‘The only great problem in cinema seems to me, more and more with each film, when and why to start a shot and when and why to end it.’ Jean-Luc Goddard (Bordwell 2017, p.211).
What guides a director in deciding how long to let a shot last?
Functions of the Long Take
In the films of Jean Renoir, Kenji Mizoguchi, Orson Welles, Carl Dreyer, Miklos Jancso, Hou Hsiao-hsien and Bela Tarr – shots may last for several minutes. One shot in Andy Warhol’s My Hustler lasts for 30 minutes.
‘It would be impossible to appreciate the artistry of these films without considering what the long take contributes to form and style’ (Bordwell 2017, p.211).
A long take – a protracted shot; an alternative to a series of shots.
Directors can choose between presenting a scene in long takes or a series of shots.
Most films are rendered in a mix of edited scenes and long takes – ‘This allows the filmmaker to bring out specific values in particular scenes, or to associate certain aspects of the narrative or non narrative form with the different stylistic options’ (Bordwell, p.211).
Hunger (2008) dir. Steve McQueen – Most of the scenes, including violent confrontations between prisoners and guards, consist of several shots. A vivid instance of the long take occurs halfway through the film, when the plot starts to focus on Bobby Sands and we begin to understand his motives and plans. The key scene begins with a shot lasting 18 minutes, a balanced view of Sands and an old friend who visits him. There is no camera movement in the shot. The effect is to rivet the viewer on the character’s dialogue during the turning point in the action.
Editing can have great force in a long-take movie – ‘after a seven- or eight-minute shot, an elliptical cut can prove quite disorientating’ (Bordwell, p.211).
Elephant (2003) dir. Gus van Sant – traces events around a high school shooting rampage; presents most scenes in long takes following students through the hallways; plot does not present events in chronological order; narration flashes back to show other school days, the boy’s lives at home and their preparations for the killings – ‘When a cut interrupts a long take, the audience must reflect for a moment to determine how the new shot fits into story chronology. The effect of the editing is usually harsh, because the cuts tend to break the smooth rhythm of the sustained traveling shots’ (p. 211).
Digital technology has made full length films consisting of one long take possible.
Russian Ark (2002) dir. Aleksander Sokurov – an experimental historical drama consisting of a single shot nearly 90 minutes long, as the camera follows over 2,000 actors in period costume through St. Petersburg’s Winter Palace; takes us through several eras of Russian history, culminating in an immense ballroom dance and a crowd drifting off into the wintry night.
Birdman; Or, The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance (2014) dir. Alejandro G. Inarritu – software blends shots undetectably; presents an apparently continuous shot that lasts the full length of the 100 minute film.
The Long Take and the Mobile Frame
The static long take in Hunger is unusual – most long takes rely on camera movement – ‘Panning, tracking, craning, zooming can be used to present continually changing vantage points that are comparable in some ways to the shifts of view supplied by editing’ (Bordwell, p.212).
Frame mobility breaks the long-take into smaller units.
Sister’s of Gion (1936) dir. Kenji Mizoguchi – one long take shows a young woman luring a businessman into becoming her patron; there is no cutting; the camera and figure movements demarcate important stages of the scene’s action.
Long takes tend to be framed in long or medium shots rather than close-ups – the viewer has more opportunity to scan the shot for particular points of interest.
Steven Spielberg – ‘I’d love to see directors start trusting the audience to be the film editor with their eyes, the way you are sometimes with a stage play, where the audience selects who they would choose to look at while a scene is being played’ (Bordwell, p.213).
Another important feature of the long take – the shot reveals a complete internal logic – a beginning, middle and end.
‘The long take can have its own formal pattern, its own development, its own trajectory and shape. Suspense may develop; we start to ask how the shot will continue and when it will end’ (Bordwell, p.213).
Touch of Evil (1958) dir. Orson Welles – example of how the long take can constitute a formal pattern in its own right in the opening sequence; offers an alternative to building the sequence out of many shots; stresses the cut that finally comes, occurring at the sound of the explosion of the car; we expect the bomb shown at the beginning will explode at some time and we wait for that explosion through the long take; the shot establishes the geography of the scene, the border between Mexico and the US; the camera movement weaves together two lines of narrative cause and effect that intersect at the border station; Vargas and Susan are drawn into the action involving the bombing; our expectation is fulfilled when the shot coincides with the offscreen explosion of the bomb; the shot has guided our attention by taking us through a suspenseful development.
The long take can present a complex pattern of events moving toward a goal in a single chunk of time.
List of references
Bordwell, D. (2017) Film Art New York: McGraw Hill