The Long Take

In the words of Guardian film columnist Ann Billson:

Long takes make the viewer an active participant rather than a passive sponge, encouraged to scour the frame, or worry about what might enter into it…

Editing as we all know effects the film pacing; and filmmakers give this much scrutiny. Even before it comes time for sitting in for post-production the screenwriter considers the desired pace to set mood and build narrative as he writes the script.

On set with auteur Orson Welles.

Long takes pose obvious challenges: actors must have nerves of steel, cinematographers need to keep steady and precise, the director must choreograph the scene perfectly.

There is a certain intimacy behind the long take. To watch a whole scene play out on screen without a cut can have an almost sinfully voyeuristic appeal. When used in an opening scene it can draw the audience into it’s world and establish mood… when used between the interaction of characters it can have a dramatic, almost theatrical result.

Alfred Hitchcock’s 1948 film Rope

Upon the release in cinemas of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope in 1948, the master disclosed his initial motivation was to shoot a feature-length film in one long take. However, this wasn’t possible on 35mm film as the cameras could only hold 1000 feet of stock.

Consequently Rope was filmed in 11 shots… each with a duration of about 10 minutes, or one roll of film stock per long take. With the inclusion of digital film, nowadays the opportunity for longer takes is anyone’s.

Below are 3 memorable examples of effective long takes that set the pace and establish mood…

3. Gun Crazy (1950)

'Gun Crazy'
Peggy Cummins in Gun Crazy (1950)

Written by blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo under the pseudonym Millard Kaufman, Gun Crazy is a fantastically underrated and fast-paced noir gem.

A technical long take, shot from the backseat of a moving vehicle as our protagonist lovers commit a daring heist. A long take as daring and tense as the scene itself.

2. Le Samourai (1967)

Le Samourai

It is simple genius the way Jean-Pierre Melville chooses to paint his opening frame of Le Samourai

A small bird chirps from a cage that hangs in a sterile apartment. Our protagonist blows smoke as he lies motionless in his bed. An old samurai quote appears for a moment at the bottom of the screen.

Poetic and ice cool, an unforgettable opening to a film.

1.Touch Of Evil (1958)

Widely acclaimed by film critics as the best long take in cinema history, the opening scene of Orson Welles’ classic noir Touch Of Evil is certainly not to be underestimated.

Frames from Orson Welles’ classic Touch Of Evil (1958)

An expertly choreographed establishing scene of close ups, pans and ambitious tracking shots.

A scene such as this requires seamless direction, camera movement, timing, sound and action. From a filmmakers perspective this long take is a beauty to behold.

A clever long take can rope the audience into the filmmakers world and set the pace and atmosphere as the story unravels.

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