Eight great continuous takes in cinema
It’s a long shot, but it might just work. Stuff.tv’s Stephen Graves picks the best of the most complex sequences in film…
Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity is making headlines for its brutally simple story of an astronaut trapped in outer space. It’s also a magnificent technical achievement, with Cuarón using all the technology at his disposal to conjure up 10-minute-plus shots set in a zero-gravity environment.
Cuarón’s following in a tradition of infamous long takes – the level of coordination and planning required makes them a showcase for the world’s most talented directors.
Touch of Evil (dir. Orson Welles, 1958)
The granddaddy of long shots, this artfully-constructed sequence is a ticking timebomb of tension – literally. Opening with a bomb placed in the boot of a car, the sequence follows the doomed vehicle as it weaves in and out of traffic, catching up with stars Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh, falling behind and stopping for a nail-bitingly-tense pause at a border post. The first cut of the film is the explosion – a brilliantly jarring moment that still makes you jump. Watch the restored 1998 cut of the film – in the 1958 original, studio suits insisted that the opening credits play over the scene, against Welles’ wishes.
Rope (dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1948)
Alfred Hitchcock wanted to shoot this tale of two murderous students out to commit the perfect crime in a single, uninterrupted shot – but 1960s camera technology limited him to takes of 10 minutes at a time. As a result, there are one or two disguised cuts that seem clunky and obvious to modern eyes – inexplicable camera moves into characters’ backs, for example. That aside, though, Hitch’s uninterrupted ten-minute takes are a masterclass in escalating tension, as you find out if the anti-heroes can get away with it.
Russian Ark (dir. Alexander Sokurov, 2002)
Modern camera technology allowed Alexander Sokurov to realise what Hitchcock never could – a 96-minute film consisting of a single, uninterrupted shot. Armed with a Steadicam rig and an HD camera recording direct to a hard drive, cinematographer Tilman Büttner followed an intricate path through the Winter Palace in St Petersburg, capturing over 2000 extras in a film that covers 300 years of history. Imagine what it would’ve felt like if he’d tripped up in the 95th minute.
Children of Men (dir. Alfonso Cuarón, 2006)
Long before Gravity, Alfonso Cuarón was pioneering the use of technology to create extended takes. In the climactic battle sequence at the end of Children of Men, Cuarón uses a seven-minute hand-held shot to plunge you into the chaos and confusion of a gunfight. It’s actually made up of several different shots, covered by near-seamless joins, but you’d be hard-pressed to spot it among all the bullets, racing about and explosions. Cuaron nearly abandoned the take – his last chance to get the shot – after a blood squib exploded onto the camera lens. Fortunately, an explosion drowned out his “Cut!” , the shot continued, and the “miracle” shot was preserved. See the sequence here.
Goodfellas (dir. Martin Scorsese, 1990)
One of the most celebrated shots in cinema history, this tracking shot follows newly-minted gangster Henry Hill through the Copacabana club as he takes his wife-to-be on their first date. The glamour of the criminal life awaits but first they duck in through the underground entrance to dodge the queue at the front – and because Henry won’t leave his car in a garage. Ironically, the shot came about by chance; Scorsese was denied access to the bulding’s front entrance, and decided to make a feature of the lengthy walk to the table – symbolising that Hill’s whole life was ahead of him.
Boogie Nights (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson, 1997)
The most overt of Anderson’s homages to Martin Scorsese, the opening scene of Boogie Nights pays tribute to that Goodfellas Copacabana shot – following blue movie director Jack Horner as he strolls past the velvet rope and into the neon-tinged Hot Traxx nightclub. Plunging us into the disco-fabulous world of the 70s adult-movie industry, Anderson pauses on the main players in this three-minute take – Horner and his partner Amber Waves, cowboy enthusiast Buck Swope and his buddy Reed Rothchild, and Rollergirl (who “always, always wears rollerskates”). Then, as we’re still dizzy from all the motion and energy and flashing lights, the camera ramps down to slo-mo, and we’re introduced to our hero, the prodigiously endowed Dirk Diggler – a naive nobody at this point, but about to, er, rise to his full potential.
The Player (dir. Robert Altman, 1992)
Robert Altman’s deconstruction of the Hollywood studio system opens with a clapperboard and a painting of a film set, before revealing that we’re in the dream factory itself. Studio assistants and producers scurry, while a blowhard pontificates about the artistic worth of the long take (referencing Rope and Touch of Evil even as Altman challenges both films with an eight-minute uninterrupted shot). But we’re never allowed into studio exec Griffin Mills’ office – like the desperate writer trying to get his pitch heard, we’re doomed to peer in the window. Much of the dialogue in this scene was improvised – even as he’s operating within the confines of a movie studio, Altman’s stubbornly independent streak remains.
I am Cuba (dir. Mikhail Kalatozov), 1964
This Cuban/USSR co-production features one of those shots where you’re left wondering how they did it – particularly given 1960s technology. A camera follows a funeral procession along a street before rising up the side of a building. It then travels through the building – a cigar factory, devoid of any maidens rolling Havanas on their thighs – before passing through the window and floating high above the street. The answer’s as simple as it is ingenious: the camera operator’s vest was covered in hooks, and as he moved through the scene, a team of technicians attached him to different rigs to hoist him into the air and across buildings.
Stephen Graves is online deputy editor of Stuff.tv
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