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(Credit: Universal Pictures)

The Story Behind the Shot: Exploring the cinematic history of 'The Long Take'

It’s a clumsy way to go about things, but if you had to apply a blanket goal to fiction, then you could do a lot worse than say its first job is to tell a story. In the case of cinema, the storyteller is the camera lens. Thus, the tale can be told in a myriad of ways, and it can impart several things as it does so, but ultimately, the lens is trying to coax you into a fable of one form or another. 

The beauty of cinema, however, is that the story does not solely have to be driven by narrative. Within the realm of film, technique is as important as plot when it comes to the yarn that the filmmaker wishes to spin. Below we’re exploring a shot known as ‘The Long Take’ and we’ve wrapped up a few of the best examples in a supercut to boot.

‘The Long Take’ is a technique that can lead the viewer into a story in an almost claustrophobic sense. It can pick up the pace by somehow seeming even more frantic than constant cutting. It can humanise the action by unfurling it from a voyeuristic perspective. 

One of the very first examples of the shot also happens to be one of the most prominent in movie history. In Citizen Kane, there is a near two-minute continuous shot that masterfully pulls away from a boy playing in the snow to the sober adult world inside his home. The scene that ensues involves paper signing and legal chat regarding adoption, all while the boy is still framed within the window, frolicking naively in the snow. The poetry behind this is profound and unambiguous, but it is the continuation of the shot that rams the point home in a sorrowful unspooling of amoral equanimity. Cuts may have implied a chance to rethink, but this single rolling take helps to portray how cataclysm can unfurl so seamlessly in life.

Another notable earlier example comes from the 1937 Jean Renoir movie, La Grande Illusion. In this WWI epic, Renoir uses the long shot in lieu of a narrator. While it can be argued that, ostensibly, the story of every movie is told through the lens of the camera, Renoir subtly guides that lens around like a painter’s brush, picking up on nuanced details that defy their subtlety to capture the true heart of the scene. By keeping the camera rolling, he captures a POV perspective that adds humanity to the action in such a way that the heart of the story becomes whatever emotion it is that flickers onto the face that the camera has walked up to, and effortlessly framed. 

Following Citizen Kane, the technique was used profusely in cinema, but few directors have embraced it like Steven Spielberg. In fact, Spielberg has used to so often and effectively that he earned the eponymous description of ‘The Spielberg Oner’. The brilliance of Spielberg’s deployment of the shot is that it is always done with due consideration for the scene. In some other cases in cinema, it can come across as jarring simply because we are used to seeing cuts; thus, not seeing them in a noteworthy fashion shows the directors hand and, as such, is gimmicky. Essentially, when it misses the mark, it comes off as an attempt at being impressive rather than effective, which takes the viewer out of the scene. 

However, Spielberg’s aim with the shot is to make the camera “invisible”. Nowhere has he achieved this better than with landing at Omaha Beach scene in Saving Private Ryan. There are cuts aplenty to capture the case and to grasp the scope of the action, but there are contrasting long takes that capture the true horror of the battlefield of war. These long takes may be on the shorter side of the spectrum hence how they earned a categorisation of their own, but they linger long enough to let despair sink in and remove any of the ‘glory’ aspects that can sometimes troublingly besiege war films. 

In recent years, 1917 took this notion a step further. The film is depicted as one single long take. Naturally, it would have been impossible to film in this way, so painstaking edits had to be undertaken to make it seamless. Still, it succeeded in being a truly original way to tell a story in real-time.

With the array of editing techniques now available for filmmakers, the shot is likely to become more ubiquitous in cinema, partly because, aside from the artistry that it imbues a picture with, it also saves time on set if it can be pulled off. The word of warning to any would-be filmmakers out there is that although there’s nothing wrong with simply being impressive sometimes, like the marvelling mastery behind its employment by Martin Scorsese in Goodfellas, there is a slew of imitations where it comes across as a pretentious disorientating gimmick that abandons the first job of fiction and yells for attention and ego-stroking without knowing exactly what to do with it.   

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