Revo Film School: the Long Take
Gather around the chalkboard, kids! In a new series, I will helm the mantle of Adjunct Film Professor and teach the varied methods and language of film. Through in depth analysis, I will outline the history, the acclaimed usage of, and the emotional goal of certain film techniques. Get out your pencils, notepads, and thinking caps. I’m about to take you on a cerebral journey; Ms. Frizzle-style!
Back in the olden days of wire-cage dresses and mustache cream, cameras had to be locked down. Silent era filmmakers like Georges Méliés, technically, had long takes because of the stage theater aesthetic to his stories. Filmmakers hadn’t quite figured out that editing could help tell the story; the story had to unfold in front of the camera, thus the long take was (kind of) born. Directors have since boasted their auteurist flair with the long take – each director trying to one-up each other.
As we know it now, the long take is a type of shot that goes on for an extended time. It’s that simple. There’s no specific camera movement or angle that associates with the long take, which makes it such a unique, complex filmmaking technique. What is the purpose behind the long take, then?
The long take can elicit several types of emotions for your film. In the void of not having the formulaic editing style, the long take can make the audience on edge. Hitchcock, the master of suspense, utilized the long take in order to make his film, Rope (1948), seem like an entire film done in one take. That immediacy makes your hairs stand on end because you don’t have the respite of conventional editing techniques. In the vein of suspense, my favorite long take is in Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil (1958). It starts out with a literal ticking time bomb being put in the back of a car, which drives off into the busy town on the US-Mexico border. As the camera cranes over the entire town, you have that time bomb in the back of your mind – when is it going to go off and where? It’s masterfully crafted, suspense-filled, and made a bold statement right out of the gate.
The long take can also drop you directly into a brand new world and show the lay of the land. Goodfellas (1990) is perhaps the single greatest example of using the long take to introduce a character into a new environment. Karen, being escorted by Henry, is fully engrossed into the gangster world as they waltz through the Copacabana. She, as well as the audience, experiences the full scope of her new environment as they go down narrow corridors; it’s an impressive feat of cinema.
Another champion of the long take is none other than Steven Spielberg, the creator of the blockbuster. Unlike other directors, he doesn’t use the long take for a specific emotion. Many of his films include long takes to emote suspense, action, or comedy. His long takes aren’t as flashy, either; the camera is only motivated by the action of the scene, and comes off as an unnoticeable long take. Without the impediment of traditional editing practices, his scenes almost unfold in front of you. The suspense, the organic tension, and the emotion are all presented in its purest form.
There isn’t an exact science to executing the long take. I mean, there is, but it’s extremely varied and complex. First and foremost, you need the highest level of preparation. This includes coordinating with your Director of Photography to nail down every frame and what they should look like. The most important aspect, for my money, is the choreography between the camera and the actors. Everyone has to hit their marks, or else the scene will feel stilted and inorganic. Patience is the most helpful virtue when trying to execute the long take. However, the end product could be a gorgeous testament to your skills as a storyteller.
I hope you enjoyed this installment of Revo Film School! Periodically, we’ll be talking about other filmmaking techniques and theory; so look out for those. Also, we’ve got some exciting new work from director Sean Davé and Joel Robertson. Those videos will be released in the coming weeks; we’re thrilled to share them with you!
by Benton Olivares
**the videos in this blog post are for educational purposes only – all rights reserved.