Director Daniel Espinosa gets ambitious right from the start of his sci-fi thriller “Life,” in theaters Friday. He delivers a single continuous shot in an opening scene that lasts for over five minutes and shows the crew of the International Space Station receiving the capsule that holds the first ever life-form from Mars.
The scene follows the crew members (Jake Gyllenhaal, Ryan Reynolds, and Rebecca Ferguson) floating in zero-gravity conditions as they race to make sure to capture the capsule before it zooms past the space station.
The continuous shot (known as a “oner”) floats in and out of different areas of the space station, even turning upside down at one point to show just how insane the layout of the ISS is. All the while, the shot peeks out of the window into space to build the drama of the capsule getting closer and closer.
Espinosa knew he wanted to do the oner as soon as he got the “Life” script.
“The oner in cinema history belongs right now to two genres: the gangster movie and the science-fiction picture,” Espinosa recently told Business Insider. “I did my gangster movie [“Easy Money“] and I didn’t do a oner and I always blamed myself for it, that I didn’t throw myself out there. So when I got this one, I thought I have to do a oner, to understand the claustrophobia and the ballet that these characters have to do to survive.”
Though he went in with the right intentions, the execution turned out to be a lot harder than he anticipated.
Filming the shot took a month of preparation with the actors, who did everything from wirework to dance training to pull off the movements. And for everything to work perfectly, the sets had to rotate and be in sync. This allowed for the shot to be more continuous and for cuts not to be hidden (yes, many “oners” do have cuts – they’re just disguised).
“Halfway through I thought that I had gone mad,” Espinosa said, “that this was completely impossible.”
Looking for guidance, he reached out to three-time Oscar-winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki.
“He did it for ‘Gravity’ and he said, ‘A oner in zero gravity equals vomit,'” Espinosa said.
“He was great support,” Espinosa said of McGarvey.