A Dreamer Walking

The Long Take

Posted in Personal Philosophy by Jacob on February 3, 2015

There are few techniques more cinematic in the great art-form of film then the long take. The great majority of directors we hail as masters of the craft have indulged in this film technique at least a few times in their career. Filmmakers such as Alfonso Cuarón and Joe Wright have made a career in perfecting the long shot. I remember watching Cuarón’s Children of Men (2006) and just sitting their with my mouth wide open in awe as I watched a single shot capture a touching scene between two long lost friends and then suddenly transition into a horrifying action sequence that left me, along with the rest of the audience, completely devastated. When done right long takes are able to completely immerse us into the world of the movie. They have the ability to ratchet up the tension of a scene and communicate volumes of information in a short amount of time. However, what I am curious about is how this film technique got started? After a bit of research the surprising thing is though we consider the long take to be one of the most innovative techniques in cinema today, you might say it was the very first type of shot created.

This is one of the very first shorts ever made and it consists entirely of one shot. The footage was shot all the way in the 19th century. And for quite a long time this was the standard type of shot in filmmaking. When cinema was first being developed the “cut” was hardly ever used. There was no such thing as the close up or even medium shot. One of the sayings back then was, “Why would I want a close up when I am paying the actor for his whole body?”. Even the great Georges Melies (director of the famous 1902 A Trip to the Moon) shot his movies in mostly long takes that consisted almost entirely of wide shots. The problem is very few of these long shots ever explored space or immersed us into the story. The camera just sat there, capturing the action as if observing a play. It took innovators such as Edwin S. Porter and D.W. Griffith to really explore the power of the cut and close up. However, the long shot didn’t go away. Some filmmakers such as Buster Keaton began using the long shot to great dramatic effect, like in this clip.

I know, this is only 15 seconds long. However, the shot does show an evolution in how one can use a continues shot. Keaton was able to build a great amount of tension through keeping the shot going all the way through the stunt. The shot immerses us into the action in a way that wouldn’t have been possible through using cuts. This is just one of many movies during the 1920’s that really pushed the boundaries of what cinema could do. And then came sound. Believe it or not sound in many ways took cinema back a few decades. No longer did everything need to be communicated visually. This lead to lazy storytelling where dialogue was used to communicate story rather then visuals. One of the greatest problems that came with sound was the weighting down of the camera. The cameras became much heavier and the equipment needed to capture sound was expensive. Thus filmmakers did not have the ability to explore the environment in the way pioneers from the silent era, such as Buster Keaton and F.W. Murnau, were able to.

More then a decade went past before we really saw filmmakers explore the power of the long take again. Not surprisingly one of the people who was most interested in re-exploring this lost film technique was Orson Welles. Lets take a look at a clip from Citizen Kane (1941)

Though there still is a limit to how much the camera could move Welles was able to use this deep focused continues shot to explore his story in ways that were completely innovative at the time.  In this scene Welles is able to connect young Kane playing outside with the mother’s choice to hand her boy over to the rich Mr. Thatcher; a choice that will result in the creation of one of the most tragic figures in cinema. Welles is able to create a wonderful and tragic contrast here, between the innocent Kane playing outside and the mother’s choice of taking that very life away from him.

Another great innovator of exploring just how much you could communicate in the long take was Walt Disney. His movie Pinocchio (1940) has a shot that cost him hundreds of thousands of dollars to pull off. Sadly I can’t find a clip of it, but in the movie Walt transitions from Pinocchio and Geppetto going to sleep to daytime. In one shot he goes from the town bells all the way through the town and too the front door of Geppetto’ where the enthusiastic Pinocchio is getting ready for his first day of school. Hitchcock is yet another filmmaker who wanted to push the boundaries of the long take and with his movie Rope (1948) he shot his 80 min movie in 11 seamless cuts.

During the fifties the long take was used by a few filmmakers to great effect. The main problem was the long shots at the time were extremely expensive because of the man power and equipment needed to pull them off. Orson wells is known for making the greatest long shot of the 1950’s in his famous opening shot of Touch of Evil.

All kinds of resources were needed to pull this off. However, you will find few scenes with more suspense then this. The whole time we are wondering when the bomb is going to blow. The car with the bomb in it lingers as we explore the environment. The shot again immerses us into the action in a way that no other type of shot could.

By the 1970’s, the decade many call the golden age of cinema, the long shot had been explored by greats such as Akira Kurosawa and Andrei Tarkovsky. However, what truly re-invented the possibilities of the long shot was the steadicam. The steadicam was one of the first pieces of film equipment to be able to move the camera in a smooth a precise way without needing to spend a huge amount of time laying down tracks or spending a huge amount of money renting out a crane. One of the first movies to use it was Rocky in 1976. However, it took one of the true masters of cinema to really show the world the possibilities of this new technology.

In this shot from Martin Scorsese’ Goodfellas (1990) the camera completely submerges us into the world of Henry Hill and shows just how enticing the gangster life could be. We have gone all the way from the static shot of people exiting the factory in 1895 to a world where the camera can literally explore every little corner. This shot allows us to experience time unaltered, as if we are a companion of Henry’s as he goes into the club.

The advancement of digital filmmaking has only added to the resourcefulness of the long take. No longer do filmmakers need to worry about running out of film. TV and small indi films use the long take commonly now as a way to save time and explore aspects of the story that were not possible before. Advancements in post-production has also allowed filmmakers to seamlessly connect shots in order to pull off the illusion of long takes that frankly weren’t possible any other way. And that brings us back to Alfonso Cuarón. I consider him the great master of the long take. The reason he is so good is because you hardly ever realize how long he has held his shot. He doesn’t go for the long take in order to show off. Rather he submerges us into his world and makes us experience cinema in a way no other type of film technique could allow for.

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