The ‘long take’, a film technique born in the middle of the 20th century, is often neglected by modern directors in favor of a more rapid-fire, MTV-inspired editing style. In fact, as the medium grows older, the average shot length (ASL) decreases; according to Swivel.com, the ASL of American films has dropped from 10.5 seconds in 1946 to 2.9 seconds in 2006. However, a number of creative auteurs, such as Andrei Tarkovsky, P.T. Anderson, and Orson Welles, have used the long take to great effect, exploring various concepts and creating disparate moods. Here are some of the best examples.
6. Old Boy – Fight Scene – Runtime: 2:42
The shot begins with our main character, Dae-Su, at one end of a narrow warehouse hallway, facing an elevator door at the other end. Unfortunately for him, about twenty assailants holding a variety of weapons obstruct his path. The classic fight scene in Old Boy makes use of a dolly to track Dae-Su as he battles his way through his enemies. The shot doesn’t track at a steady pace but instead mirrors Dae-Su’s progression, sometimes slowing down and stopping when he is knocked down or at a standstill. The hallway is a perfect setting for a tracking shot and director Chan-woon Park uses the long take appropriately, keeping the viewer entertained as the action unfolds, and making any cutting unnecessary. Although the scene is a bit unrealistic, it is fulfilling to see the film’s vindictive protagonist kick some ass with a knife stuck in his back.
5. Children of Men – Car Ambush – Runtime: 3:56
This is one of two very compelling long takes in the film. Although this shot the shorter of the two, it’s included here because of its extreme changes of pace, both literally and dramatically. Because the shot begins inside a car, the audiences begins the shot with the perspective of one of the passengers. The car drives steadily along a road sided by two slopes; the mood inside is pleasant. The equanimity breaks when a burning car rolls into the street and hundreds of crazed people pour out of the woods and begin to give chase, somewhat reminiscent of the rabid zombies from 28 Days Later. The car is thrown into reverse and madness ensues.
The shot is unlike many successful long takes because the camera remains fairly stationary throughout, moved by the car rather than a cameraman.
4. Boogie Nights – Opening Scene – Runtime: 2:50
The film begins outside a nightclub with the camera twisting and turning to the music as it draws the viewer into the club. In one long take, PT Anderson manages to efficiently introduces us to all of the film’s main characters. Even though the dialogue is drowned out by the loud music in the club, the characters are immediately fascinating, and our curiosity is piqued.
(Turn off volume before watching)
3. Touch of Evil – Opening Scene – Runtime: 3:20
Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil is known to have inspired a plethora of filmmakers, including Jean Luc-Goddard and Francois Truffaut, and much of the film’s acclaim stems from the opening long take. The shot is flawlessly timed, and masterfully uses a variety of techniques, from dollies to cranes to handheld camera work. Opening with a close-up of a man’s hand turning an egg timer attached to a bomb, the shot quickly shifts to a wider scope with a slight pan to the left revealing a couple at the far end of an alley. This seamless transition from a close-up to an extreme long shot without an edit demonstrates the beauty of the long take.
2. Soy Cuba (I am Cuba) – Rooftop Scene – Runtime: 3:22
Mikail Kalatozov is known as one of the pioneers of the long take, and the technique is prevalent in all of his films. After watching this rooftop scene, the inspiration many directors have taken from Soy Cuba becomes clear. In this shot, Kalatozov takes the viewer between several people on the top level of the roof, down a few stories to another rooftop. We look over the edge of the building, and eventually make our way under the water of a pool. How Kalatozov pulled this shot off so steadily still dumbfounds viewers and critics alike, as steadicams were still almost two decades away at the time this film was shot. Apparently, the camera was passed from crewmember to crewmember throughout the crowds of people and down from level to level. And, according to IMDB.com, the camera was equipped with a high speed spinning glass disk that flung water droplets off the lens when it went under water. However Kalatozov shot this scene, it remains one of the most famous and influential long takes in film history.
(Again, not the original sound)
1. Atonement – Dunkirk Beach Evacuation – Runtime: 5:07
One of the most incredible long takes in film history comes from a recent film, directed by a newcomer, no less: Joe Wright. The shot is faultless as it elegantly takes us around a beach scattered with soldiers awaiting their departure home.
At the beginning of the shot, the camera tracks alongside the main character and his comrades in the middle ground as restless soldiers flash across the frame in the foreground. The background is of the seemingly endless beach, representing the vast ambiguity of when and how the soldiers are going to get home. The camera eventually strays from the main character, as if exploring the beach on its own. It tilts and pans as though it were curiously looking around, gracefully circling the beach, giving a full perspective of everything and everyone. Eventually, the main character is found again as he makes his way into a bar, and the shot concludes atop a balcony overlooking the entire beach, beautifully complimented by the soft colors of the setting sun in the background.
Perhaps, as some critics have noted, Joe Wright was showing off with this shot, perhaps hoping technical virtuosity would result in an Academy Award. Unfortunately for Wright, 2007 was one of the best years in cinematic history, because any other year might easily have resulted in an Oscar.