Feature: The Long-Take Movie

Unless you are a movie-as-an-artform type of fan, the editing in a movie often escapes us. In most cases, all of those cuts are meant to be invisible, at times subliminally conveying a message without us realizing it. And although cameramen might painstakingly struggle to film a scene in one long take, many audience members will fail to recognize the accomplishment.

Alfred Hitchcock was the first director to bring to fruition a movie done entirely in one long take, sort of. Moviemakers in the 1940s were limited by this thing called “film”, the actual celluloid that ran through the camera and recorded all the images later flashed before our eyes. So in those days it was not possible to capture a 90-minute movie without ever stopping the camera because the actual reel only held a certain amount of film. In the case of Rope, Hitchcock instead gave us the illusion of a cut-less picture by disguising the breaks between reels. He did succeed in never stopping the camera rolling while there was film left, but hid the transition between reels by focusing in on the backs of characters, creating a black screen that would prevent viewers from distinguishing a break in filming.

Fast forward 60 years to the age of digital film photography and the issue of celluloid can no longer hamper a filmmaker’s ability to keep the camera rolling. In 2001, a Russian director developed the idea of making a movie in one, 90-minute take all centered on the Hermitage museum. Although the idea of not having to edit any footage sounded easy to Aleksandr Sokurov at first, bringing about the actual filming of Russian Ark took several years of planning.

The film crew, cast of one main character and more than a thousand extras were given four days access to the museum. Three were used to remove items, insert new ones and prepare the lighting for the shoot. The actual filming had to occur on one day. Told as a dream, the story runs through 300 years of Russian history as significant characters float in an out of the scenes while the French marquis who is guiding the camera criticizes Russia’s lack of artistic culture. The camera itself is the second character, the dreamer, who converses with the marquis and himself through a post-production voice over.

Unlike Rope, which relied on a handful of characters getting their parts correct, Russian Ark protected itself from any on-screen mishaps by giving only one character specific dialogue to deliver. There is a certain lack of synchronicity in the voice over as at times the marquis’ pauses for response do not last long enough and the voice over runs on top of his dialogue. Also, the lack of echo in the voice-over dialogue makes it seem to us as though these thoughts are occurring in the dreamer’s (or our) head, especially because the marquis at times does not seem to hear what is said.

Moving ahead to today, the horror movie Silent House recently hit theaters as yet another 90-minute example of cut-free filming, or so it would seem. Technology has taken us so far forward that directors Chris Kentis, Laura Lau were able to mimic a single-take film while actually filming 10-minute segments and disguising the transitions in post-production. The result is a highly suspenseful picture that relies entirely on practical effects and lots of behind-the-scenes maneuvers.

The story contains one main character the camera follows, two family members and a couple extra appearances. The effect relies on a dark house and mostly up-close shots of the scene, which protects against mistakes that might occur in the background. Also, being a horror movie, the characters’ reactions to the events and dialogue do not have to be perfect, thus giving a more natural feel. The movie avoids the use of CGI to create scary creatures for us and was unable to show the result of one character’s bludgeoning because the application of makeup could not have occurred fast enough to fit within the long-take structure. Silent House instead relies on severe suspense rather than actual terrifying scenes to scare the audience. The long-take approach adds to this and gives the effect of things happening in real time. (Silent House Video Clip)

The use of long takes, and in particular movies that try to use nothing but, is highly demanding on all the collaborators in front of and behind the camera. Extensive rehearsing and extremely long retakes if mistakes are made can mean lengthy, demanding days for all involved. The endeavor is certainly one done more for artistic satisfaction than commercial gain or public popularity as the average theater-goer is blind to this work. I think we can see evidence of this as the technique has failed to gain popularity among film makers. Nevertheless, I have always been intrigued by the long take, and so a movie that does only that will have me at its beck and call time and time again.

Source: “In One Breath: The Making of Russian Ark” documentary; Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light by Patrick McGilligan

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2 Responses

  1. I’ve seen both Rope and Russian Ark and found the “cutless” element fascinating to watch. Yet, I also think it limits both films as well. Just the overall logistics of making Russian Ark (which was waaaaayyy more advanced than Rope) makes my head hurt. Interesting post.

  2. Very interesting post! I wasn’t familiar with RUSSIAN ARK, but have viewed ROPE multiple times. While the long takes are interesting, I don’t think they add much to the film (the limited sets seem to push the characters together, though).

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