It Takes as Long as it Takes
Some thoughts on the use of sustained shots ☛
Around the time I was getting seriously interested in the idea of making movies, a film came out that had me entranced by its opening shot: the film was called The Player and the shot ran for just shy of 8 minutes without a cut. It knocked my socks off. Maybe I only noticed that the shot was held that long because they had a character wandering around the Hollywood studio lot in which it was filmed talking about films with long continuous takes, but I was at an age where self-reflexiveness still impressed.
The director, Robert Altman, was not the first to try this trick; just listen to actor Fred Ward rabbiting on in his shot and you’ll hear some other notable examples most notably the first three and a half minutes of Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil. European filmmakers have also used this technique – I’m thinking of Antonioni’s 7 minute take in The Passenger and Tarkovsky in Nostalgia and The Sacrifice. There have even been entire movies shot in a single take – Rope, Timecode, The Russian Ark – but I’ll put those aside for the moment.
I wasn’t the only one who watched that shot in The Player in awe, a whole generation of filmmakers emerged who aspired to make a movie that contained such a shot and many of them have succeeded in that goal. Joe Wright went epic with the idea in Atonement, Alfonso Cuarón far exceeded Altman’s example in technical virtuosity in The Children of Men, and Steve McQueen beat him on duration with his 17 minute take in Hunger.
So what’s the secret to a good sustained shot? This I discovered when I was given the chance to direct one myself. The film was originally conceived to contain nine such shots, each being a separate story from a different director. The experience was educational. As the producer and I had anticipated, getting a good technical crew was vital – you can choreograph the camera as much as you like but if you don’t have a camera operator, grip, focus puller, boom swinger, &c. who are on their toes, things will soon fall apart. The same goes for the cast – actors not only have to be able to sustain a compelling performance, but have a hell of a lot of marks they need to remember to hit. I’m happy to say however that nobody let me down.
The real lesson came in the edit. Edit? A cut at the start, a cut at the end and you’re done, surely?! However there is that other element of editing – selection of the take, and this is where it got interesting. We ran the scene 12 times before we got a take that we felt was singing, so you’d imagine that take 12 would be the one. Just to make sure, I watched through the other takes. I wish I hadn’t. There was gold in them there rushes. Gold in seams that just could not be mined – if it has to run without a cut, you don’t get to pull the best material from each take. The performances of different actors warm up at different speeds – some are best on take one, others need a few goes in order to fire on all cylinders. And few actors are at their best by take 12. It’s not that they’d gone stale, more that the editor in me spotted sparkling moments of freshness and razor sharp timing in different takes along the way, moments that would only ever happen once and that were rendered unusable by the need for the scene to be a single shot.
The real lesson was when to try for a sustained shot, identifying the sort of scene that suits the long take treatment. It’s not by chance that film grammar has accustomed us to going to a close-up for moments of emotional intensity: we love to examine every seductive twitch of a lip or pained and almost imperceptible wince, and this is where the long take falls down. While it is theoretically possible to get in that close on a long take, in practice it’s very difficult to achieve, unless you plan to run the whole take on one person’s performance. The camera tends to be a lot nimbler if you don’t aim for anything tighter than a medium close-up (watch the clips and you’ll see). For this reason scenes of intense emotion, like the scene that I directed, present a challenge. I’m not saying that it didn’t work, I just realize in retrospect that I wouldn’t have shot the scene that way, given the choice.
So what scenes do suit a sustained take? Welles, Altman and P.T. Anderson in Boogie Nights all chose to shoot the opening of their films as long takes. This was a smart move: the opening of many films involves a lot of scene setting, much of which is dull but necessary; lending these scenes a touch of panache is no bad thing. The result is somewhat like Thomas Schlamme’s walk-and-talk technique in the The West Wing – it impresses us with the elegance of its choreography and convinces us that we’re in the hands of a master storyteller, whereas what we’re really being given is a lot of exposition. In short, it’s an act of showmanship.
The famous shot in Atonement is similarly theatrical but, to my mind, far less successful. It’s an amazing technical achievement, but it lacks purpose – I’m aware of its virtuosity but it stops the story in order for us to watch the director and cinematographer showing off. It also commits the cardinal sin: despite being less than 5 mins long, it outstays its welcome because there’s nothing driving it. And this is something of which directors should be all too aware when designing these shots – they have entered a zone where the editor can no longer help them. The pacing and rhythm of the scene will have to be designed on set; this can be a real challenge when you have a shot with a lot of moving parts.
McQueen’s 17 minute epic take in Hunger has none of this choreography, in fact the camera doesn’t move and the actors never rise from their chairs. The scene comes around the middle of the film, it’s a profile two-shot of two men discussing the hunger strike. The only thing to beguile the eye is the cigarette smoke that curls slowly through the air between the two men. Good writing and pitch-perfect performances based on days of rehearsal drive this shot and allow it to sustain. For me it succeeds precisely because it isn’t emotionally intense, even though one of the characters is talking about starving himself to death for his cause. It’s a scene about ideas and argument; it draws us into the sort of internal mental space we enter when listening to a radio play.
For me however the best use of a sustained shot comes in Children of Men. Cuarón identified that a very strong use of a long take is to keep us in a hyper-real present tense; we hold our breath as Clive Owen stumbles around the battlefield for a full six minutes, trying to find his lost ward. Here the lack of cuts tells us that all this is happening in real time, the editor’s scissors have not cheated us. The handheld camera-work also helps us to believe that this is a live event being caught as best the camera can. I’ve never been on a battlefield, and I pray that this shot is the closest I ever get to that experience.
In conclusion I mentioned that the editor hasn’t cheated time, well that’s not always entirely true. Cuarón’s shot does conceal at least one cut, as revealed by the sudden disappearance of the blood on the lens when the camera gets inside the building. The hidden cuts in Hitchcock’s Rope are all too apparent to modern viewers; I’m pretty sure that there’s a cut in that shot in The Player (a tiny jump in the shot as the camera settle on the bundle of mail in the parking lot, see what you think) and I even suspect a cheat in Russian Ark. Does it matter? Not really – every film is a compendium of a thousand illusions. If it appears to be real, what more do you need?
Copyright © Guy Ducker 2011
My thanks to Gavin Boyter for suggesting this article.
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