The best action scene in Ryan Coogler’s record-breaking Marvel movie “Black Panther” occurs fairly early on in the movie’s runtime. T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), Okoye (Danai Gurira), and Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) infiltrate an underground casino game in Busan, South Korea on a mission to apprehend the black-market arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis). A shootout erupts when Okoye’s cover is blown, but all the chaos taking place becomes thrillingly clear as the camera glides through the casino to the many different action beats all taking place at once. It’s a moment so pure in its delivery you might not even notice the camera never cuts.
Coogler has been rightfully hailed as one of the most humanist storytellers working today, but he’s also become a technical wizard as displayed by his love for one-take action scenes. Coogler is not a showboat; his “Black Panther” one-take allows the viewer to understand the spacial distance between each character, and it creates an intensity that cutting simply would undo. When the camera moves from T’Challa fighting to Okoye, to Nakia, and back to T’Challa, their individual fights take on a continuous intensity. Even when the camera is no longer on T’Challa, for instance, his fighting and the intensity created by that fighting persists because the camera hasn’t cut and you’re still aware in real-time that it’s going on at a different part of the casino.
In a video interview for Vanity Fair, Coogler broke down the entirety of the casino action sequence, including his decision to make a one-take the centerpiece of the set piece. The director was adamant the crew not rely on VFX work for the moment, so they rigged the camera to a cable so it could properly glide throughout the space. Coogler even created a model of the casino and used action figures prior to filming so he could map out the choreography of the camera.
“It took several takes,” Coogler said of the shot. “What we had to do is we had to float a camera up with a cable rig. There’s no green screen here, it’s all happening live and direct.”
Any viewer familiar with Coogler’s work probably recognized the moment instantly. After all, the action highlight of the director’s previous effort, “Creed,” was also an elaborately staged one-take. Coogler and “Creed” cinematographer Maryse Alberti filmed Adonis’ first fight under Rocky Balboa’s mentorship in a single shot. The camera stays inside the boxing ring for two uninterrupted minutes and becomes a fighter itself, dancing around the space and avoiding punches. Unlike the one-take in “Black Panther,” which helps organize the chaos, Coogler’s “Creed” shot adds to it, creating a disorientation and isolation for the viewer that matches Adonis’ experience inside the ring.
“Ryan very much wanted to stay in the realm of reality and seeing the boxer alone in the ring,” Alberti told Variety of the shot’s intention. “Once you’re in the ring, you don’t have teammates. You are alone. There’s no one to lean on. That was kind of the idea.”
Coogler and Alberti filmed 12 takes of the “Creed” fight before they felt like they achieved their goal with the shot. The tenth take was the one used for the movie. Similar to the “Black Panther” shot, the “Creed” long take did not rely on special effects and was filmed completely live.
“With one take, I think you don’t need to rely on movie editing to dictate emotion,” Alberti said. “When it’s well done, when it’s not virtuosity, when it’s not too self-aware, it’s powerful. Sometimes the virtuosity of one take can take away from the richness, but in ‘Creed’ you are in the ring with this boxer and I think it’s emotionally powerful.”
Whatever action-oriented film Coogler decides to do next (and we’re hoping it’s “Black Panther 2”), here’s hoping a glorious one-take is featured.