A long take, true to its name, takes up a lot more screen time than your typical shot. A take is a continuous scene recording without interruption in terms of cutting. If the duration of the shot lasts for extended periods beyond the normal conventions then it becomes a long take.
In some circles, a long take is any take that lasts more than 40 seconds without cutting. Sometimes a long take can take up the entirety of a scene, adding to the continuity without breaking away from the interest of events in a film.
Typically, a mobile camera adds to the activity and fires up the scene with its movement around the characters and their environment. These motions enhance dialogue, excite with different perspectives, and add more for viewers to nibble on by breaking static scenes.
Also known as the oner or continuous shot/take, the long take should not be mistaken for the long shot which refers to something completely different. The latter is a measurement of the distance of the camera from the subject while the long take is a measure of time.
Before the digital age, limited motion picture cameras and the limited magazine they could handle restricted the duration of takes to a modest maximum. Modern video cameras feature more expansive resources, removing the boundaries and allowing filmmakers to stretch out takes as they please. It’s worth noting that not all long takes are truly long takes.
Present-age editing techniques, namely invisible cuts, have enabled cinematographers to stitch shots into a single continuous sequence. They still count as long takes anyway.
The continuous shot puts a lot more pressure on actors so directors use them sparingly and strategically if they feel it’ll make a scene more impactful. A single mistake several moments in means having to start the entire process from scratch.
The crew also needs to put in extra effort, especially if there are camera movements involved. Additionally, cinematographers may need special equipment to pull it off. Long takes serve various purposes in film as we shall find out momentarily.
In the film world, the concept of time is typically a vague matter. Filmmakers often steer clear of defining time metrics so they don’t confine themselves to a box unless it is an important aspect of the story or scene.
Through editing and cuts, filmmakers can play with the boundaries of days and seasons and bend the clock to their pleasure to fit their unique style.
While this leaves enough wiggle room for the plot to work around, it also cements the notion that what we are seeing on screen is only a story, simply because time is almost always imperceivable.
Long takes tackle this problem by providing the audience with an organic experience of time. A continuous shot flows like a river, with the viewer riding a canoe atop a tangible stream of time. They are carried along with the flow of events organically traveling from one point to another with the character.
That creates a sense of belonging and works more powerfully to implant audiences in the moment compared to more vague portrayals of time. Events in long takes play out in real-time, inserting viewers into the story with a real-world perception of both time and location.
Speaking of location, we often breeze through scenes leaving little time to appreciate the detail. We rarely notice important elements of the mise en scene unless filmmakers give an important prop focus through close-ups, dialogue mentions, etc. Uninterrupted shots carry viewers into the location, making the nitty-gritty stand out and creating a much more memorable impression of the setting.
If you have a huge scene going on with a lot of activity in the middle and foregrounds, a long take allows audiences to appreciate all these components that make up the whole. It conveys the scope of what’s going on, giving everything meaningful or important to future events enough time to capture the attention.
A long take adds to the believability of a fight scene when done right. It gives us a front-row seat to the action, allowing the choreography of violence to play out without interruption, and more realistically. The fighting takes its toll on the protagonist, just as much as it does on the viewers. We’ll illustrate this with an example.
In Marvel’s Daredevil hallway fight scene, the 3-minute long take is perfect in many respects.
The scene starts with the masked vigilante stepping uncomfortably into the center of the frame, demonstrating his power. The camera then goes back and forth across the hallway, with Daredevil momentarily disappearing into rooms as he takes on bad guys both in and off view.
We trail him down the hallway and the long take adds to the suspense when he is out of sight. Additionally, it sets up comic relief for when thugs get hit in the head with microwaves or are sent flying through doors.
As the moments tick on, the fighting gets more labored as the hero runs on empty. He leans exhausted on walls to catch his breath in between bad guys and the long take exerts the protagonist’s exhaustion on the audience as well, putting us in his shoes. The scene drags out in one continuous shot, and the camera dollies and pans across the hallway to continually reestablish daredevil’s point of view.
The movements also give us a perception of the limited space in which so much fighting is going on. Long takes such as these have become commonplace in modern action flicks to demonstrate endurance, enhance realism and also impress the audience with the heroes’ abilities.
Long takes can also set the stage for a story to take off or usher in a mood in line with the plot that follows. It can lay the emotional foundation to get the story going. In movies where nature is a big part of the backdrop, influencing how characters feel or foreshadowing events, long takes give the elements and landscapes more attention.
It gives much more focus to the details of the backdrop, influencing how viewers feel from what they continually see for extended periods. Let’s demonstrate that with an example.
For each instance, long takes of a beach scene full of laughter, joyous activity, and sunny weather instill a mood of calm, tranquility, or happiness. It’s the perfect way to launch a rom-com or some other lighthearted tone that the plot will abide by.
A gloomy ice land with sparse trees sets a more serious theme while a vast showing of desertscape with serious depictions of heat alludes to a more threatening tone. Long takes can introduce new scenes or locations and hint at a change of pace in the tonal direction of a story.
In terms of creating tension, a long take can build expectations to a tipping point, offering greater reward or satisfaction for when the expected finally happens. That could be a long-overdue kiss between two characters when neither is too sure about who should make the first move.
Or, like in the case of Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil, a car bomb that’s set to go off in a couple of minutes as unaware characters ride around town.
Here’s the trailer to that movie:
In this scene from The Shining…
… little Danny rides around an empty hotel for almost a minute. A tracking shot keeps up with him on his tricycle as he cruises across noisy wood and silent carpets. The long take lasts for the better part of a minute and shows us what he sees from his perspective. Aside from taking the audience along on innocent childhood pleasures, the Steadicam also shows the impressive layout of the hotel’s opulent interior.
As he peddles blissfully across the empty hallways, we see the beautiful furnishings, lovely color palettes, and generally get a rustic glimpse of the Overlook Hotel. The long take replicates how Danny must have been feeling riding about quickly on his trike with its disorienting movement.
Viewers also notice how curiously empty the building is. The absence of sound beyond the glossy floors rubbing against the plastic wheels keeps us glued with possibilities of what happens next.
While the source of threat is not imminent or visible, we can feel something is amiss even though we can’t say what. The long take adds to the anticipation of the scene, evoking dread and suspense. Pauses of sensory deprivation as Danny’s tricycle goes dead silent above the carpets come off as disturbing and ominous.
The tracking shot feels generally like an intrusion of privacy from an unseen onlooker. This scene features one of the first uses of the Steadicam in film, with its inventor taking on filming roles in the scene himself. Garret Brown amazingly filmed the action from a trailing wheelchair.
Children of Men is full of long takes, with there being more than 15 uninterrupted takes, each lasting more than 45 seconds. The car attack scene…
… is one of the most memorable and breathless, encompassing more than four minutes of non-cut action.
After a wide shot of the car speeding across the tarmac establishes the setting, the camera settles into a nice and cozy position inside the car. At first, it’s a seemingly lackadaisical scene as five characters fool around in a vehicle.
The camera feels like the sixth passenger silently taking part in the conversations, panning to see who’s talking and other subjects of interest. There’s generally a cherry mood going on until a burning car barrels into the road, blocking passage and kickstarting an ambush by an angry crowd.
Interestingly, the scene was pulled off quite miraculously. 12 unsuccessful takes saw director Alfonso Cuaron almost throw in the towel. Camera operators kept falling off, among other countless mishaps. During one final attempt, “blood” smeared onto the lens and the director called for a cut but the noise of the scene drowned him out.
The filming went on and made it into post-production as the only successful take. Aside from placing us right in the middle of the action, the long take also weaves a thread of tension that keeps on going because the action never cuts away.
It seamlessly follows the character’s actions within the car and trails them out when Luke shoots two cops. We are impressively baffled by its position in the tight space within the car and how it effortlessly readjusts to follow characters out of the vehicle.
Alfred Hitchcock’s intentions for his 1948 crime-thriller, Rope, was that the entire film be, or rather appear to be, one unbroken take, like a stage play.
The entire movie feels like one seamless take with the director looking to replicate how an audience would perceive an actual play in a theater in real-time. Hitchcock gets around the limitations with a couple of cinematographic tricks up his sleeve in the way of hidden cuts. Scene transitions are cleverly worked in with dolly zooms of character’s backs or objects, sneaking into new takes.
In total there were about 10 segments, the longest lasting about 10 minutes from right about the hour mark as Brandon holds the gun in his pocket. The least take is about four-and-a-half minutes. The Rope is a film adaptation of Patrick Hamilton’s play of the same name. Hitchcock stays true to the traditions of theater with his long takes.
He wanted to capture character movements and interactions in one sweep, according to a 1972 interview on The Dick Cavett Show. He harnesses the suspense of the murder mystery occurring right under the guests’ noses. The auteur director does that perfectly, allowing the drama to unfold before our eyes in organic time. Moments of tension build upon each other and each take layers so superbly and cohesively upon the previous one.
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