Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Long Take

Its happened to you before. Sometimes you watch a film and its so entertaining, on many levels, that you become reacquainted with that part of your being that fell in love with movies in the first place. It happened to me recently. But I geek out on a whole other level then most people when it comes to movies; I get hyped about the small things. Its those little components of an overall excellent film that get me going. A cool camera shot here, a nice edit to a piece of music there, even a creative movie poster...all those parts, individually, can excite the film nerd in me.

Case in point, "the long take", which is just film lingo for a scene that continues on for an extended period of time without cutting away. All of the action either happens within the frame, in and out of the frame or the frame itself will travel through or with the action, with no cuts or fades or any edits at all. It doesn't happen in film very often and there is a reason; it take an extreme amount of forethought and creativity to pull off. But its extremely satisfying when it does happens successfully. Its those moments when film, as an art form, begins to transcend its medium and gives you a true, unfiltered portal into a performance or a scene at it's most vulnerable.

If you think about it, about 95% of almost every movie you watch is filled with edits; a cut every few seconds or a fade in and out. The "long take" hearkens back to an age when there was no such thing as editing; when a film was once just one scene, one shot, one window to the world and whatever frame, or perhaps "context", you witnessed the action within, was up to you.

Some examples of films that successfully pull off engaging "long takes"... His Girl Friday...Kill Bill Vol. 1...Goodfellas...Boogie Nights...Carlito's Way...Children of Men...Magnolia...A Clockwork Orange...just to name a few. A good list of 20 of these great long takes, along with video clips of each, can be found here. As I alluded to earlier, I recently saw a "long take" in an fantastic film called The Secret In Their Eyes, (El Secreto de Sus Ojos). Granted, the long take I'm referring to may be dismissed by critics and film buffs because I'm fairly certain some computerized special effects were used to complete the scene. Once you see it you see it, you'll understand what I mean. Thankfully though, there is no point in which special effects are apparent and it all looks completely plausible. On top of that, the whole scene is so creatively imagined that I actually stopped the movie, rewound and watched the scene three times again in awe. The scene begins high in the sky, dives down through the clouds and right into the middle of a thunderous soccer game. The camera travels over the field through the crowds, into the bowels of the complex, and eventually onto the field itself in one long, grand sweeping take that needs to be watch to be appreciated.

Here is a YouTube clip that shows the very beginning of this long take scene:

The scene goes on for a few more minutes, without a traditional edit. I say "traditional edit" because its obvious some "hidden" edits were made, but the illusion of the long take is important here. Why? Because its an excellent reminder that film, like theater, can execute innovative storytelling in what appears to be spontaneity, unfolding right before our eyes. I recommend watching the entire film to anyone who loves movies, because El Secreto de Sus Ojos is one of those stories that sticks with you long after the credits have rolled. And if nothing else, you'll at least appreciate what an engaging technique the long take can be when done with passion.