The Long Take

One of my favorite techniques (or demonstration of technique) on film is the long take, a scene where the camera continues to roll for minutes at a time without cutting.

You’ve probably seen a long take and didn’t even realize it. We’re conditioned to watch movies with tons of quick cuts. Our brains (and a clever director) piece together these cuts to form a coherent big picture of the scene, but when those scenes were filmed, each individual cut may have been filmed by itself. Quick cuts allow actors to memorize only a line or two at a time, or for actors who appear to be in the same room to film the scene at completely different times.

Long takes, on the other hand, are incredibly difficult to pull off. The require a perfect dance between the director, the actors (main actors and extras), the set designers, the cinematographer, and everyone off camera who makes a scene come to life.

My favorite thing about a long take, though, is the slow and steady momentum that grabs you and doesn’t let go until the camera finally cuts away. Sometimes I find myself holding my breath during a long take, which is dangerous when you’re talking about a 12-minute long take like at the beginning of Gravity. 

Why am I talking about long takes? Well, first, my business partner and I filmed a long take of our own the other day when we toasted backers from our recent Kickstarter campaign. This is a tradition that started back when we funded Viticulture on Kickstarter, and we discovered that backers really appreciated the personal touch.

This year we toasted mostly with Schlafly APA, an excellent bitter beer, to about 259 backers in a “long take” that took nearly 2 hours (take that, Cuaron!) to film. Alan even got up to go the bathroom at one point, but I continued filming, and he caught up on toasts when he returned.

Also, a recent article on /Film featured a video of the best long takes in cinema, and I consider it a must-watch. My favorite will always be the long take in Children of Men, but I need to see some of these other movies. I love the Goodfellas long take too.

4 thoughts on “The Long Take”

  1. Glad to see Atonement on there, although I think it should have been ranked higher. There is so much going on in that long shot that it still blows me away no matter how many times I see it, and I notice something new every time as well. One of the many reasons I love that movie.

    • For various reasons I really didn’t like Atonement (the book), but it sounds like you think the movie is worth watching?

      • **pretty much spoiler free for those who have not read the book or seen the movie**

        I read the book before I saw the movie as well, and I’ll admit I struggled with it at first. I thought the beginning of the book was dreadfully dull. I fell asleep a few times because I was tired of reading about a little girl writing a play and whining about her cousins, and I almost quit reading it altogether at one point. It definitely picked up for me after the *ahem* library scene, which is great in the movie as well. I know a lot of people were really angry about the reveal at the end of the book, and I can see why, although it didn’t turn me off from it.

        I like the different messages that both the film and the book convey: that your life experiences (or lack thereof) can affect the way you perceive events (which is tricky, but I thought the movie handled it well); how a single action can irrevocably change the lives of so many people; the way that some mistakes, once made, are impossible to correct. The attempt at atonement for that last point is what made some people dislike the book and the movie. But I appreciate that even after all those years, she was still trying to fix things the only way she knew how. She still felt the guilt of what happened and she didn’t want to forget it.

        The movie is also beautifully shot and I think the actors did a great job with their parts. So much of the book is set in the minds of the characters, which does not often translate well on film, but I think this is an exception.

        And James McAvoy is super hot in this movie. I will fully admit that may have a bit to do with my opinion of it. :p

        • Katie: I’m one of those people who was mad (or at least disappointed) in the end of the book. I feel like it discounted the rest of the novel. But I like the way you describe it, so I’ll give it a chance.


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