Among its many other virtues, CHILDREN OF MEN, which opens on Monday, December 25, features a handful of brilliant set pieces (a childbirth, a motorcycle attack on a moving car) that are achieved in long single takes, apparently without editing to hide any mistakes.
By far the most impressive of these is an amazingly long sequence in which the film's hero (Clive Owen) navigates his way through a battle between insurgents and government forces while he tries to make his way into a building and rescue a woman and her newborn child - the first baby born in the world in eighteen years.
The timing of the sequence is astoundning. It features enough action to fill many films, and as impressive as the individuals stunts and pyrotechnics are, the thing that truly blows you away is the fact that you're seeing it all happen in real time, as if unedited.
National Public Radio has an audio interview with director Alfons Cuaron, in which he explains how the shot was achieved. The sequence was prepped for twelve days, then shot over the course of two days, but only one complete take was captured on film - and that was nearly ruined when the director yelled "Cut!"
Cuaron explained that he choreographed the action to the inch, but once the camera was running he had to depend on his cameraman and his actor to make the scene work - especially Owen, who had to react believably when things (inevitably) went off cue.
After some aborted takes, time was running out on the location. During the filmming of the final take (the one included in the film) blood was accidentally spit into the lens, prompting Cuaron to call "Cut." Fortunately, an explosion covered his voice, and the cameraman continued filming; otherwise, the shot would have had to be abandoned. After the shot was complete, Cuaron mentoined the accidental blood spatter to his crew, who told him it was actually a miracle - un unplanned bit of action that actually improved the shot.
Listen to the whole interview. The shot truly is amazing, and it's fascinating to hear how it was (and almost wasn't) achieved.
Update: Though Cuaron never mentioned it in the NPR interview, the supplement features on the DVD suggest that this scene was probably achieved by invisibly splicing together bits and pieces of several takes, using computer-generated imagery to hide the seams.