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.