Most film students are familiar with Orson Welles's 1958 Touch of Evil; the film noir, which follows a murder mystery on the California-Mexico border, opens with a 3:30 minute continuous long take through the streets of Tijuana's border. The sequence is so iconic because, by employing a long take as the camera tracks cars and pedestrians as they near border control, you can't help but sense, with wide shots of the whole street to fleeting shadows as the camera follows a couple turning a corner, that something is amiss, something is eerily too calm.
Long takes, which employ a continuous, uninterrupted and uncut shot of a scene that usually lasts much longer than a typical shot, are much more dynamic, intriguing, and bring a sense of realism to the viewers than a normal shot. Some of the best directors in the world have employed the use of long takes for this reason. But pulling off a long take is difficult: it relies on all fields of a film crew, including actors, costumes, lighting, sets, extras, animals, props, and design, coming together seamlessly as the camera roles.
Here are 5 reasons why long shots are one of the most powerful film techniques:
Long takes first and foremost provide a unique, realistic experience for viewers. Since the shot is continuous, the camera has the ability to flow throughout the room or set, exploring all the aspects of the scene that might be forgotten in a normal shot. This means that background and middle ground activity is keenly observed by the camera. While cuts continuously change perspective, angle, or shot, long takes are continuous, they flow, and take the viewers on the story. This makes the scene much more powerful: we are experiencing the entire story, the entire event, the entire experience.
For scenes with a lot of action, a big set, or a lot of minor but valuable details, long takes are key. Joe Wright's dunkirk scene in Atonement is a great example of how long takes can be used to convey scale. While the scene's only main character is Robbie, played by James McAvoy, the long take allows viewers to experience dunkirk beach in totality, from soldiers mournfully singing together, to horses being shot, and ultimately, the hundreds of thousands of soldiers waiting to escape the war zone. In fact, while the scene is meant to share McAvoy's perspective arriving at Dunkirk, he is hardly in the 5-minute shot: instead, the camera provides almost a look through his eyes, weaving through each small moment on the beach. The scene leaves viewers feeling that they were also on the beach, feeling the scope of war in a way that normal shots could not.
As long takes use one continuous shot, there is never a change of perspective: the camera will slowly and steadily move and flow into the different moments of a scene. Viewers are therefore taken on a journey: the experience is always centralized around how the camera moves, and what the camera sees. Viewers are never cut off from this perspective, which gives a much more realistic portrayal of a scene.
When Game of Thrones 'Battle of the Bastards' episode in season 6 was aired, it was immediately hailed as one of the most realistic and brilliant portrayals of a medieval battle sequence in the history of film. One reason for this is their use of the long take. As Jon Snow, one of the main characters, is struck in the middle of the battle, the long take, which lasts 60 seconds, is a dance; horses gallop by as swords are swung, spears are thrown, and Snow fights as many enemies as he can. What an honest moment in cinema: viewers were in the battle for those 60 seconds, nothing was breaking them away from the gritty reality of war, nothing was cutting their perspective off, which would have reminded them that they weren't actually there. In this case, by using a long take in the sequence, the audience became a member of the army with a distinct point of view, and therefore felt each movement.
Usually in film, viewers are never quite clear how much time has passed in a scene. What might be 5 film minutes could be 20 minutes for the characters. Because shots cut around, filmmakers are able to manipulate the time line to fit with their story. Long takes are not like this, however. Since long takes are one continuous shot that go on for a considerably longer time than normal, viewers are watching a scene in real time; everyone knows exactly how much time has passed. This is more interesting than it appears: by providing a scene in real time, viewers become more involved with the scene and start to feel that they are actually there, since there is no delusion that changes that sense of belonging.
In Children of Men, Alfonso Cuarón crafted some of the most incredible and talked about long takes in the history of film. In one such scene, five characters are in a car until they are suddenly attacked by a mob, which then becomes a chase scene involving gun shots, motorcycles flying, and glass breaking. This five minute long take was a much more powerful use of film than normal shots would be: for five minutes, the audience is in the car with the characters, experiencing all the small moments that make up the scene. This makes the gun shots, mobs, and chasing all the more shocking and suspenseful.
Ultimately, what makes long takes particularly brilliant and powerful is the fact that not everyone can pull it off. Long takes require an incredibly tight and masterfully woven execution of a million small details: everything must go right, exactly at the right time, in order for the shot to work.
The greatest example of this is in the 2002 film Russian Ark, directed by Alexander Sokurov. The film, which takes place at the Russian Winter Palace, now the Hermitage Museum, is filmed entirely in one take, making it the longest long take in film history (96 minutes), and only film to showcase only one shot. Due to time limitations with the museum, the crew had just 36 hours to prepare the set, prepare over 2000 extras with costumes hailing from over 300 years of Russian history, and film the entire movie.
Russian Ark is a masterpiece; the amount of coordination to pull off such a production is phenomenal, in no moment of the 96 minute film are the viewers broken away from the moment, which provides an organic, imaginative, flowing experience. But not everyone can pull this off, in fact most cannot, which makes this technique all the more powerful and meaningful.
Ultimately, long takes are poetic: they twist and flow, move steadily and provide a strangely profound experience for viewers, regardless of the context. As Roger Ebert, an American film critic, "If cinema is sometimes dreamlike, then every edit is an awakening"; long takes keep viewers in the dream, in the film, in the intricate moment. What could be more powerful?