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In contemporary cinema, CGI is commonly used in service of images of transcendent beauty and spectacle, or in the believable synthesis of digital creatures into our world and real people into fantastical worlds – seen at its extreme in the groundbreaking unity of live-action elements and visual effects in Avatar: The Way of Water (James Cameron, 2022). Elsewhere, CGI technologies are used to smooth the seams between images, and their deployment is driven by the aim of “perceptual realism,” of digitally-produced images that correspond with the audience’s perception of three-dimensional space.1 With all the subtlety of a brick through a window, the South Korean Netflix action film Carter (Jung Byung-gil, 2022) explodes conceptions of CGI as expensive pageantry or controlled naturalism, instead producing a menagerie of digitally stitched, warped, flattened, and morphed images in its at-all-costs determination to be, in the loosest possible terms, a ‘one-shot’ film.

Carter’s narrative, impressively convoluted, feels like mere set dressing for an onslaught of increasingly ridiculous motivations, elaborate set pieces and farcical combat encounters. Putting the plot in motion, the eponymous amnesiac (Joo Won) awakes in the middle of an ongoing pandemic and, via an implant in his ear, receives conflicting instructions from various agencies amid some kind of governmental tangle between South Korea, North Korea, and the USA. Carter’s near-inhuman killing abilities are weaponised by these agents through false identities; somewhere in this scramble of motivations, he is tasked with locating and escorting to safety the daughter of a scientist important for the development of a cure for the raging virus which also happens to ostensibly turn the infected into “zombies.” With the camera always in tow, Carter runs, climbs, swings, drives, ziplines, rappels, skydives and defies the laws of physics towards certain success.

Beyond the film’s tangled plot is an even more opaque aesthetic paradigm. Any one of the film’s lengthy and erratic action scenes could be used to “define” Carter’s visuals, clipped, posted and offered as a microcosm of the film’s turbulent audiovisual arrangement,2 though its complex camera movements and messy compositing elude simple description. A piecemeal approach may be better suited: Carter offers a grocery list of expressive visual effects, running the gamut from understated to overblown. It is a film full of uneven compositions, digital zooms, and speed-ramping. CGI smoke, simulated lens flares, and digital water splashes do their best to conceal awkward transitions between shots, covering the frame enough to hide the way the camera has just lurched through space, an actor has changed places, or the scene has switched locations. At any point, the shaky handheld camera might look upwards towards the sky for a few seconds and then tilt down, its new position in space as much as its shifted colour grade revealing that it is now airborne, morphing into morphing into pixelated footage that is captured by the smooth movements of a drone, the quality of the image buckling like streamed video on an unstable connection. Visibly flat composited background textures warp into 3D spaces, Carter’s physical body activating them like the Roadrunner seamlessly passing through Wile E. Coyote’s painted wall in Fast and Furry-ous (Chuck Jones, 1949). A non-insignificant amount of the runtime is spent with the camera observing the chassis of various cars, trucks, vans and buses, or riding shotgun in the cabin of any number of planes, trains or helicopters, before lurching itself back out into open space and blending into the pixels of another composition. Janky moments of transition between shots, vehemently avoided in its contemporaries at the risk of shattering an imagined illusion of immersion, are non-stop in Carter. After a while, these effects no longer stick out or act as a “tell,” but become a significant part of the film’s larger editing rhythms, its unique language.

2D composites snap into 3D spaces in Carter

Because of its dense visuals, Carter is a film that is equally prone to exaggeration and analogy. Whether you love it as a singular cinematic expression or despise it as a reminder of the medium’s death knell, it seems as if the only way to describe it is to compare its parts, pieces and pixels to other films.3

First-person and third-person melee in The Villainess

Carter expands on many ideas deployed with much more finesse in the similarly simulated long-take action scenes of Jung Byung-gil’s previous feature, The Villainess (2017). The recent movie’s action is perhaps most clearly foreshadowed in that film’s much-hyped opening sequence, six minutes shot in a (pseudo-)single take, which follows the protagonist’s first-person point of view as they slaughter a base full of armed enemies through hallways and down stairways and out windows, using pistols and knives and anything else within grasp. Towards the end of this sequence, the protagonist (and chaperone of our perspective) is thrown head first into a mirror, and we briefly glimpse the body behind our mechanical eyes before the camera snaps outwards to a more traditional third-person view in which the rest of the fight (and the film) will stay. Its closest aesthetic antecedent in these moments is something like Gaspar Noé’s POV-shifting hallucinogen Enter the Void (2009), Mark Neveldine/Brian Taylor’s frenetic Crank duology (2006/2009) or Ilya Naishuller’s parkour-influenced GoPro headache Hardcore Henry (2016). The influence and readability of these first-person perspectives, however, is also driven by the massive popularity and cultural ubiquity of FPS video games, producing something akin to what Mike Jones calls a “game-driven aesthetic of expectation” which has fundamentally altered “viewer expectations of … how a camera can and even should move.”4 It is the energy of this opening fight in The Villainess – as well as many awe-inspiring set pieces later on involving various moving vehicles,swords and swooping camerawork – that Carter extracts in full scale, leaving behind its predecessor’s K-drama and replacing it with an equally rote jingoism present in the large majority of post-millennial action cinema.

This military bent is present in the siege film One Shot (James Nunn, 2021), perhaps the best of many recent examples of single take films, simulated or otherwise. Others on the docket include hospitality chamber drama Boiling Point (Philip Barantini, 2021) and the nocturnal Nightride (Stephen Fingleton, 2021), which continues the man-in-a-car tradition of Locke (Steven Knight, 2014). The extended sequence shot continues to crop up and impress in films like Long Day’s Journey into Night (Bi Gan, 2018), and The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open (Kathleen Hepburn and Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers, 2019). Oners abound in a handful of productions from Netflix’s original programming in 2022: Athena (Romain Gavras) opens with a floaty, ethereal multi-location trawl that is ten minutes long and the rest of the film is happy to stretch takes elsewhere wherever possible; BARDO, Falsa crónica de unas cuantas verdades (BARDO, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths) offers another glimpse at Alejandro González Iñárritu’s continued obsession with the technique.

This is all to say that in recent years, the one-shot has become hot property, an effect equal parts flashy and understated that functions not only as a technical achievement but, equally, as a built-in marketing gimmick. Since Emmanuel Lubezki’s Oscars hat trick in the 2010s, winning Best Cinematography at the 86th, 87th and 88th Academy Awards for Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón, 2013), Birdman or (the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2014) and The Revenant (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2015) respectively, the technique has been imbued with a certain level of prestige. It finds its apex in the centre of this triptych in Birdman, a film wrapped largely in a simulated single take, but Lubezki’s extended sequence shots similarly wowed audiences in both Gravity and The Revenant just as much as they helped canonise Children of Men (Alfonso Cuarón, 2006). As a “privileged practitioner … of the long take,”5 Lubezki’s style, honed through collaboration with Cuarón and Iñárritu, has accrued a certain cultural cachet. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this consecrated technique was promptly borrowed and remixed in successive media; radiating prestige, Lubezki’s films generated “cultural value potent enough to be conferred on other works that claim affiliation (or allegiance)” to them.6

The most prominent harbour of influence of Lubezki’s calling cards is not an exclusively cinematic project. Santa Monica Studio’s God of War (2018) is a blockbuster video game that pivots away from the omnipotent virtual camera enabled in game engines and plummets the camera down onto the virtual ground. Anchored to and surveying its gruff, high-resolution protagonists, like virtual spectres of Lubezki, the malleable spatial-temporal box of video game visualisation is reshaped in the mould of the close-ups and wide-angle lenses of The Revenant. Boasting, in a concerted marketing push,7 a ‘no cut’ camera, the game attempts to bridge the traditional imagined dichotomy of “gameplay” and “cutscene” with an aesthetics of seamlessness and a self-consciously cinematic camera that appends the prestige of Lubezki to the emulation of his distinct style.

Lubezki’s historic Oscars run certainly set the scene for the later success of 1917 (Sam Mendes, 2019), a film guilty of mobilising similar aesthetics of cultural value in its successful quest for the Best Cinematography Oscar. 1917’s one-shot gambit – in actuality, two long takes split the film down the middle, each composed of multiple discrete shots – spruiks similar effects to vault itself to awards glory. Even outside the narrow world of awards shows, however, the long or single take technique is almost always tied to the idea of technical achievement. “Real” or “unsimulated” single take films like crime-caper Victoria (Sebastian Schipper, 2015), rural potboiler Watch the Sunset (Tristan Barr and Michael Gosden, 2017) and the aforementioned Boiling Point work to elevate potentially unremarkable narratives or premises, fighting for a higher rung in the hierarchy compared to other “simulated” single take films which comprise the majority of the form. These films act like perfectly primed and executed Rube Goldberg machines of mechanical and theatrical prowess, and in these contexts, the single take becomes a measure of technical mastery – the viewer is forced into awareness of the intensive planning and execution of the shot, through both the experience of the film and the bolstering of the technique in the media.8

Carter’s visual connective tissue, a range of jerks, tilts and flyovers

Carter, however, presents no concerted marketing push to showcase it as a one-shot film. Its launch in August 2022 lacked a comprehensive behind-the-scenes featurette like Athena: The Making Of (Benjamin Weill and Kourtrajmeuf, 2022) which explicates how they pulled off some of the film’s longest and most complex shots. Carter’s subdued release is perhaps a function of Netflix’s inability to market the product of its propulsive content mill, or of the film’s idiosyncratic relationship to the concept of the one-shot film form. None of Carter’s Netflix contemporaries nor other recent examples come close to resembling the film’s distinct aesthetic, a frenzied patchwork with all the seams showing, visibly stitched footage of varying qualities and capacities, lengths and lenses, a Frankenstein’s monster of various recording technologies. Unlike any of its fellow one-shot films, simulated or otherwise, Carter rarely attempts to ‘convince’ viewers of the legitimacy of its extended long take or any kind of realism – its images are not smoothed over but smashed together with radical glee, producing exponentially ugly, chaotic blurs, jolts and compositions.

In lineage, Carter seems to share DNA with non-cinematic media forms, such as extreme sports videos and video games. Its turbulent aesthetic also pushes the film into the realm of music videos,9 in the direction of the highly popular and much-imitated directorial duo BRTHR, composed of Alex Lee and Kyle Wightman, whose videos for artists like The Weeknd, Selena Gomez and Travis Scott are primed with erratic pacing and digital lurches, replacing traditional “cuts” with effect-ridden transitions between compositions. Carter’s patchwork aesthetic is reflected in BRTHR’s mixed medium approach, which embraces every form of pixelation, distortion, overlay, grain, noise, split-screen, or strobing effect. In the language of Bolter and Grusin, this approach is hypermediated compared to the attempted understated immediacy of Birdman or its ilk.10 “If you were to stop one of our videos at any time, there would still be a composed frame,” Wightman explains in an interview.11 The same cannot be said for the jank cinema of Carter, which almost seems to neglect composition entirely, refusing to let its camera settle for longer than a few seconds.

Carter is a post-cinematic work, one which formally and materially challenges “the mechanisms and perspectives of classical continuity.”12 Even contextualised within a kind of loose generic category of the one-shot film, Carter feels entirely on its own: its long takes are, in actuality, barely long at all, composed of many smaller shots, a Russian nesting doll of discrete images. In the introduction to their book The Long Take, John Gibbs and Douglas Pye suggest that the long take “deals in the experience of unbroken duration, the continuity of real time, as opposed, for instance, to the synthetic continuity of time that is achieved in continuity editing.”13 In many cases, this form of real-time continuity implies a 1:1 of production time against the time taken to view the shot, but rarely is this felt in the patchwork of Carter, which embraces the artificiality of its conceit, any number of shots pertaining to present a singular movement through space. At times the film even suspends its actors in space or in mid-air and rotates the camera around them, hitting a point where one image is more easily grafted onto its successor. Almost paradoxical to its function as a one-shot film, Carter is greatly reliant on editing and post-production processes. In the digital era, as Gibbs and Pye note, the “prodigious physical effort and ingenuity” of pulling off long takes or one-shot films is instead “replaced by the hugely time-consuming labour and inventiveness of programmers and compositors.”14 In much of contemporary blockbuster cinema, the weight of the technical labour has shifted from production to post-production.

In the context of Carter, this description is only partly true. Read against a film like Gravity which “emphatically showcases key capabilities of the digital long take” through its ethereal virtual camera movements and de-emphasising of the physicality of the camera in space,15 Carter’s camera is not relegated entirely to the position of an omnipotent virtual observer. Rather, it is an ever-present companion to the action it captures. As Jonah Jeng puts it, the “manifest mobility” of Carter’s camera maintains its impression as a physical entity within a physical space where it “often feels like as much a body as the stunt-people it captures.”16 Jeng notes that the film, through its symbiosis of camera and stunt person, produces “alternate vision in which stunt people are not the below-the-line footnotes that mainstream discourse continues to treat them as.”17 One finds a parallel between the underappreciated labour of the stunt person and what Lisa Purse notes as “the labour of the invisible legions of digital compositors and animators whose work goes into the construction of these extended sequence shots today.”18 Carter straddles these disciplines, and brings them together through the fire and flames.

Here, various physical, technical and visual masteries come into play. Carter brings together the pleasures of observing and appreciating the physical work of the on-screen stunt people with the pleasures of observing and being privy to the film’s dynamic mobile viewpoint. In its extreme opening up of space, Carter’s digitally-facilitated ‘single shot’ offers a “fantasy of unlimited mobility, access, and visual mastery for the spectator to share.”19 This “visual mastery” bears corroboration with the film’s VFX-based violence. In their breakdown of contemporary digital violence, Stuart Bender and Lorrie Palmer observe a “link between the onscreen, digital-enabled mastery of the shooter with the offscreen digital mastery of the visual-effects artist,”20 visible most dramatically in the slick “hero’s run” sequences of films like Kick-Ass (Matthew Vaughn, 2010) and Wanted (Timur Bekmambetov, 2008), which Carter may well be a film-length extension of. The visual effects-heavy violence enacted by the almost superhuman characters of post-millennial action cinema operates in a register inverse to the traditional shoot-out sequences of 20th century action cinema and works to “aestheticize the shooter’s control, [their] mastery over guns and over the space”21 The crucial point of difference in these films concerns the way that the effects of the violence on the shooter’s enemies is rarely given explicit focus – the notion that the “bullet hits are not about the wounded body underneath.”22 Instead, these sequences operate not only to demonstrate and emphasise “the VFX mastery behind the scenes” but “to thrill the spectators who applaud that mastery.”23

VFX-enabled stunt-work in Carter

In essence, you could call Carter ‘Google Street View cinema,’ a label applied pejoratively in an online review.24 It’s an aesthetic felt in the film’s stretching of the image, its organisation and traversal of geography, the way that transitions between shots are communicated through a morph rather than cuts, through a warp between two images or points in space. Space in Carter often appears akin to navigating Street View like a desperate GeoGuessr player, furiously clicking into the volume. The film’s composite-heavy construction renders space similarly to the image-stitching technologies involved in Google’s software. Compared to rear projection, or even contemporary on-set virtual production technologies like Disney’s StageCraft system (emerging out of the production of The Mandalorian and into their Marvel films), Carter’s spatial dynamics feel far more algorithmic. The results of its CGI are not clean, sharp virtual images, but stretched and aesthetically polluted, resembling something close to what Hito Steryerl calls “poor images.” 25 Despite drifting in Netflix’s digital ether ready to be instantly replayed in full Dolby Vision, Carter feels almost radical in its defiance of this visual regime, as if defying the stringent rules of the company about what cameras can be used in their original programming.26

One pervasive drive of digital media, channelled through contemporary CGI practices and emblematised in one-shot films, is to achieve this notion of seamlessness, of an image so touched up as to appear untouched. Zach Karpinellison has written about the complex ways that digital media mask their materiality, hiding “the evidence of digital structures, objects, code and numbers by scaling up definition until the resolution flattens and crisps images, so they resemble something inscrutable.” 27 It is to this end that revered one-shot films like Birdman and 1917 vehemently venture, working in painstaking fashion to achieve an exterior gloss that obscures and complicates its discrete bits and pieces. This is a drive with which Carter appears utterly unconcerned, moving away at an increasingly rapid pace from the eminent realism worked towards in its contemporaries.

Carter’s is a film difficult to parse or classify, an idiosyncratic take on an increasingly fetishised form commonly overwrought with prestige. In its extreme vision of what a one-shot film can be, Carter presents a version of this genre well outside the realm of both believability and respectability.

Endnotes

  1. S. Prince. “True Lies: Perceptual Realism, Digital Images, and Film Theory.” Film Quarterly 49 (3) (1996), p. 32.
  2. Attention-grabbing action scenes are clipped and shared online, offered as a microcosm of the film’s complex aesthetic, a bite-sized summary out of which the rest of the film could be extrapolated, cf. J. Decloux (@DeclouxJ). “You know the faux one-take action sequences in THE VILLAINESS?,” Twitter, 6 August 2022.
  3. Within the space of a single paragraph, one enthusiastic reviewer compares it to The Bourne Identity, Crank, Enter the Void, Hardcore Henry, The Matrix Reloaded, and Fury Road: “Carter,” Vern Outlaw Film Critic, 5 August 2022
  4. M. Jones, “Vanishing Point: Spatial Composition and the Virtual Camera,” Animation 2 (3) (2007), p. 231
  5. C. Deleyto, and M.d.M. Azcona, “The Texture of the Age: Digital Construction of Unbounded Space in Birdman (Iñárritu 2014),” Studies in Spanish & Latin American Cinemas 18 (1) (2021), p. 74
  6. Colleen Kennedy-Karpat and Eric Sandberg, “Adaptation and Systems of Cultural Value,” in Adaptation, Awards Culture, and the Value of Prestige, Kennedy-Karpat, C. and Sandberg, E. (Cham: Springer International Publishing, 2017), p.11
  7. See: PlayStation, “God of War in a Single Shot”, YouTube, Mar 22, 2018  and PlayStation, “God of War – Worlds Collide Podcast Episode 2: The No-Cut Camera”, YouTube, Jan 11, 2020
  8. Available online are comprehensive breakdowns of the logistics of shooting a film like 1917: Kyle Deguzman, “1917 One Shot Explained — How Roger Deakins Shot a “Oner” Film,” Studio Binder, 5 July 2020
  9. To say nothing of the seemingly endless slew of “one-shot music videos”: “List of one-shot music videos,” Wikipedia, last modified 14 January 2023
  10. David J. Bolter and Richard A. Grusin, Remediation: Understanding New Media (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1999)
  11. Vanessa Lee, “Behind the Lens With BRTHR,” Hypebeast, 1 May 2018
  12. “Perspectives on Post-Cinema: An Introduction”, Post-Cinema: Theorizing 21st-Century Film, Shane Denson and Julia Leyda, eds. (Sussex: REFRAME Books, 2016), p. 4
  13. John Gibbs and Douglas Pye, “Introduction 1: The Long Take—Critical Approaches,” in The Long Take: Critical Approaches, edited by John Gibbs and Douglas Pye (London: Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2017), p. 6
  14. Gibbs and Pye. 2017. “Introduction 1: The Long Take—Critical Approaches,” p. 9
  15. Lisa Purse, “Working Space: Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón 2013) and the Digital Long Take,” in The Long Take, Gibbs, J. and Pye, D, eds. (London: Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2017), p. 222
  16. Jonah Jeng, “The Action Scene: ‘Carter’ and Cinema as Stuntwork,” MUBI Notebook, 26 September 2022
  17. Jeng, ibid
  18. Purse, p. 222
  19. Purse, p. 227
  20. S. Bender and L. Palmer, “Blood in the Corridor: The Digital Mastery of Hero Run Shoot-Outs in Kick-Ass and Wanted.” Journal of Popular Film and Television 45, Issue 1 (2017): p. 26
  21. Bender and Palmer, “Blood in the Corridor,” p. 31
  22. Bender and Palmer, ibid.
  23. Bender and Palmer, ibid.
  24. comrade_yui, “A ½ Review of Carter (2022),” Letterboxd, 7 August 2022
  25. Hito Steyerl, “In Defence of the Poor Image,” e-flux Journal, 10 (2009)
  26. Cameras & Image Capture: Requirements and Best Practices,” Netflix Partner Help Centre, 1 December 2022
  27. Zach Karpinellison, “Infinite Fidelity,” Running Dog, October 2020