Most narrative filmmaking is marked by very purposeful edits. Cuts from shot to shot advance the story and give viewers a sense of time. Cutaway shots establish context, and takes that flash by in as little as a split second create dynamism in the project.
But sometimes the story can be told using a longer take—a single shot, lasting several minutes and possibly incorporating movement of the camera via dolly or otherwise.
It's a pretty rare trick in films, mainly because it's hard to get right, but when it is done, it can really knock a project up a notch. Such shots tend to leave a lasting impression on viewers. Directors Alfred Hitchcock and Quentin Tarantino are well-known for using this technique in their films, in particular in “The Rope” and “Grindhouse.” It's also a popular technique for music videos, like Lisa Loeb's “Stay” and Kylie Minogue's “Come into My World.”
In the past, the long take was limited by how much physical film could fit into a camera. If Alfred Hitchcock had his druthers, “The Rope,” and possibly more of his works, would have been shot in their entirety in one take. But nowadays, filmmaking is all digital, so you can shoot until your multi-gigabyte-sound-card heart is content. It is a tough trick to pull off well however, so here are a few tips if you are inclined to try it.
1. Tell a story. Long takes tell their own stories, within the larger story of your project. For example, in Coldplay's music video “Yellow,” the subject of the video is walking on a beach, singing at the camera. The entire video is done in one shot. Why? If you notice when the video begins, it is dark out, and when it ends, the sun is up. The single take captured the entire sunrise, which adds greater meaning to the overall story being told.
2. Mean it. In a long take, you can't use cutaway shots to cover anything up. Every second has to be meaningful or the scene could become flat in a long shot. Every detail—from the location to the subtle movements of the actor or subject—has to serve a purpose in the shot. That means a lot of attention to detail and choreography.
3. Set it up. The key to getting this shot right is having it all set up before you shoot. If you're using props, they have to be rigged, and if you're using choreography, your actors need to rehearse the timing to perfection. Add to that the often-complex choreography needed behind the camera to pull off the shot. There are always going to be a lot of moving parts to a long take, and if you mess up during the shot, you will have to start all over again. To avoid wasting your time, and the time of everyone involved in your project, minimize that chance of error by setting it all up ahead of time!
4. Move it. In many cases, filmmakers will move the camera in some way during a long take to give it a sense of movement and action. It's a great way to avoid flatness in a long take. Walking with the camera, using a dolly, using a crane, or changing the focal point of the scene (like from a person in the foreground to an action in the background) can accomplish this. The act of changing the focus makes it a sequence shot, and it can distract the viewer from perceiving flatness in the same way that making actual edits can.