Notable Long Takes in Cinema

by Jeffrey Sward
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A long take is continuous shot in a motion picture with no cuts, photographed from a single camera. Generally long shots run several minutes. In order to accommodate changing scenery or moving actors, the camera is often on a dolly or studio crane. The steadicam is often used in long takes after its invention in the 1970s.


Long takes are rare because of their relatively high expense and complexity. Long takes require extensive technical coordination among the camera operators, lighting technicians, and actors. All lights, camera positions, props, and actors must be preset for the entire scene before each take. Long takes are also unforgiving of mistakes, requiring a retake from the beginning. The time involved in extensive planning, coordination, full environment setup, and retakes is costly in labor dollars. Culturally the population has become accustomed to cuts in motion pictures, so there are no continuity reasons for long takes. However, when done well, the long take is often an object of beauty as well as cinematic craftsmanship. The long take is the director's and cinematographer's éclat, raison d'être, tour de force, sine qua non, and ipso facto.

The term "long shot" is often used to mean "long take." More often "long shot" refers to a scene where camera is positioned to take in a large area, such as the actors included with their surroundings.

The term "long cut" is often used to mean "long take." More often "long cut" refers to the longest version of a motion picture containing the fewest cuts.

Using "long shot" or "long cut" to mean "long take" often creates confusion. The plan is working.

Examples of Motion Pictures with Long Takes

Motion Picture Director Notes
Best Years of Our Lives, The (1946) William Wyler  
The Big Clock (1948) John Farrow The first half of the film is mostly long shots. The film opens with three consecutive long shots: The first opening long shot starts under the titles panning models and transitions to live action. The second opening long shot is a clever inside elevator sequence. The third opening long shot is an inside multiple room office sequence. A minor film noir .
Big Combo, The (1955) Joseph Lewis The Big Combo is a film noir masterpiece, featuring extraordinary lighting and photography. Another film noir characteristic often present is the tendency of all of the characters to be speaking into the camera rather than at each other. In addition, The Big Combo is a virtual text book on the long take. The following three scenes are the most masterful of the long takes. The first long take of note begins at 26:16 and runs for 2:15. Richard Conte and Jean Wallace play a scene in an apartment living room. Beginning with a wide shot and moving eventually to close-ups, the blocking and camera movements are excellent. The second long take of note begins at 39:32 and runs for nearly four minutes. Cornel Wilde and Ted de Corsia play a scene in another apartment. The camera zooms several times between wide and tight, as well as following various actions. Note the various angles of inclusion, such as one actor, both actors, the entire room, etc. The take ends with a close-up of a wall calendar. The third long take of note begins at 43:27 and also runes for nearly four minutes. Cornel Wilde and John Hoyt play a scene in an antique shop. The take beings with a close-up of a telephone, goes wide to take in the actors, shifts to the right behind a display case, back to the left for a wide view, and finally finishes with a a close-up of Hoyt opening a drawer. This is perhaps the most technically difficult and spectacular of the long takes in this motion picture.
Bonfire of the Vanities (1990) Brian De Palma The opening tracking steadycam sequence running under the titles is a long take of 4:50. The long take follows Bruce Wills exiting from a limousine, walking through various corridors, and finishing at the top of portico steps. The steadicam is operated by Larry McConkey, also the operator on Goodfellas. The shot is technically very difficult for the steadicam operator, requiring alternative between backing-up-leading-the-actors and walking-forward-following-the-actors, ad well as riding a golf cart. 0"00 backing up, 0:30 switch to follow, 0:38 switch to backing up and enter golf cart, 1:22 leave golf cart switch to follow, 1:40 switch to backing up, 1:50 switch to follow, 2:05 switch to backing up, 2:20 switch to follow enter elevator, 2:40 leave elevator still following, 2:50 switch to backing up due to direction of actors, 3:10 switch to follow, 3:33 switch to backing up, 4:10 switch to follow, 4:35 switch to backing up position. This steadicam shot is very reminiscent of the Chapman crane type of long takes, such as used to begin Touch of Evil. Even though the filming techniques of steadicam and Chapman create are completely different, the results can be very similar. The opening long take is the best element of this otherwise dismal film. Cast member Morgan Freeman claims he knew during filming that the movie would be a commercial disaster. He likened it to a series of mishaps leading up to a plane crash.
Breathless (1960) (A Bout de Souffle) Jean-Luc Godard  
Brigadoon (1954) Vincente Minnelli  
Broadway Melody of 1940 (1940) Norman Taurog The "Begin the Beguine" production number contains two medium takes and one extraordinary long take within a total of nine minutes running time. The first medium take is one minute of Fred Astaire and Eleanor Powell tap dancing (dark costumes). The second medium take is one minute of the the Music Maids vocal (Jeanne Darrell, Bobbie Canvin, Patt Hyatt, Alice Ludes). The "Begin the Beguine" sequence ends with the incredible two-minute long take starting with the entrance of Fred Astaire and Eleanor Powell in white costumes. This final two-minute long take is one of the most astonishing two-person tap dance sequences in film, with Fred Astaire and Eleanor Powell in a frenzied tap-dance duel. Eleanor Powell wins.
Gang's All Here, The (1943) Busby Berkeley The first half of the opening musical number "Brazil" starting with the singing head and ending with a cut during Carmen Miranda's song. There may be a seamless matte transition between the roped cargo and the fruit stack, but the effect is one continuous long take. Even with the transition, the first half of the "Brazil" musical number would be a seamless concatenation of two long takes. The second half of the "Brazil" musical number after the cut during the Carmen Miranda song is also a long take. This second long take is incredibly ingenious. The second long take includes pans in and out and an imaginative sequence of successive chorine heads with percussion instruments.

Another notable long take is the beginning of the "Paducah" Benny Goodman big band number. The "Paducah" sequence begins with a close up of a naked Art Deco statue, pans to a pink water fountain, which recedes to reveal the band, then Benny Goodman, then each member of the big band, then back to Goodman.
Goodfellas (1990) Martin Scorsese Famous tracking steadicam sequence is a tong take of 3:10. The take follows Ray Liotta and Lorraine Bracco from street parking, through a kitchen, into a nightclub, and finishes with a pan to Henny Youngman. The steadicam is operated by Larry McConkey, also the operator in the Bonfire of the Vanities. Larry McConkey deservedly has won Historical Shot Award for Goodfellas, and Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society of Camera Operators.
Gun Crazy (1949) Joseph Lewis The bank hold-up scene is shot in one long take entirely from a camera mounted in the back seat of a car, operated by a dwarf. Much of the action and dialogue was improvised. Some residents of the town believed a real hold-up was in progress. The hold-up scene is a long take classic. The film itself is a film noir classic.
A Kiss Before Dying (1956) Anthony Mann The second shot of the film is a resourceful three minutes 26 second long tracking shot.
Lady Be Good (1941) Norman McLeod with dance numbers directed by Busby Berkeley Most of the incredible "Fascinatin' Rhythm" musical tap dance number is a single long take. Eleanor Powell tap dances between various moving pianos, curtains, and moving stages on rollers. This sequence was filmed in a very large sound stage with a single camera on a very mobile crane. The camera was in constant motion. Several moving stages on wheels pushed by stage hands were in constant motion as were various moving curtains. Eleanor Powell does an incredible job jumping from one moving stage to another, dodging moving curtains, while continuously tap dancing! This is perhaps the most technically complex long shot in motion picture history. There is documentary footage of the shot being made, taken by a second camera in a far corner of the sound stage. This sequence and dance number was directed by Busby Berkeley.
Nocturne (1946) Edwin Marin The film opens with two long takes joined together with a dissolve. The first long take of the exterior of a building is followed by the second long take of a murder with a very mobile camera position.
Player, The (1992) Robert Altman The film opens with an eight-minute long take shot in the studio lot, running under the opening credits. Dialogue references other long takes, including Touch of Evil.
Ride the Pink Horse (1947) Robert Montgomery Right after the opening credits, a four minute long take begins when the door of the bus opens. The long take is a trolley tracking shot which follows Robert Montgomery into the train station, lockers, bubble gum machine, key with gum behind picture, bench, and out of the train station.
Rope (1948) Alfred Hitchcock Entire picture a series of interwoven long takes. Each long take end with a close-up of an inanimate object, which overlays the beginning of the next long take. However, an occasional cut is made.
Royal Wedding (1951) Stanley Donen The sequence which involves Fred Astaire dancing on the floor, walls, and ceiling of a square room is a concatenation of two long shots. The room set was attached to a large mechanism which allowed the entire room to be rotated 360 degrees. The camera was bolted to the floor of the room. As the scene progresses, the room-camera apparatus is rotated. Since the camera is bolted to the floor, the point of the view does not change. As the room-camera apparatus is rotated, the floor, then one wall, then the ceiling, then the next wall, then the floor each become oriented parallel to the ground in succession. As each surface becomes parallel to the ground, gravity then allows Fred Astaire to dance on the surface currently horizontal. Since the camera is always viewing the scene from the viewpoint of the floor, Fred Astaire appears to be defying gravity, when in reality he is using gravity. Since gravity always pulls things downward, note the direction Fred Astair's pant cuff shift as the room-camera apparatus moves. A long shot was necessary for this sequence for a variety of reasons, two of which are (a) cuts would make the scene less convincing and (b) it would be very difficult to interrupt the sequence and restart mid-point. Close examination reveals that the final cut is a concatenation of three long takes spliced artfully together. Only the slightest shift is visible at the splice points.
Touch of Evil (1958) Orson Wells A Chapman crane long take tracking shot opens the picture including running under the opening credits. This is perhaps the best known long take in motion picture history. The long take is three minutes and twenty seconds. A film noir classic.
Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957) Frank Tashlin  

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