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The 10 Longest Unbroken Shots in Cinema History

19 February 2016 | Features, Film Lists | by Caio Coletti

unbroken shots

Some people claim the long shots of some recent movies are just a way for the directors and cinematographers to call attention to them, instead of permitting the story to talk for itself. This can be true, and maybe it even is about some of the selections on this list, but the unbroken shot (or the illusion of one) is still a destabilizing cinematic technique that helps the viewer to immerse in the movie’s universe, if done right.

Ever since the early cinema, when cuts weren’t even on a filmmaker’s options, figuring out a way to stage a scene (or multiple scenes) without cutting has been one of the preoccupations on artists’ minds. Unbroken shots demand a lot from actors, who are in a way asked to perform as in a stage play (and often improvising, as is noted in a lot of this lists entries); it puts pressures on the cinematographer, who has to figure a way to make it work and realize the directors vision of what should be seen on screen; and it represents a challenge for the production, especially when the scene involves a lot of extras or equipment being moved around.

These movies have accomplished all that, which is a technical feat in and on itself. Some of them are flawed pieces of cinema, some of them are absolute classics – but all of them have pushed the cinematic technique further, and deserve credit for that.

 

10. Nostalghia (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1983, 9m20s)

nostalghia

The second-to-last movie by Russian master Andrei Tarkovsky, Nostalghia is the tale of a Russian poet taking a tour through Italy with his guide and translator as his only company. He eventually meets a deranged old man who imprisoned his own family for seven years, claiming he was protecting them from the maladies of the world.

The movie, an existential drama in the best Tarkovsky tradition, finds the poet confuse about his feelings for his translator, missing his country and his wife, and feeling a strange kinship to said deranged old man. This extended ten-minute take follows the protagonist as he tests a local superstition by carrying a candle through a drained mineral pool, trying to keep it lit until he reaches the other side.

The scene’s triumph is mostly in its sound design: heavy breathing, water dripping, the soft splash of cautious feet on shallow water. Tarkovsky makes us feel every tentative step forward his character takes, and create tension by focusing sometimes on the trembling hands carrying the candle and on the tense expression on actor Oleg Yankovskiy’s face.

It’s a beautiful (and somewhat terrifying) visual concretization of the way the character sees life, this complicated, dangerous journey in which we’re always trying to protect what’s dear to us in the best way we can.

 

9. Snake Eyes (Brian De Palma, 1998, 12m57s)

Snake Eyes

Brian De Palma is not a stranger to long, unbroken shots, but his longest and most impressing one is probably in Snake Eyes, his 1998 detective story localized in an important boxing match in an Atlantic City casino. Lead by Nicolas Cage in a typically hyper-energized performance, Snake Eyes is a dividing movie to say the least, but everyone was uniformly impressed by the way De Palma used a 13-minute tracking shot to show us what’s going on in the fight before all hell breaks loose.

Putting subtle clues for the murder mystery that follows together with an immersion of the spectator in the environment of the casino, the tracking shot actually has four or five hidden cuts, but it feels like a mini-marathon all the same. It’s curious that not many detective/murder mystery movies following Snake Eyes used an unbroken take to the same effect – could it be that filmmakers were worried they couldn’t top De Palma?

 

8. Hunger (Steve McQueen, 2008, 16m30s)

hunger-michael-fassbender

16 minutes and 30 seconds of unbroken film is a feat in any film, but Hunger stands out on our list because of the intimate nature of its extended take – throughout a quarter of an hour, Michael Fassbender’s Bobby Sands and Liam Cunningham’s Father Moran are sitting in a table, observed by Steve McQueen’s unblinking and motionless camera, talking. And that’s all that happens.

The brilliancy of McQueen’s stylistic choice here is that it puts our focus in the actors, especially in Fassbender’s unparalleled performance, conjuring up a mini-stage play in the middle of a movie whose images and powerful performances speak louder than words.

As Irish republican Bobby Sands, Fassbender delivers what is still his finest performance, leading a crew of inmates in a Northern Irish prison in a hunger strike that shake up the power structure established. Watching him incredulously entertain this priest while him and his men are starving to death is a gut-wrenching experience like everything else in Hunger, and McQueen’s commitment to just watch it happen only makes it more so.

 

7. Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón, 2013, 17m)

gravity3

The long shot that opens Cuarón’s space survival tale earned Emmanuel Lubezki his first win at the Academy Awards, and is indeed an astonishing feat. For 17 minutes, we follow astronauts Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) as they are making repairs on their ship, until tragedy strikes and they are left adrift in space.

An impressive introduction to the characters that turns into a riveting action sequence, the most impressive feat in the unbroken shot is the way it showcases the film’s excellence in the special effects area, transporting us to that unhospitable environment and yet maintaining the safe, familiar Earth just in sight.

This is a perfect example of how a long, unbroken take can serve to storyline purposes, instead of being just another filmmaking gimmick. As the next hour-and-a-half movie rolls on, that impressive feat on the beginning never really leaves the spectator’s memory, and serves as a stark reminder that space is full of dangers and unpredictability. And that’s necessary for the suspenseful, agonizing feel of Cuarón’s movie to be properly transmitted to the spectator.

 

6. Rope (Alfred Hitchcock, 1948, 1h20m)

Rope

Back in 1948, making movies that appeared to be filmed in one long take was neither as easy nor as common as it is today. So it’s no surprise that Alfred Hitchcock was the one to try and accomplish it in a big American film – Rope was controversial for its content, showing a homosexual couple (their relationship is only implicitly conveyed, of course) murdering a colleague so as to prove to their favorite professor (James Stewart) they learned his lessons.

It’s dark and twisted even by Hitchcock’s standards, but his decision to make the film in one unbroken shot caused even more commotion on the set.

As analogic cameras only permitted 10 minute takes, the film features a series of moments when it zooms in in some black object, so as to make the transition smoothly. Hitchcock’s obsession with the gimmick led to a few anecdotes: as to avoid the need to reshoot, a cameraman whose foot was broken when the camera dolly rolled over it was gagged and dragged outside so his screams would not affect the take, and a stagehand had to catch a glass one of the actresses dropped before it hit the ground in another time.

Most people, including Hitchcock himself, dismiss Rope as a minor accomplishment in the director’s rich filmography, but as a technical feat it remains impressive, especially considering the way and the year it was made.

 

 

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  • Camilo Corleone

    And Bela Tarr¿?

    • Alexandro Sifuentes Díaz

      The master of truly unbroken shots.

  • FRk

    There’s a Colombian movie, PVC, that is also a single take film. It’s about a horrific real life story of our country, the collar bomb that was put in a woman and her agony of several hours until it exploded.

  • Kevin Sharuk

    Birdman is not a one shot sequence!!! It looks that way but it isnt!!

    • Lukas

      Not only that, but the last scene is clearly and purposely cut from the rest of the movie. It’s so wrong to count the whole movie as a one shot.

    • Rudi

      Well, that’s what the text says; it APPEARS as one shot.

      Still strange though they contributed the movie to this list if it doesn’t matter whether the effect is real or not. This movie is just a gimmick compared to the real artistic ones.

  • Claudia Negrea

    Fish & Cat by Shahram Mokri (2h, 14min.)

  • Adonay Meza

    And what about I am Cuba?

    • Wyatt W.B

      Longest, not best.

      • Martin

        the title says “longest” not “best”

  • Rudi

    Not the longest but clearly my favorite long (5 minutes) shot is the beach scene in Atonement. It’s so powerful and there’s so many happening at the exact right time, it just keeps on impressing me.

    https://vimeo.com/91846884

  • Žarko Stevanović

    One extremely underrated example would be Death of a Man in the Balkans, a Serbian movie shot entirely from a webcam point of view. Lasts about 80 minutes. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2113768/combined

  • gustavomda

    There’s an incredible cameraman/DP in Brazil called Dib Lutfi who really helped define the style of Cinema Novo in the 60s and 70s. I suggest you have a look at a movie he did with Ruy Guerra called Os Deuses e os Mortos (international title: Of Gods and the Undead). There are many impressive long shots in it, but the most famous one is a beautiful long shot with actors moving around switching rooms and the camerawork is just brilliant.

  • mango

    Mainly for the record, but also because this is a regularly misunderstood and wrongly replicated information about Hitchcock’s “Rope”: The film is not at all in 10-minute-shots and also the film is not made to appear “in one unbroken shot”. I read this all the time, so apparently people haven’t even seen the film, since it’s unmistakenly obvious and visible to anyone with a somewhat cineaste interest in filmmaking and film language. If you just watch the film, you will easily see that Hitchcock (or rather his DOP) zooms (or pans) to a black object every 4 or 5 minutes. However at the end of every reel of the print (each of which is about 12 to maximum 15 minutes in length with old-fashioned 35mm prints) there is a conventional edit, completely undisguised, but plainly a cut to something else. Which makes it totally easy to see when the projectionist has to change the reel, and therefore there are about 5 very well visible (=conventional) edits in “Rope” plus about 15 more or less disguised edits (but with today’s eyes that are much more used to technical perfectionism, easily visible). It’s a funny (and also a bit annoying) thing that everyone simply replicates the myth of the “uninterrupted one take” idea instead of looking at the film for once.
    PS, for clarification: shooting reels in 35mm were about 10 minutes maximum length, that’s true. Many reels were rather about 4 minutes though, and the screening prints’ reels are about 15 minutes (max.) each.

    • Mat

      I’ve seen Rope a couple of times, and I’ve never noticed the conventional edits. The film appeared to me, as one continuous take.

      • mango

        I understand it’s not so easy to see if you’re not a filmmaker, editor, or film theory student, because usually, as an audience member you’re simply taken by the story. Well, I don’t have a video of the full film here at the moment, to give precise timecodes, but I just found this video (on vimeo) showing at least 4 conventional (i.e. “hard”) cuts in the film. Not sure if the person who made the video got every cut, but it seems quite thorough. Just have a look: https://vimeo.com/76087987

        • Mat

          Thanks Mango. The Cathrine Grant video has some great stuff. It’s funny, I remember the disguised cuts, but never the hard cuts, which are quite clear. Maybe the notion of ‘perpetual movement’ is important for something like this.

      • mango

        Ah, here’s another vimeo link which includes timecodes: https://vimeo.com/41195578

    • Miroslav Maric

      Nice . Loved reading this.

  • Mustafa Ozcinar

    Where’s touch of Evil” by Orson Wells?

    • Mustafa Ozcinar

      Sorry I didn’t realize
      it wasn’t about the best but the longest ones.

  • wints22

    If you like this then you would love ‘Percival’s Big Night’, amazing feat of acting and camera work together from a indie production.

  • Bassem Qassem

    Why isn’t the revenant on this list?

  • Feiling

    This film from Philippines is genuinely a one-shot film.
    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt4524244/
    http://talents-tokyo.jp/2015/edition2015-experts/experts-remton-siega-zuasola
    Remton Siega Zuasola had made 2 feature films, both in one-shot style. The making of the films made the crew insane but the outcome were brilliant.

  • Nico Sacha

    Check “the magicians” by Song Il-gon, an excellent one-shot movie and one of the best korean films i ever saw!

  • Daria Leanne

    You missed the opening of The Last Laugh by Murnau, and the last scene of The Passenger by Antonioni – both quite famous long shots.

  • Wolfgang

    Lav Diaz?

  • Zakhar Stoliar

    I was surprised with the Rope. But take that, “Russian Ark/ Русский ковчег” by Alexander Sokurov / Сокуров Александр – 1 hour 36 min, the whole film in one shot!
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J–TDEHizVA

  • Zakhar Stoliar

    I was surprised with the Rope. But take that, “Russian Ark” by Alexander Sokurov – 1 hour 36 min, the whole film in one shot!
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J–TDEHizVA

  • Martin Burkert

    Nice oneshot as well:
    https://youtu.be/pxISEUx4jdI
    🙂

  • Martin Cunningham

    The opening of Welles’ ‘A Touch Of Evil.’ Only four minutes. But length isn’t everything.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8CiOcgvgq2o

  • fabilipo

    You all forgot about “The Secret In Their Eyes” brilliant sequence
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qh7omzsVhb0

  • Alejandro Lajud Avila

    There is a Mexican film named tiempo real (real time) 2002 from director Fabrizio prada. This film is a one shot film of 90 minutes, including 14 different locations always followed by a steady cam… This movie also has the Guiness world record for being the first movie filmed entirely in one shot in film history.

    Here is the IMDb link
    http://m.imdb.com/title/tt0369020/

  • John Bonham-Carter

    Ken Branagh’s Henry V : Non Nobis and Te Deum
    Surely one of the greatest long tracking shots ever! Apparently shot with only a hundred extras to boot.

    https://youtu.be/hPXXuEel0fU

  • Jacob Kilgannon

    Not the longest by a long shot (heh heh), but still a super fun action clip.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3bozxgVQ9m0

  • Mark Kendall