The long take (a continuous shot that lasts longer than the usual ones) is among the most discussed filming techniques; there seems to be a certain allure about extended takes, especially when they are particularly intricate, either for their length, which can go up to many minutes, or for the variety of characters and events a director can insert in one.
A long take creates its own little universe inside a film, and takes the spectator through a (sometimes) small journey through it. Other times, it is the sheer virtuosity of a take that gathers attention, the “how did they do that ?” effect.
There is a subtle but often forgotten difference between a long take, which is every longer shot, and sequence shot, which is a long take that covers an entire scene; to make things eve more difficult for those who are interested in the correct terminology, many famous long takes in cinema history are also tracking shots, meaning they follow a certain subject from the scene.
Every great director must be able to bend every cinematic technique to his or her artistic vision. When it comes to the long take, this sometimes means using it for accentuating the realism of a scene, and sometimes to diminish it; sometimes to take the breath away from the viewer, and sometimes to relax him into the rhythm of the scene, and so on. Here are 12 directors that not only have created memorable long takes, but also made this technique a quintessential part of their approach to filming.
12. Paul Thomas Anderson
Anderson’s use of the long take is certainly influenced by Ophüls and Kubrick, as well by two other directors, Altman and Scorsese, who have given the world at least one legendary and flawless extended take sequence (in The Player and in Goodfellas, respectively), but from whom Anderson usually draws inspiration for other aspects of filmmaking such as character development, or story structure.
Every movie of his has at least one long take shot with a Steadicam, and this takes usually have a special attention to fluidity and variety in the framing.
An example is the opening of Boogie Nights (1997): after framing the outside of a movie theater with the movie title on it, he tilts the camera and then moves it to the streets and follows a car (maybe paying homage to the opening long take of Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil which does the same) and only then gets to the club where we will get introduced to the film’s characters.
11. Alfonso Cuaron
The two most recent films directed by Alfonso Cuaron, Children of Men (2006) and Gravity (2013), had the effect of inevitably associating his name to the long take technique. Both films have Emmanuel Lubezki as their cinematographer, but Cuaron actually started working with “Chivo” as his dp in 1991 for his first full-feature film, Sólo Con Tu Pareja; the two of them started experimenting with extended shots very early in their work.
Children of Men and Gravity both have legendary extended takes; in particular, Gravity opens with a 17 minute shot which can be described as one of the most complex establishing shots ever made (although largely made through CGI technology), while Children of Men has many long takes that cover an entire sequence (in this case the long takes are also “sequence shots”).
These scenes, especially the one that follows Clive Owen’s character through the streets of the city during a riot, are extremely effective in their realism but also have the value of not appearing forced, a problem many long takes often face.
10. Hou Hsiao-Hsien
Hou Hsiao-Hsien is part of the Taiwanese cinema movement (sometimes called “Taiwanese New Wave”), and a real cult director; by the Nineties he was acclaimed as one of the most important, most relevant and overall most stylistically admirable filmmakers in the world. His poetic is extremely subtle, often leaving it to the viewer to “figure out” the scene, which he masterfully sets up without emphasizing its content.
This is also the reason he feels free to put many characters in the same frame, and let the scene develop for itself, usually in a calm, languid manner. Long takes are his go-to shooting choice, and his film scenes can easily last over a minute each (The Flowers of Shangai’s ASL is nearly three minutes).
A difference between his early and his latter extended takes is movement, since Hou Hsiao-Hsien increasingly started to employ the Steadicam. An interesting and more dynamic than usual long take of his can be found in the 1996 film Goodbye, South, Goodbye, where the camera incessantly precedes the protagonist’s motorcycle ride.
9. Alexander Sokurov
Russian filmmaker Alexander Sokurov, born in 1951, inextricably linked his cinematic style with the words “extended take” ever since the release of Russian Ark; this renowned 2002 film was shot in a single, 96-minute take inside the Winter Palace of the Hermitage Museum of St. Petersburg.
It was an impressive task (documented in the documentary “In One Breath”), but perhaps the spectacularity of its realization has overshadowed the value of the film, which is a time-shifting reflection on the history of Russia where the fourth wall is constantly broken and re-erected.
Sokurov’s career started in the 1970’s, and was strongly influenced by Andrei Tarkovski, whom he also became friends with. Sokurov has always given a great deal of attention to rhythm, which in his films is usually extremely slow-paced. He once said that the only thing one gathers from doing things with speed, is speed itself.
Long takes, then, are a natural choice for his cinema, which thematically is divided between great and complex subjects (like in his four-film reflection about power, composed of Moloch, Taurus, The Sun and Faust) and intimate experiences, usually between two close members of a family. A long take from “The Second Circle” dramatically puts together the difficulties both physical (the moving of a corpse) and emotional (the grief) after a death in the family.
8. Bela Tarr
The acclaimed Hungarian director Bela Tarr started his career with a series of realistic and socially oriented movies. For example, Panelkapcsolat / The Prefab People (1982) follows the personal and social distress of an Hungarian family; his movies from this period adopted a slow but realistic style, with very long takes.
The second half of his opus maintained a realistic approach and the length of the takes, but at the same time Tarr started moving the camera much less; the movements became smoother and slower, at least when he didn’t decide to keep the shot completely still. The long take is an essential part of this master’s unique style: his most recent films are (extremely) slow-paced and reflective, with few characters and a minimalistic use of music.
A great example is Tarr’s latest (and possibly last, as he declared) film, A torinói ló / The Turin Horse (2011): the camera movements are slow or absent and the scenes are cut only after many minutes (in his 2000 film Werckmeister Harmonies there are actually only 39 shots for a 145 minute duration).
7. Brian DePalma
Brian DePalma’s approach to filmmaking is often summed up as “style over substance”, since many of his movies tend to put the storyline in second place while emphasizing the use of various cinematic techniques. This choice has often led critics to define DePalma’s directing style as too virtuosistic, and often unoriginal in its homage to other films (the most referenced director in DePalma’s filmography is certainly Hitchcock).
Whether you likes him or not, every film fan should still recognize DePalma’s incredible mastery of the cinematic art and its techniques, including the long take, which is actually one of the most used out of his repertoire, and of which he gave excellent examples; in fact, the long take has become one of his most recognizable traits (again, there might be some influence from Hitchcock, who directed Rope, a 1948 feature who gave the impression of having been filmed in a single continuous shot).
DePalma often employs the long take to open his films: two examples are the initial sequences of Bonfire of the Vanities and Snake Eyes, each constructed by following a main character through various locations. Snake Eyes in particular is actually made of 3/4 different shots which are edited together seamlessly.