Knowledge is key. Knowledge helps us have an understanding of the world and everything that surrounds us. That very same rule applies to art. If we have an understanding of how rhythm and melody works we will be able to appreciate music better. If we understand the fundamentals of light and color and composition, we will be able to go to a museum and enjoy it more.
I can’t presume of being versed in any art in particular, but I am a cinema lover. And over the years, my knowledge of the medium has growth allowing me to enjoy movies (and TV) on a whole different level. Something I would like to do this year is explore some filmmaking concepts and techniques that I find interesting, starting today with the long take.
The Long Take
First of all, let’s check the definition in wikipedia:
In filmmaking, a long take is a shot lasting much longer than the conventional editing pace either of the film itself or of films in general. Significant camera movement and elaborate blocking are often elements in long takes, but not necessarily so.
So, basically It’s a take longer than usual. In spanish we refer to it as ‘plano-sequencia’, what basically means that the whole scene is taken in only one shot, with no camera cuts. This takes are usually very expressive, and can be used for multiple purposes. Sometimes, the director wants to show us a particular moment in the life of a person. The long take can change our perspective as viewers and help us connect with the character, bringing us closer to him/her. Another common use is in action scenes, like in the famous Oldboy scene.
The first time I remember identifying it while watching a movie was on Inglorious Bastards. It’s a take that starts with Shosanna at the cinema hall. The camera ‘walks’ with her down the stairs and shows us how she engages on a conversation with Daniel Bruhl’s character. After that the camera follows a waiter. This walk is used to give us a a feel of the place, showing us the cinema hall and the people that is there. After that, another change, this time to follow Col. Landa (magnificently portrayed by Christoph Waltz).
It’s not the most complex long take, but is a good one and it’s greatly enjoyable to see. This scene in particular helps us understand the environment. It gets the viewer in the middle of the pre-movie cocktail giving a glimpse of what’s going and who is there. It also builds a narrative where for the first time all the main characters (alive at that point of the movie) are on the same room.
A couple of examples
Obviously spoilers ahead
This technique is more commonly used that you would think. There are a series of directors that have a taste for it and they use it often in their productions. I’m going to start with Cary Fukunaga, famous for his role as the sole director of season 1 of True Detective. It’s on this series where I first got to see displayed his ability for the long take:
I recently watch his movie Beasts of No Nation (Netflix), where Fukunaga also uses the technique with great (and devastating) results.
Alfonso Cuarón is another director that has been famous for using the long take in his films. The use of the long take in Children of the Men is exceptional, and it gets the viewer into the chaotic England seen in the movie.
The scene is sensational. It has a little bit of everything: conversations, tension, action… The camera is in continuous movement inside the car to show us what is relevant. The ending with the camera seeing the car go at the end is genius and reinforces the ending of the scene and the situation itself.
On the previous two scenes we’ve seen lots of action, but there are other uses for long takes. For example to make the viewer feel a place and a situation. Joe Wright and his team did an amazing job in the scene from the movie Atonement:
This is scene is not only beautiful, it’s also incredibly inmersive.
I can guess that planning is a very important, if not the most, when recording a long take, as It involves a great deal of coordination. Everyone needs to know their roles perfectly: actors, camera, special effects… Everything needs to be in place and move in time, otherwise the scene might not work. If you want to see what I’m talking about, have a look to this behind the scene footage of the movie Hugo. I personally find this fascinating:
The Unexpected Virtue of Trickery
Have you watched Birdman by Alejandro G. Iñárritu? The movie plays like a single shot. The whole fricking movie. But is it recorded in one single shot? No it’s not. The movie is a collection of long takes connected through different tricks to make it look like one shot. The movie looks amazing, and it’s difficult to identify where are the cuts. It’s, no doubt, a very interesting exercise and something quite unique. The movie won 4 Oscars including direction and cinematography.
Believe it or not, there are films that have actually done what Birdman makes us thing it does. There are not many of these, but they exist and you can see a list here.
I hope you enjoyed reading this post as much as I enjoyed writing and researching for it. Cinema is a beautiful art and long takes is just one of the many topics I’d to explore in the future. If you know of any movies with epic long takes, let me know in the comments or through any social media channel 🙂