Long takes — uninterrupted shots that capture a minutes-long scene without a single edit — have become something of the Super Bowl of videography, thanks to their use in high-profile films like Birdman, Gravity, and Goodfellas. They take a tremendous amount of hard work to pull off, but when you do it right, high praise can await. Succeeding in creating a great long take is as thrilling to do as it is for audiences to watch.
Of course, long shots have a tendency to be admired solely for their logistical audacity (call it the “How did they pull that off?!” effect), but it’s good for those aspiring to be the next Emmanuel Lubezki to know that unbroken shots can help your work achieve much more. For those looking to tackle long takes, here are five famous cinematic continuous shots to help demonstrate the many things the visual technique can help you accomplish.
Enhancing Theme: Goodfellas
A long take can be more than just a shot — it can become part of the theme or story of a movie or video. The famous “Copacabana Shot” in Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas — where gangster Henry (Ray Liotta) escorts his date through the backdoor of a busy club — is a brilliant example. While a long take is sometimes seen as little more than directors showing off with “Hey, check out what I can do” bravado, Scorsese uses that precise quality — here captured by Steadicam operator Larry McConkey — to make a “Look what I can do” shot parallel the showing off Henry does for his date. It’s not easy to do, but leave it to someone like Scorsese to show how cleverly a long take can be used to not just show something, but also add to it thematically.
Technically Innovating: Children of Men
Long takes don’t have to be just about accomplishing an effect for an audience. They can also be about accomplishing something for those making a movie or video. For those who love to be hands-on in solving technical challenges, the long take can be an exciting opportunity, since it can be so difficult to pull off. Take the four-minute car chase in Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men. The director wanted to shoot the scene from inside a moving vehicle, but there was an obvious problem: you can’t fit a camera and its crew in a car. To realize his ambition, Cuarón and his team had to create a special two-axis dolly rig that they lowered into the opened up roof of a car so the camera could move around freely. The resulting scene is a marvel to behold, because the filmmakers embraced the technical challenges and got to see it succeed brilliantly.
Creating Tension: Touch of Evil
There are few film lovers whose hearts don’t flutter for the legendary three-minute opening crane shot of Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil, which follows the path of a car with a bomb in the trunk. Among many other things, the scene highlights how the long take is a powerful technique for creating tension. Unlike editing, which obscures an audience’s sense of time, here, the real-time aspect of the long take makes you stressfully aware of the seconds ticking by. It’s a tremendous example of how you can effectively use a long take to inch viewers closer to the edges of their seats — whether you’re making them dread a bomb going off or longing for two people to kiss.
Capturing Realism: Oldboy
As a filmmaker, realism isn’t something you might immediately associate with a long take. But just because the intricate choreography and coordination behind the scenes is artificial, it doesn’t mean that what appears on the screen is, too. The three-minute hallway fight in Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy, for example, shows how the long take — and its lack of cuts — can be used to capture realism. Yes, the confrontation was no doubt choreographed considerably, but this isn’t Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon ballet-style martial arts; it’s brutal and messy. The long take enhances that with wonderfully believable touches of realism: men stopping to catch their breath, opponents mistiming their blows and missing, pained victims on the ground desperately throwing objects at the hero. They’re all moments an edited version of the fight would never include, because the continuous shot realistically highlights how exhausting and brutal a fight like this would really be.
Sparking Energy: Weekend
If there’s one thing the long take of an endless traffic jam in the French countryside emphasizes in Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend, it’s that long takes have an energy. The tremendous liveliness of the shot reveals how, when shooting a continuous shoot, the constantly moving camera carries a charge that sparks on screen. A camera that doesn’t stop has a kinetic momentum and energy that transfers to whatever it’s shooting. In Weekend, that energy is used for a surreal and comical effect, but it can also be used for whatever ends a filmmaker aspires to. It’s why so many continue to seek the technique out: those who harness the long take’s energy can create true magic on screen.
What other long takes from famous (or lesser known) films or videos made you stop in your tracks? Have you ever attempted this technique yourself? Share your stories and favorites in the comments below!