How 'Spectre's' Opening Scene Pulled Off the 'Birdman' Effect

Spectre's Opening Scene - H 2015
Courtesy of Jonathan Olley/MGM/Columbia Pictures

A version of this story first appeared in the Nov. 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Sam Mendes' sophomore James Bond film, Spectre, begins with a tracking shot that appears to go on for a full four minutes before the first cut.

No, 007 doesn't get stuck in Times Square in his underwear. Rather, he climbs through a window in Mexico City to chase after a villain.

Birdman may have made the arty long-take technique trendy — winning a best picture trophy for it last year — but it's never before been done quite on this scale. And certainly not in a $250 million action movie with potential to become a billion-dollar grosser (Spectre is already breaking U.K. box-office records; it opens in the U.S. on Nov. 6).

Says Hoyte van Hoytema, 44, Spectre's Dutch-Swedish cinematographer, "It was a very visceral way for the audience to be sucked into the film."

The movie opens with a wide shot of an elaborate Day of the Dead parade in Mexico City, then zooms in to introduce a villain before the camera veers over to Daniel Craig's James Bond walking down the street with a woman and entering the Gran Hotel Ciudad de Mexico.

Normally, that's where the first cut would be. But instead, Hoytema follows Bond through the hotel door, trailing him with a Steadicam across the lobby, into and up an elevator and into a hotel room. And it doesn't stop there.

The camera then follows Bond as he climbs out a window and onto the roof, where he sets his rifle sight on his prey in a window across the street.

"The conventional master shots start big and go in and get more intimate," says Hoytema, who earned BAFTA nominations for Interstellar and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Spectre is his first Bond film). "But we felt it would be so nice to turn it around and suddenly sweep outside, giving it even a bigger scope. That was, of course, very difficult."

But nothing is ever quite what it seems in a Bond film, and that four-minute opening — as was the case with Birdman — isn't continuous at all.

It was accomplished with several meticulously choreographed long takes edited together with shrewdly placed wipes and a smattering of CG (though Hoytema insists there are no fully CG shots in the sequence).

The first shot was lensed with a Technocrane, which creating the establishing shot, then lowered the camera and zoomed in to follow the actors. A transition occurs when Bond and the woman enter the hotel, which is actually on a different street. A Steadicam picks up the actors, following them through the lobby and into and up an elevator. The hotel room is a set built at Pinewood Studios in the U.K.

When 007 goes out the window, a camera on a Technocrane follows Craig as he runs across the roof. “There was a gigantic support scaffolding the length of the block and three stories high to accommodate the track for the Technocrane,” says van Hoytema.

"It looks like one take," he says, "but that was not possible."