9 Mesmerizing Long Takes in Film History
While HBO’s newest hit drama, True Detective, has gained a reputation as a slow-burning character study through its first three episodes, the fourth episode, entitled “Who Goes There,” blew the lid off that label entirely, providing viewers with an action sequence that ranks among the best to ever be filmed for either television or film. At the heart of the much talked-about action sequence was a six-minute one-shot — a single take without any cuts or edits — that put viewers alongside the protagonist during a heist gone wrong and his later escape, all in real time.
Even for viewers who have come to appreciate True Detective’s slow and deliberate style of storytelling, “Who Goes There” proved that writer Nic Pizzolatto and director Cary Joji Fukunaga — who directed all eight episodes of the series — have their heart set on further blurring the line between television and film as the series roars toward the finish line. And with actors Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson providing performances almost assured to score Emmys this year, the fourth episode of the series proved just how powerful careful character work can be in an extended format, especially when the story kicks into high gear.
But back to that mind-blowing one-shot at the end of “Who Goes There.” If you had any doubts that the shot in question was somehow digitally manipulated or stitched together, it’s time to give credit where credit is due. According to an interview with MTV, the six-minute shot was indeed one take. Even though Fukunaga strategically placed several spots in the choreography and photography to stitch together multiple takes if necessary, those tactics were ultimately unneeded.
So does the scene already deserve a place among the greatest one-shots of all time? While it’s not difficult to see it securing a slot in television and cinematic history, it’s important to note that the one-shot has a rich history going back to the earliest days of film. Here are nine of cinema’s most famous one-shots of all time.
1. Touch of Evil (1958), dir. Orson Welles
One of the most famous and often-studied one-shots in film history, Orson Welles starts off his 1958 crime thriller Touch of Evil with a three-minute, 20-second tracking shot that traces the path of a bomb in the trunk of a car through the streets of the U.S.-Mexico border. As the car slowly moves through the busy border town, the pace of the vehicle matches up with our protagonists, Miguel “Mike” Vargas (Charlton Heston) and Susie (Janet Leigh), as they make small talk and the audience is introduced to them.
But as viewers, we’re always aware that the explosive-rigged car is close behind, finally exploding just as it crosses the border. With complicated camera moves that include rising above the border town and dropping down to street level, the take is just as impressive today as it ever was — an amazing feat given the constraints of large, heavy camera equipment in 1958.
2. I Am Cuba (1964), dir. Mikhail Kalatozov
Another often-studied film that been cited as an influence by many directors, including Paul Thomas Anderson and Martin Scorsese, the dizzying, pro-communist film I Am Cuba by Mikhail Kalatozov features an array of incredible one-shots, but none more spectacular than the one that occurs in the film’s first five minutes.
Starting at the top of a tall skyscraper in the middle of a lavish party, the camera glides around the members of a band before descending down a lift to the pool area, where it then moves underwater. Anderson would later provide a wonderful homage to the scene in his 1997 breakout hit Boogie Nights, in which his camera glides around the the lavish party of porn director Jack Horner before following an adult actress into the pool and underwater.
3. Russian Ark (2002), dir. Alexander Sokurov
When it comes to the pure technical prowess of the one-shot, there’s no film that comes close to Alexander Sokurov’s 2002 historical drama Russian Ark, a 96-minute work shot entirely in one take. With the entire film shot using a Steadicam — a stabilizing camera rig used to make moving shots feel like they are gliding — Russian Ark tells the story of an unnamed ghostly narrator who drifts through the Winter Palace of the Russian State Hermitage Museum, encountering the entire history of the city.
Featuring more than 2,000 actors and three orchestras, the filmmakers were able to successfully shoot the film on its third try, after technical hiccups hampered the first two attempts. And although the film underwent huge work in post-production, it’s impossible to dismiss the mind-blowing feat of even attempting a shot of this magnitude.
4. Children of Men (2006), dir. Alfonso Cuaron
Long takes have become somewhat of a trademark for Alfonso Cuaron over the years — a trend he continued this past year with Gravity — but the long takes used in his 2006 dystopian sci-fi film Children of Men had a lot to do with firmly establishing Cuaron as a technical wizard behind the camera lens.
In a film teeming with long takes, the two most often cited within Children of Men are the ambush on the country road and the action sequence toward the end of the film though the streets and buildings during a military skirmish. When it comes to the country road sequence, the filmmakers employed a freshly invented camera rigging system that allowed the scene to be filmed in one take without special effects, with special seats that moved out of the way to allow for the camera. The latter sequence, which eschews complicated camera operating systems for sheer scope and difficulty, simply defies expectation for how much is captured in such a chaotic scene.
Of course, the truth of the matter is that neither scene was truly a one-shot — at least in the sense of the sequence’s actual on-set shooting. In a trend that is common among extended takes, edits and sly cuts were used to stitch together multiple takes in a seamless fashion that ultimately fools the audience into believing they are watching one take. While it doesn’t affect someone’s actual viewing the of the scene, the behind-the-scenes glory is minimized just a bit, depending on whom you ask.
5. Time Code (2000), dir. Mike Figgis
Like Russian Ark, Mike Figgis’s 2000 experimental narrative film Time Code employs the use of a long take that spans the film’s entire 90-minute length, shot on VHS. But what Time Code lacks in technical finesse and scope, it makes up for it in sheer craziness by having not one but four 90-minute takes occurring simultaneously on the screen. While Higgis uses the sound of only one of the four narratives at any one time, the ability for the viewer to focus his or her eyes on any of the four narratives at any time is a truly unique experience.
The interaction between the four shots often makes for some fascinating results. During some points in the film, viewers are able to see a scene unfold with both the shot and reverse shot occurring simultaneously; at other times, all four narratives create similar images or combine to provide wider shots on top and bottom. And while the critical reception to Time Code was decidedly mixed, there’s little doubt that the idea behind Time Code is unparalleled.
6. Rope (1948), dir. Alfred Hitchcock
One of the earliest attempts at a long take, Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope is meant appear as one continuous take throughout the film’s 80-minute run time, but Hitchcock’s ambitions were ultimately thwarted by a technical limitation: Film magazines at the time only allowed for a maximum of 10 minutes. With 10 shots total ranging from just under 10 minutes to four-and-a-half minutes, Hitchcock hides each edit in the film though clever camera movement and actor blocking. In addition to Hitchcock’s famous attention to detail behind the lens, walls of the set were also moved during takes while props were constantly shuffled as the Technicolor camera, which was a both huge and heavy, was moved around the set.
7. The Player (1992), dir. Robert Altman
Robert Altman’s 1992 Hollywood satire The Player opens with a nearly eight-minute-long one-shot that takes audiences around the a studio backlot, where we overhear assistants, screenwriter pitches, and get a sense for the behind-the-scenes moviemaking world. An homage to Welles’s Touch of Evil opening and Hitchcock’s Rope, both of which are mentioned during the scene by characters in the film, the one-shot needed 15 takes before Altman was happy with the result, and it is among the most impressive one-shots ever committed to film.
8. Goodfellas (1990), dir. Martin Scorsese
Martin Scorsese is another director famous for long takes and was one of the foremost figures in the campaign to restore Sokurov’s I Am Cuba, which had been largely forgotten for nearly 30 years. The most famous of Scorsese’s long takes occurs in his 1990 crime drama Goodfellas, in which we follow Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) and Karen (Lorraine Bracco) as they enter the Copacabana nightclub from the back entrance and trail them through the glitzy club to their seats. A wondrous technical feat, the shot also succeeds in putting the viewer in Karen’s shoes as an outsider intoxicated by the splendor of the crime life.
9. The Passenger (1975), dir. Michelangelo Antonioni
Another film school favorite, Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1975 drama The Passenger ends with a seven-minute tracking shot that slowly pushes out of protagonist David Locke’s (Jack Nicholson) room into a dusty square and finally back into the hotel room. Nicholson later explained that Antonioni had built the entire hotel to accomplish the shot, and because of the inability to control light to the film during the shot, it was necessary to film near dusk to minimize the different in light between the two areas.