The Pragmatic Anarchy of the Long Take

During the opening credits of Robert Altman’s excellent 1992 Hollywood satire The Player, Walter Stuckel (Fred Ward) decries the “MTV” and “cut, cut, cut” nature of modern filmmaking while extolling the virtues of Orson Welles’ three minute and 20 second, cut-free opening of Touch of Evil (which he romanticizes to a full six and a half minutes). At the exact six and a half minute mark of The Player, Walter appears again to exult similar praise on Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope a movie that he indicates was shot completely without cuts. Right around the time Buck Henry brings up his own favorite tracking shot from Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Sheltering Sky in response, the astute viewer might realize a little something about what Altman is trying to indicate here. We’re almost seven minutes into the film and he has not stopped the camera once. No Cuts.

In fact, as if to immediately (in his own tongue-in-cheek way) present his film as an instant long take legend, Altman’s opening to The Player lasts for eight minutes and six seconds. For those of you fact-checking this by using your freeze-frame feature at the 8:21 mark, please note that the New Line Cinema logo takes up the first 15 seconds of screen time before the actual shot begins. With this incredible shot (which dares us to figure out his tricks early by name checking Rope, Touch of Evil, The Sheltering Sky and even Absolute Beginners) Altman takes an entire movie studio lot and turns it into a stage set with each office, bungalow, vehicle, the crane camera and yes, even the actors becoming characters under his expansive, tight direction. In his own satirical, even sarcastic way, Altman is setting up his movie as a completely self-aware Hollywood send-up… with Hollywood itself laughing all the way to its victimhood.

It’s that opening tracking shot that stuck (and sticks) with movie buffs over the years. While The Player will always appeal to film buffs, that tracking shot will remain a fascination for filmmakers. The technical aspects of this unique tool called the “Long Take”, “Oner”, “Uninterrupted Shot”, “Long Shot”, “Tracking Shot” and “Long Cut” are as hard to replicate as they are to orchestrate. Generally using a Steadicam or a dolly rig, the “Long Take” is defined as any uninterrupted shot in a film that lasts much longer than the usual editing pace of most motion pictures. The Long Take can at once be subtle enough to be missed by the audience and astounding enough to entrance that same audience… depending on who is paying attention.

The best Tracking Shots are those that the audience never realizes are tracking shots. These rare shots enhance the story like a brilliant score without taking over the focus. One of the prime examples of the deceptive long take is the aforementioned Rope. Rope both uses its story to pull in the audience (making its film techniques mostly invisible) and uses its film techniques to pull the critical eye into the directorial process to see just how an 80 minute movie shot in real time could possibly be filmed in one continuous take.

As Altman would do decades later, Hitchcock constructed his 1948 experiment much like a live stage play. The camera itself acts as a silent, unseen participant in Rope‘s twisted dinner party. As the camera spies on each conversation pit we, the audience, fade into each exchange, sharing in Hitchcock’s camera’s voyeuristic eavesdropping. We fade out of these same communications just as easily as the camera creeps and spies its way around the apartment. This forces the audience into cahoots with the floating camera. We are just as fascinated when we are pushed into a conversation as we are frustrated when we are yanked away from a conversation by our controlling, invisible co-conspirator in Hitchcock’s camera eye.

The affect was that of one exhausting and never ending shot lasting almost an hour and a half. However, the nature of film technology at the time made this impossible. As each film magazine could hold no more than ten minutes, Hitchcock created a series of 11 individual long takes, none longer than ten minutes. None shorter than four minutes and 37 seconds (over an entire minute longer than Touch of Evil‘s oft repeated example). To create this seamless whole, Hitchcock masked most every cut by ducking into darkness behind varied characters’ backs or pieces of furniture, restarting each beautifully orchestrated take from the point of incidental blackout.

While Hitchcock is often cited as a pioneer of the long take (with Rope tied on as proof), it’s worth noting that the concept of the long take, even with Rope did not originate with Hitchcock. Rope (1948) is actually a remake of Rope (1939), a BBC Television adaptation of both productions’ mutual source, Patrick Hamilton’s 1929 stage play of the same name. Hitchcock admitted that he was inspired by Dallas Bower’s direction of the 1939 production (which used long takes, in part, as a budgetary necessity of live television) to create his own cut-free, feature-length movie as close to the original stage play as possible. Hitchcock succeeded to the extent that viewers and students alike are still working on unravelling Rope decades after its debut, with attention seldom paid to its antecedents.

Among Hitchcock’s most devoted disciples is Brian De Palma, who has made a career of alternately paying tribute to (or ripping off) and competing with Hitchcock’s filmography. While long takes have always been a part of De Palma’s oeuvre, his 1998 thriller Snake Eyes kicks off with a seeming attempt to outdo himself on this front. Here De Palma turns a stadium surrounding a boxing match into a multi-level stage, policed by a voyeuristic Steadicam. At over 13 minutes long, De Palma’s Snake Eyes long take all but takes the proverbial cake based on scale alone, but a few of his masking tricks are much more obvious and much less seamless than those employed by his hero in Rope a full 50 years before Snake Eyes opened. Still, with most films clocking an Average Shot Length (ASL) of around five seconds, even a few minutes of uninterrupted footage is impressive (particularly when dealing with enough extras to fill an arena).

Touch of Evil can scarcely be minimized today as a film or as an example of a long take. The 1958 film noir was, however, very much minimized in its day. Though it’s hard to imagine today, Touch of Evil was originally released as the B-Movie on a double feature with the vastly less well known The Female Animal. While it was little publicized and only a minor success in its initial run, Touch of Evil‘s opening three minute and 20 second long take managed to keep it in the spotlight.

Orson Welles ingeniously starts Touch of Evil‘s incredibly tense tracking shot with a focus on a timer, ticking away and setting the scene for the long take. As the timer is attached to a bomb (whose container is passed multiple times by the main characters) these three plus minutes become a hand-wringing experience that serves to both thrust the audience into the role of co-conspirator (as Hitchcock did with Rope) as well as to force the audience to become deeply involved in the well-being of our two leads simultaneous with their introductions. Such was the genius of Welles, using a nerve-racking opening to identify the viewer with the protagonists and let them in on the scary secrets of the antagonists, all within a three minute and 20 second time span with enough tension to feel like three hours and 20 minutes. If this huge feat isn’t noteworthy enough, Welles directed this entire scene 15 years before the invention of the Steadicam.

Touch of Evil, Rope and Snake Eyes touch, look and tie themselves in varying degrees to the crime genre where the Long Take’s history has continued almost as uninterrupted as the shots themselves. In The Godfather (1972), Francis Ford Coppola starts his story with a long, lingering fly-on-the-wall pullback starting with Bonasera’s pleading with the title character of the film and featuring Marlon Brando’s famous “offer you can’t refuse” before the first cut of the film. Martin Scorsese’s GoodFellas (1990) introduces its major and supporting characters with one long tracking shot as the camera drifts through the Copacabana club, lighting on each actor just long enough. Nearly inverting this relatively peaceful menace is John Woo’s 1992 bloodthirsty long take in Hard Boiled where characters are dispatched almost before they are introduced at all. On the other side of the gavel is 1957’s 12 Angry Men where director Sidney Lumet drags us through a long sequence shot in the jury room as each “angry man” settles into his seat and his duty on the jury.

Science Fiction, for all its swashbuckling action, also has a long history with the Long Take. Both in the traditional camera methods and in the special effects sequences, Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 epic 2001: A Space Odyssey creates visual ballets, consisting of frequent and extensive extremely long cuts. Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 sci-fi art film Solyaris (Solaris) similarly keeps its meditative tone with long shots unencumbered by film cuts while Robert Zemeckis’ Contact follows along with the special effects long take with a fully CGI outer space zoom shot (which may or may not be cheating, depending on your point of view). One all too realistic (and almost Hard Boiled level in its bloodletting) sci-fi long take is found in the four minute and eight second car attack in Alfonso Cuaron’s 2006 dystopian Children of Men.

Somewhere between the dramatic introductions of the long take dramas and the out-of-this-world space tales of the sci-fi actioners is Joss Whedon’s Serenity. A 2005 adaptation of Whedon’s cancelled-too-soon TV show Firefly, Whedon uses a long four minute and 23 second Steadicam shot that drifts through the title space ship Serenity, introducing (or re-introducing) the cast of characters from the TV show to the theatrical audience. Astute viewers will detect a single, very well hidden, cut in this “uninterrupted” sequence, owing to the structure of the set itself (the two levels of the Serenity ship weren’t quite the same as the floor plan of the Serenity soundstage).

With a wide array of past and present filmmakers trying on the long take for size, it’s almost impossible to draft an all-inclusive list of long takes and tracking shots. Most every film buff reader will come up with their own list of must-include long cut sequences from all over the world. A Google search on the topic will result in scores of different “best of” lists with only a little overlap from list to list. Knowing that Quentin Tarantino has experimented with these in most of his films and that most of the big names in each nation’s top director’s list have given this unique style a go at least once, it’s hard to truly create the definitive all-encompassing list.

However, one would be remiss without including a mention of some of the more extreme long takes in film history. One of the most noteworthy is Hungarian director Béla Tarr’s 2000 film Werckmeister harmóniák (Werckmeister Harmonies). At two and a half hours in length, Werckmeister Harmonies contains only 39 shots for an ASL of over three and one half minutes. To put this into perspective, virtually every single shot in Tarr’s film is longer than the oft repeated icon of the long take in Welles’ Touch of Evil.

Pushing the limits of and nearly redefining the Long Take is the 2002 film Russkij Kovcheg (Russian Ark). Director Alexander Sokurov is only one in a long, long line of Russian directors to experiment with the Long Take, but his Russian Ark clocks in at 96 minutes long (16 minutes longer than Rope) and has an Average Shot Length of… 96 minutes. Yes, the entire 96 minute film is literally one single shot. Unlike Rope before it, Russian Ark doesn’t use clever obstructions to splice individual shots together. Instead all 96 minutes were shot in one take in uncompressed high definition video on the Sony HDW-F900 camera mounted on a Steadicam in the steady hands of cinematographer Tilman Büttner. While Rope, and several others like it, used the camera as a character of sorts, Russian Ark takes this motif a step farther, literally making the camera the stand-in for a ghostly narrator who tours (and haunts) 33 rooms of the Winter Palace of the Russian State Hermitage Museum while characters (real and fictional) from history accompany him for all or parts of his journey. A journey that remains uninterrupted for over a full hour and a half. Top that, De Palma!

If there is, indeed, a long-take cake to take, it might necessarily belong to Timecode. The Mike Figgis written and directed film from the year 2000 doesn’t give us one long uninterrupted shot. Timecode gives us four. Nor do we get these sequentially, as we did in Rope, but all at the same time in four quadrants of the gridded screen. This largely improvised film not only details four distinct stories, in real-time with one non-stop video tape camera following each path for 90 minutes, but each of these stories intersects with the other tales, much like Altman’s own Short Cuts. Each intersection and meeting affects each plot in this nearly city-wide stage.

Most interestingly, Figgis shot the entire film no less than 15 times (over a two week period) in its entirety, choosing the single best set of four cameras for hist theatrical release (and including the first release as a DVD extra). For each of these takes, the actors had to wear different costumes so that the four continuous takes would maintain their continuity only if the same set of four angles was used in the final version. Including credits and run-time, Timecode still wins out at 97 minutes in length. With all four cameras running at once and intersecting each other, Timecode may win the long take blue ribbon for technical difficulty alone (if not always for the story itself).

The Long Take can be subtle and nearly invisible to the audience, enhancing but not overtaking the story. It can also be used as a daring experiment that challenges the director and cinematographer to control a huge landscape of a stage with each person and object becoming a variable character on film. In the case of The Player, the Long Take can also be used as an object of satire, fascinating the audience with its immediate story telling wonder, but breaking the trance with a wink, nudge and a “hey, do you see what we’re doing here?”

The Long Take is also the mark of a very exclusive club of films and filmmakers who have been able to rise to the challenge. It’s a collection of films united by the Long Take, the unconventional, uninterrupted shot that proves the phrase that “all the world is a stage”. Even on film. No matter how long the subsequent cuts may be, however, I will see you in The Next Reel!