Short Notes on Long Takes

An old cinematic technique has recently begun to come to new glory, most impressively in the mesmerizing, high tension drama-thriller Victoria—a film shot in one continuous long take. Time for a little look at the different uses of this fascinating technique.

The other night, I had the opportunity to rewatch Victoria (2015), Sebastian Schipper’s mind-boggingly well-executed Berlin thriller that was shot in one single long take. After the credits had rolled, and after I had replaced my jaw, I started thinking about long takes and what it is that makes them so exciting, so fascinating. Here’s a collage of my thoughts.

The most obvious aspect about the fascination of long takes is, probably, that they are an incomparable show of strength. Being the vanishing point of technical prowess, full concentration on the part of the actors, and, above all, an impressive amount of directorial planning and control, they make us marvel and wonder like hardly any other item in the filmmaker’s tool box. They are, in a sense, movie moments that most efficiently fulfill George Méliès’s idea of films as stage illusions on screen: Not unlike a good stage magician who uses her dexterity and manipulative skills on us to make us wonder what exactly just happened, and how she did it, a well-executed long take can make us question whether what we just witnessed could possibly have been real and done without any visual “tricks”.

Of course, many films, in particular those that merely pretend to be shot in one continuous long take, do use such tricks: see, for instance, Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948), or, more recently, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman (2014). But even in those cases, the trickery is done so cleverly that it is hard not to admire the filmmakers for it.

More often than not, though, long takes are more than just a proud display of cinematic craft. Indeed, the best directors use them to great aesthetic or narrative effect. Providing a sense of immediacy and continuity, long takes can give the audience the illusion that they’re not missing out on anything, that nothing “secret” is going on or happening between cuts. This way, although a whole lot may be happening off-screen, the viewer is drawn into the on-screen action with practically no need for any suspension of disbelief, allowing for a depth of immersion that is otherwise very hard to create.

Although cited to the point of cliché, the best example for this is possibly still the ‘car attack’ scene in Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men (2006): Created by Emmanuel Lubezki, this sequence shot makes you feel like you’re actually sitting in the car the moment the ambush is happening, thus seriously challenging you to hold your breath for longer than can be healthy. This, in turn, connects you with the characters and events in the film’s story in an almost uncomfortably intimate way. Other parts of that movie feel like a real-time war documentary, for the same reason.

This also applies, in an even more extreme way, to Schipper’s Victoria (cinematography: Sturla Brandth Grøvlen). Since the entire film is shot in one continuous take, there is hardly a moment of rest for the audience. As the story unfolds and the characters plunge into a night of party, chaos and, finally, a bank robbery, we literally sit in the passenger seat, whether we like it or not. And as Victoria’s personal story becomes bound up with the biographies of the “real Berlin guys” that she encounters, so does ours. We are along for the ride—and, thanks to the immersive effects for the long take, that isn’t actually always pleasant.

In films that do not exclusively, or even primarily, employ long takes, they’re often used in clever ways between jump cuts. The famous tricycle sequences in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980, cinematography: John Alcott) are a prime example for this: Used in conjunction with the eerie set design and music, and the hypnotic sound of the tricycle wheels, the long tracking shot literally charges the atmosphere with a dreadful suspense that is then, at once, released in Kubrick’s terrifiyingly effective jump cuts between Danny’s face, the ghost girls, and the gruesome images of the slaughter that took place in the hotel.

A similar use of a long tracking shot for the building up of suspense can be found in Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull (also 1980, cinematography: Michael Chapman). Though perhaps less ambitious, this long take is, in its own way, very effective in letting the viewer follow LaMotta all the way from the backstage area into the ring in one fluent, elegant motion that is dramatically interrupted when the “action” kicks in and the fight begins. (Scorsese would revisit and perfect this combination of tracking and sequence shot ten years later, in Goodfellas.)

Another way long takes can be used for contrastive effect alongside montage is, again, demonstrated by Kubrick. In Paths of Glory (1957, cinematography: Georg Krause), we see a French general imperiously strutting along the trench, asking soldiers if they’re “ready to kill more Germans”. The entire sequence, including background artillery action and a backward movement through the trench, is filmed in one take—until the general comes across a shellshocked soldier who doesn’t play along. The rapidly edited closeup shots that follow break up and destroy the neat and unimpeded flow of walking and talking and, on a narrative level, expose the hypocrisy at the heart of the general’s world view. To the audience, that is, for the general himself chooses to believe that there is no such thing as shellshock and has the soldier “removed” from his regiment. Kubrick thus creates an early example of a long take that – in the context of the entire sequence – can actually be argued to carry meaning.

Victoria, then, didn’t reinvent cinema. The long take itself has been used admirably and effectively by generations of filmmakers before Schipper. And even the concept of a “one-shot feature film” had been put into practice before he took us on his Berlin rollercoaster ride. (One film that, during the research for this text, went to my watchlist immediately is Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark / Russkij Kovcheg (2002).) However, his film still stands as a remarkable feat of invention, team-work and craft that develops and employs many of the qualities of the long take to the full extent. Alongside recent films by Cuarón, Iñárritu and others, it also marks a commendable turn away from the trend towards headache-inducing, fast-paced jump cuts that is going on in much of present-day action cinema.

So, to end on a slightly soppy note, if films like Victoria, Birdman and Children of Men can show us one thing, it is probably that clever cinema isn’t dead, even in our times. Long live the long take!

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