Celebrating cinema’s greatest long takes

News Luke Holland 16 Nov 2010 - 11:06

What do the movies of Woo, Welles and Scorsese have in common? Technically incredible scenes filmed in one lengthy take. Luke salutes a few of the very best...

These days, in the Space Year 2010, there is absolutely nothing the imagination can conceive that cannot be transferred successfully to film.

James Cameron imagines a world where weirdly sexy giant mutant Smurfs battle futuristic human intruders on an ethereal planet, covered with giant trees and huge, snarling creatures, and Weta Digital makes it so. Twenty years ago, he could have taken the same idea to the keenest brains at ILM and been laughed right out of the building.

This is a relatively recent development, of course, only truly coming to fruition towards the end of the 90s when CGI artists became adept enough to, if not simulate reality exactly, then produce images that our surprisingly well-trained eyes could not easily spot as fakes. Nowadays, we take it for granted that SFX shots will be faultless and pristine and, as a result, have almost stopped noticing them at all.

But, as Gary from Men Behaving Badly once pontificated, when there’s always biscuits in the biscuit tin, where’s the fun in biscuits?

When was the last time you were watching a film thinking to yourself, “how the hell did they do that?” It was The Matrix, probably, or at least it was for me. CGI has replaced any wonder and mystery that film once had with cold, unimaginative certainty – it’s CAD imitating art. Technology imitating ingenuity.

This is why sometimes it can only be a return to the basic principles of filmmaking that can actually impress our spoiled constitutions. Some actors, a camera, and a lot of hard work. This is where the long take comes in.

The long take has been a tool in the filmmakers’ arsenal for decades (technically since the beginning of film itself, as early silent movies were essentially shot with one camera and long takes) and is, basically, a scene where no cut is made for an extended period of time. Sounds simple, doesn’t it?

Well, imagine the setup for your average scene. There are separate takes for each actor, shots at various angles, establishing shots, and close-ups.

Out of these, the director can take any part of each they like and stitch them together to create the patchwork scene that we all end up seeing. Long takes are entirely different, in that the scene is filmed from beginning to end without cuts, and a mistake at any point means everyone involved starting from scratch.

Every variable in the take has to be meticulously controlled to ensure there are absolutely no slip ups, as these cannot simply be edited out in post-production. Here, when used, CGI reverts to its original function: to enhance, rather than replace.

The long take (which is usually a Steadicam shot) is often mentioned alongside the tracking shot (which uses dollies and motion-control), as both share a common basic principal. They’re impressive visual flourishes that allow a director to immerse you in a scene in a way technology hasn’t yet bettered.

With no cuts, you are aware that everything you are seeing was actually done, and these resplendent scenes are sometimes those that we remember most vividly.

Here is the a selection of some of the finest examples (and I'll have some more in the near future). Note that each clip is given a spoiler rating of 1-3, with 1 denoting that, if you haven’t seen the film in question, watching the clip will in no way ruin it for you, 2 meaning that the clip in question may give a few things away but no major plot points, and 3 being a big red flashing Major Spoiler Alert. You have been warned.


Hard Boiled – John Woo (1992)  

The greatest aspect of this unbelievable take is that it was not born of stylistic desire, but of pragmatic necessity.

Towards the end of Hard Boiled’s hectic filming schedule John Woo realised that not only were his crew thoroughly exhausted, but also that time was also quickly running out for him to get the necessary shots for the film’s climax. So he decided to shoot the final action sequence in one apocalyptic, uninterrupted take.

The sheer amount going on, with squibs, explosions, glass and Chow Yun-Fat’s obscene smoke-erupting shotgun, make this a joy to watch from beginning to end. And the unassuming eventual cut late in the third minute marks the conclusion of an absolute action movie masterclass. This was John Woo’s final gift to Hong Kong cinema, before Hollywood stole him away.

An interesting note is that when the characters are spending their twenty seconds or so in the lift, the concealed set is alive with activity as the crew rush to prepare the scene for the next shootout, setting charges and clearing debris, to give the illusion of the actors reaching another floor.

Ken Leung was also nearly blinded by a shard of flying glass in one take that, unsurprisingly, was not used. (Also, doesn’t his sub-machine gun sound startlingly similar to Aliens’ pulse rifle?)

SPOILER RATING: 3

Knowing – Alex Proyas (2009)   

Knowing may not enjoy the unanimous praise heaped upon many of the films that appear in this list, but its place is assured nonetheless, as while the film itself is a fairly by-the-numbers apocalypto-mystery the visceral brilliance of this particular scene is beyond refute.

The take begins almost without you noticing. The camera tilts upwards and captures what must be one of the visually effective plane crashes in cinema history, before shadowing Nicolas Cage through the maelstrom, amidst the catastrophic carnage.

Equally impressive for its obvious melding of CGI and practical fire effects, the scene took two days to set up and a further two days to shoot three takes, as each individual take took half a day (and a lot of money) to reset.

“I really wanted to put the audience in the scene,” said Proyas. “I think we're becoming so blasé about slick visual effects. I'm trying to make them not seem like visual effects.”

This scene alone showed Proyas to be the same gifted director who gave us Dark City, and one worthy of a superior film than this.

SPOILER RATING: 2


Goodfellas – Martin Scorsese (1990)   

Seen by many as Scorsese’s magnum opus, Goodfellas succeeded magnificently in firstly immersing us in the glamorous facade of organised crime, before showing us the underbelly’s grim politicking and sinister inner machinations.

This take, however, succeeds in doing the exact opposite, as Henry escorts Karen first through a distinctly unglamorous service entrance before reaching the schmaltz and showy schmoozing of the club itself. A metaphor if ever there was one.

Shot a total of eight times before Scorsese chose his favourite take, the scene allows the viewer to share every moment of Lorraine Bracco’s induction into the ways of a Mafioso. Imagine the steadicam operator weaving in and out of the narrow walkways of the kitchen, not to mention the marks and cues that needed to be hit without fail by every one of the multitude of extras, and this take’s actual complexity becomes hugely impressive.

Not ostentatious, in that the effort that has gone into it is almost unnoticeable, but hugely effective.

SPOILER RATING: 1

Warrior King / The Protector – Pracha Pincaew (2005)   

Tony Jaa’s place in movie history was all but guaranteed when this scene appeared towards the end of Warrior King, as he committed to film one of the great fight sequences of modern action cinema.

The camera pans up to the top of the staircase, and over the next four minutes, Jaa battles his way to the summit through wave after wave of hired goon, hurling and slapping his foes in a sequence that lacks subtlety but makes up for it in sheer relentlessness.

The stamina of Jaa and the steadicam operator is worthy of recognition by itself (rumour has it that a Western cameraman had to be replaced by a Thai operator due to fatigue), as is the month’s preparation that went into this one scene alone. Further Internet tittle-tattle states that during one take, the stunt cushioning wasn’t in place in time, so Jaa threw one stuntman over the railing only to have to grab him at the last second to prevent a three-storey plummet that couldn’t possibly have ended well.

The joy of this scene comes in how rough around the edges it is. Jaa’s trademark 'No stunt-doubles, no wire-work, no CGI' choreography is kept relatively simple (there is a spot of CGI used to exaggerate a few shards of glass on one of the windows, admittedly, but you go and tell Tony that you’ve got a problem with it), but the length of the scene, together with the constant worry that one false move would  result in a complete retake, is testament to the immense hard work of all involved.

SPOILER RATING: 2


Bonfire Of The Vanities – Brian De Palma (1990)   

A literary adaptation that can most kindly be labelled a misfire, Bonfire Of The Vanities still boasts one of the finest long takes Brian De Palma (a regular employer of the technique, see the Worthy Mentions, which will appear when I bring more examples of the long take in the next week or two) ever conceived. He follows Bruce Willis’ inebriated Peter Fallow from his limousine, to greet a gaggle of paparazzo over four-and-a-half minutes later.           

A smooth, wandering shot through tunnels and back rooms, it was so expertly organised that De Palma himself appears as a security guard. Not through a desire for a cameo, but to remain within distance of the cameraman so he could continue to give instructions.

This scene once again shows a long take’s ability to put us in the shoes of a protagonist, whilst also showing us the incidental background details (such as the expressions of the distraught catering staff) that Willis’ character fails to notice. A fantastically well put-together prefix for a film which ended up winning a total of five Razzies.

SPOILER RATING: 1

Touch Of Evil – Orson Welles (1958)

Rightly regarded by fans and filmmakers alike as a true masterpiece of cinema, Touch Of Evil’s opening tracking shot would still be impressive if the film were released today. Orson Welles was forever striving to go beyond the perceived visual boundaries of film at whichever time he happened to be making one, and here he managed to surpass even his own celebrated work on Citizen Kane.

This particular scene obviously pre-dated the invention of the Steadicam by some considerable years, so the shot’s four-block span was traversed by a 22” crane on the back of a slow-moving truck. This gave the motion and fluidity Welles desired, whilst leaving no errant dolly track behind to sneak into the corners of the frame.

This scene is great for many reasons. There's the way it shifts focus from the bomb, to the car, to Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh. There's the symmetry of the take, as it tells the story of the bomb within itself. Then there's the complex interactions between the extras and actors. The overall size of the set. The list goes on.

Perhaps greatest is Welles’ belief that there absolutely could not be a cut, shown best when, after the checkpoint attendant had fluffed his lines one too many times, Welles told him “If you can't get the line, just keep moving your lips and we'll dub in the right dialogue”.

Needless to say, the next take was the one used in the final cut, with no dubbing required.

SPOILER RATING: 1

Children Of Men – Alfonso Cuarón (2006)

A filmmaker renowned for his use of long takes, Cuarón’s work on the under-appreciated Children Of Men remains his finest employment of the technique and, some would say, the finest use of long takes, full stop.

The film itself has several scenes worthy of note (another may just appear in the next part of this feature), but this sequence in the car impresses even more when you find out how it was actually done.

Luckily, a brief ‘making of’ featurette is included below, which explains far more than a couple of paragraphs of text ever could.

SPOILER RATING: 3

Coming soon...

I'll return to the subject of long takes in the next week or two, where I'll take a look at McAvoy, Tarantino, guns, tanks, porn, big hair and the longest single take in cinema history, as well as a few honourable mentions.

See also:
Have modern visual effects robbed us of reality?
10 classic movie opening sequences
The CGI achievements of Pixar

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