Aside from comics, films are the biggest artistic passion I have. Many films have had a huge impact on my life. There are an incredible amount of aspects that go into making a film and that’s one of the reasons I love them so much. Everything from the writing process, set and production design, the score, the cinematography, and the directing work in tandem to create a unique storytelling experience. The number of ways creators can approach any of these elements are part of what makes filmmaking such a versatile medium. Cinematography is one of my favorite aspects of a film and, in particular, when a film utilizes long takes.
Long take, one continuous shot, “oners”, single takes, whatever you’d like to call them, are when filmmakers shoot a scene/sequence in such a way that it appears there are no camera cuts in the action. This can be achieved by doing genuine one-shot takes where everything that happens on screen was actually filmed in one shot. Another way is to use different filming techniques that hide secret cuts. Camera pans where an object, such as a door or frame, moves across the film frame can be used to digitally composite two different images together, effectively masking the cut.
There are a handful of movies that have been filmed to look as if the entire thing is one continuous shot. Birdman (directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu), 1917 (directed by Sam Mendes), and Rope (directed by Alfred Hitchcock), just to name a few. Having a film shot to appear as one continuous take draws the audience into what’s unfolding in an incredibly immersive way. The visuals are never broken, the suspense is never lost, everything flows completely. It also I think connects on a visceral level because we live our lives as “one continuous shot”, there are no cuts or edits in how we experience every day. So to transfer and capture that feeling on film is something that has always intrigued and astounded me.
Filming something to look like one continuous shot presents an incredible amount of challenges for a filmmaker and the entire cast and crew. Whether it’s for a scene or an entire movie, every detail has to be meticulously planned out. Creators must decide what they want the audience to see at each moment and then figure out how to get the camera to be in the position that’s needed. This creates a unique set of challenges when designing sets and constructing a scene. This is where different techniques for masking or hiding cuts can come into play, as filmmakers use a variety of tricks to match what may be completely different shots together to make them seem as one.
The longer the take, the more challenging everything becomes. Every member of the cast and crew must hit their mark for the entire shot, or it won’t work. If a line is flubbed, everything goes back to the start. This level of scrutiny makes it all the more impressive when a spectacularly long shot is pulled off. On the other hand, the longer takes also give actors more time to fully embrace and embody their respective roles. They’re not just setting up to shoot a couple of lines for 15 seconds, they’re going to be in that scene for minutes, and in relation to total runtime that can be a substantial amount of time.
If something is being filmed outdoors that adds yet another layer of complication to filming a long take. This makes it to where every shot has to be filmed in the same lighting conditions, to maintain continuity throughout the scene. The Revenant (directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu), for example, used completely natural lighting throughout filming, and because of this, there were small windows throughout the day in which the crew could film certain scenes. Likewise, the crew of 1917 only filmed while it was overcast, to maintain the same lighting conditions as the journey through the film progressed.
Speaking of 1917, the World War I epic is the main inspiration for this article. While I’ve always had an appreciation for and love of long takes, this film just recently had a wide release, is currently sweeping up Best Picture awards, and I just can’t get it out of my head. The level of planning and effort that went into achieving the seemingly continuous shot of this film blows my mind each time I learn more about it. Each set was designed to be the exact length that it took the actors to perform each line of dialogue, every camera position and lighting requirement was explicitly mapped out, and every camera motion matters.
I could honestly write an entire essay just on the magic of 1917 and what it accomplishes. The “one-shot” in that film serves the story as much as it is a spectacle. You feel the urgency of the main characters on their journey, you experience their suspense, and you travel with them across a war-torn land in real-time. It’s truly immersive in a way that I haven’t ever experience before.
Another set of recently famous long takes includes the “hallway fight scenes” in Netflix’s Daredevil. Each season has one, with each subsequent season attempting to one-up the one that came before. These sequences are an incredible display of choreography and coordination and further highlight the level of planning that goes into a long take. They also serve to show just how phenomenal these long takes can be when pulled off properly.
At the end of the day, some look at long takes as a gimmick, but I see it as an elevated storytelling mechanic. Each long take presents unique challenges to filmmakers, pushing the boundaries of what can be done, and opens up a wide variety of storytelling possibilities. A long take can do many things for the story, whether it be building tension, showcasing action, or highlighting emotion, and it’s up to the filmmakers to use the tools at their disposal to make each long take special. While we’ve seen some truly amazing displays of long takes and continuous shots I think we’ve only scratched the surface of what’s possible with this particular approach to filmmaking.