought to pay tribute to space documentaries, the cameras of which can’t cut away. To do so, he, Lubezki, and their crew, which included co-editor Mark Sanger, previsualized every aspect, deployed every practical and VFX trick available to them, and invented/improvised solutions as needed. That included a claustrophobic, bulb-laden “lightbox” in which Bullock spent countless hours. As Cuarón told the New York Times, “We wanted to slowly immerse audiences into, first, the environment, to later immerse them into the action, and the ultimate goal of this whole experiment was for audiences to feel as if they’re a third character that is floating with our other two characters in space.” Mission accomplished.


Great oners can pop up in the most unexpected movies. The new Disney+ family adventure Peter Pan & Wendy opens on some family photos in the Darling home, then follows young Wendy up a spiral stairway, then into a bedroom where she engages her brothers in a mock sword fight before making the acquaintance of Peter. To pull off the elaborate three-minute sequence, director David Lowery and director of photography Bojan Bazelli relied on the latest Steadicam innovation, the Steadicam Trinity, and an elevator-like, rotating platform that could follow and maintain the same speed as actress Ever Anderson as she ascended the stairs. But, yes, if you’re wondering, there are cuts since it wasn’t practical or safe to erect a three-level set.

So oners have been a part of movies from the very beginning of the art form. Sure, they’re fancier now, as directors and cinematographers uses motion blurs, stitching points, CGI and plenty of other bits of trickery to sell the illusion that, for instance, Chris Hemsworth is driving, shooting, and fighting his way out of danger during the 12-minute oner in Netflix’s Extraction. But whether the oner is the result of post-production prowess or on-set ingenuity (or, more likely, both), they can still put you inside a movie in a way that very few other visual techniques can. They can elevate a scene or even a whole movie. Indeed, may the wonders (of oners) never cease.