Of all of the tools in a director and DP’s arsenal, nothing is better at eliciting awe and flaunting virtuosity than the long take.
As a concept, the long take is simple: it’s merely an uninterrupted shot that lasts longer than a typical take would before cutting to another shot. It could be long in relation to the other shots in the film or (for films composed primarily long takes, like those of Bela Tarr) it could mean that the shots last longer than the those in the average film. However, while the idea of the long take might be simple, the execution is often extremely difficult. Without the benefit of cutting, a single extended shot relies on the perfect execution of the tricky dance between actors and camera and relies on the idea that what is happening within the frame is interesting enough that audiences won’t feel fatigued by the length of the shot.
A simple, but exquisite example of the technique is the opening scene of The Earrings of Madame de… (1953) by Max Ophuls, a noted master of the long take. The action in the scene is relatively simple: a woman looks through her closet, moves to her dressing table, and examines her jewelry and her reflection. However, the scene demonstrates a subtle mastery of the long take by pointedly not drawing attention to its own virtuosity - the length of the shot and the graceful choreography render the camera invisible, aligning the audience with the point of view of the heroine.
Conversely, the Dunkirk scene in Joe Wright’s Atonement (2007) actively courts all of the challenges of the long take, covering a great deal of geographical space and weaving among countless actors and extras. While Madame de… employs the long take to make the camera disappear, the long take in Atonement draws attention to the virtuosity and self-conscious theatricality of the shot - it is a stylistic divergence from the rest of the film and is intendd to inspire awe with its scale and precision.
While long takes are already unusual and special tricks of the filmmaking trade, some films take the device even further, attempting to craft a film with no or very minimal cuts. One of the earliest attempts to create a film with as few cuts as possible is Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948). Because the film was shot on 35mm - which only has 10 minutes of film per reel - Hitchcock was unable to shoot the entire thing in one take. However, besides a few hard cuts, he attempts to create the illusion of one single, uninterrupted, movie-length take by hiding the necessary cuts - the camera frequently zooms in on a plain surface like the back of a man’s jacket or a table to camouflage the transition from one shot to another.
With the advent of digital technology, however, the longest take imagineable - the length of a full film - became possible. Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark (2002) follows hundreds of actors and thousands of extra on a one and a half kilometer tour through Saint Petersburg’s Hermitage museum in one continuous 99 minute shot. While the film is an absurdly ambitious aesthetic exercise, its use of one extreme long take is not merely a demonstration of technical skill. The film moves through centuries of Russian history as the camera glides through the museum, a narrative choice that explores questions about the nature of time that cinema - with its fundamental emphasis on the interaction between time and space - is uniquely poised to explore.
The long take is a versatile filmmaking device - it can be used to draw attention to draw attention to the camera or hide it, to awe audiences with virtuosity and showmanship or test their endurance. While technically difficult and sparingly employed, the long take offers the ability to move through time and space in a way that is purely cinematic.