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 that can convey a great deal of information all at once, making it a key technique for cinematographers.
Long Take: a Definition
A long take is a single shot with a much longer duration than the conventional editing pace of a movie; long takes can last several minutes and may also incorporate movement of the camera via dolly or otherwise. Sometimes known as a "oner," a long take is designed to appear to viewers as a single, uninterrupted take.
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.
Why Do People Use Long Takes in Movies?
Long takes tell their own stories within the larger story of a production, and they tend to leave a lasting impression on viewers. 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.
Directors Alfred Hitchcock and Quentin Tarantino are also well-known for using this technique in their films, in particular in “The Rope” and “Grindhouse.”
Tips for Filming a Long Take
- Every second has to be meaningful or the scene could become flat in a long take; you can't use cutaway shots to cover anything up. Every detail—from the location to the subtle movements of the actor or subject—has to serve a purpose. That means a lot of attention to detail and choreography.
- The key to getting a long take 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 while filming a long take, 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!
- Moving the camera is 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.
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!