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10 Mind-Blowing Long Takes That Will Take Your Breath Away

 

One of the hallmarks of great cinematography is the long take. An unbroken camera shot is a trick that can sneak up on the audience member, immersing them into the world of the scene before they even realize it.

Such an effect requires precise coordination and rehearsal from everyone involved, from the director to the cinematographer, the actors, and even the crew, but the impact it yields is undeniable.

Used to build tension in important conversation, or add intensity and movement to an action set-piece, there are many ways a long take can be utilized to enhance a film and even immortalize a scene as iconic.

10. La La Land

Summit Entertainment

The camera effortlessly glides among sun-kissed, dancing explosions of primary color. Filmmaking so effervescently joyous and energetic is hard to come by, which is why something like La La Land is so special.

Director Damien Chazelle and cinematographer Linus Sandgren shot La La Land on Super 35mm with an anamorphic 2.55:1 aspect ratio, calling back to the days of shooting in classic CinemaScope style. The result is a film filled with rich colors painting a wide, vibrant frame. The opening musical number, taking place in jammed Los Angeles traffic, boldly declares the film that is about to unfold.

Both an ode to the pursuit of one’s dreams and a musical celebration of optimism in the face of challenge, La La Land’s opening shot features hundreds of people, all strangers to each other, emerging from the frustration of a traffic jam on a hot day into a dance. The dance is a unification; the music awakens an energy that unifies both young and old, man and woman, into solidarity. If the charm doesn’t pull you into the dance, Chazelle and Sandgren’s muscular filmmaking definitely will.

9. Oldboy

Show East/Tartan Films

Key to creating a great action scene is establishing the geography of the set-piece. How a filmmaker utilizes the space within which the action takes place can accentuate the intensity of the combat. Oh Dae-su’s fight through the corridor of the private prison is a brilliant example of such adept action filmmaking.

Starting at one end of the corridor and following Oh Dae-su (Min-sik Choi) as he battles the hoards of guards, director Park Chan-wook and cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung frame the action from one side of the hallway and track the action in one shot. Chung’s camera moves back and forth, following the thrashing bodies being kicked, punched, clubbed, and hammered about. Rather than charging into battle with Dae-su, the camera remains detached to the side, instead giving a point-of-view illustrating how crowded and tightly packed the impromptu war zone is.

The combat is messy and exhausting; Dae-su doesn’t blow through the guards with ease, but rather is beaten and battered every step of the way. Leaving a trail of broken bodies in his wake, Dae-su emerges injured yet invigorated; a twisted smile grows across his face while blood trickles from his neck. Dae-su still has yet to win the war, but his victory in this battle, virtuosically captured by Park and Chung, is brutally satisfying.

8. Goodfellas

Warner Bros

The crime film was redefined with the release of Goodfellas. Martin Scorsese’s epic carved its place in history with its innovative use of narration and different musical styles to usher in the changing eras. Not only that, but Goodfellas features an extended and complicated tracking shot sequence, becoming a new hallmark of cinematography.

Scorsese and cinematographer Michael Ballhaus’ camera tracks Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) as he leads Karen (Lorraine Bracco) into the Copacabana club past the long line, through an alternate entrance, down the back stairwell, and weaving around the chaos of the kitchen until they find their seats in the club. Along the way, Henry talks to the workers in the club, chums it up with those he recognizes, and hands out money like it is an infinite resource. With all the power and influence this shot gives Hill, it’s easy to understand why he’d feel like it is.

The best tracking shots, more than just being visual marvels, indicate something about the character’s relationship with the world as they move through it. What Scorsese and Ballhaus have crafted here is more than just a great shot; Scorsese and Ballhaus have crafted an intricate distillation of the tempting power a life of crime can grant.

7. True Detective

HBO

True Detective is an anomaly of a television show. The first season dropped to great acclaim for its twisty, macabre story, brilliant use of setting, performances from its central duo of Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, and strong direction from Cary Joji Fukunaga. For all intents and purposes, it had the makings to be one of the best new shows on television…and then season two happened. With a more convoluted storyline, less interesting setting, and less intriguing characters, True Detective season two was a major disappointment.

One of the major factors that helped season one make such an impact was the consistent auteur vision throughout. Fukunaga’s direction combined with Adam Arkapaw’s cinematography created one of the most visually stunning shows at the time. The show reached its apex in the episode “Who Goes There,” in which Rust (Matthew McConaughey) goes undercover with a biker gang. The final sequence of the episode features a six-minute long shot of their robbery of a rival gang going horribly wrong.

The tension ratchets up as Arkapaw’s camera follows Rust through the house he’s busting to find more gang members. To say more would spoil the experience, but watching Rust attempt to keep control over a situation slowly boiling over is extremely tense. As the tension explodes, Arkapaw follows Rust as he desperately attempts to escape the chaos unfolding. The result is an unbearably tense, brutal, and exciting sequence of a robbery gone south and one of the most cinematic television sequences of all time.

6. Hard Boiled

Golden Princess Film Production

Nowadays, John Woo is mostly known for releasing doves into the air, but back in the day, John Woo was responsible for some of the greatest action films of all time. The film that put him on the map as a great action filmmaker for Hollywood to pay attention to, however, was Hard Boiled. The film follows a Hong Kong police force desperate to control gangsters inflicting violence against innocents. The scene that cemented this film in the action film hall of fame was a two minute and forty two second long tracking shot following two offices fighting their way through a hospital.

Woo and Wang Wing-heng follow the two officers through the various hospital corridors as enemies pop from all corners. A cascade of bullets, debris, and bodies, this sequence is a hallmark of action cinema. Woo and Wing-heng masterfully utilize the hospital setting, as enemies pop out of all different hallways and rooms.

Each barrage of gunfire and carnage is clearly captured in camera, as Woo and Wing-heng maintain just enough distance to keep the sequence legible, but also maintain close enough quarters to viscerally capture this hospital war-zone. An action scene captured in one shot emphasizes the immediacy of the circumstance and enhances its urgency. Few have done this better than John Woo and Wang Wing-heng with this mind-blowing sequence.

5. Weekend

Athos FIlms

One of the first scenes in Jean-Luc Godard’s 1967 dark comedy Weekend utilizes a long take to guide the audience on its first steps into the film’s absurd world. As Roland and Corinne embark on a weekend at her parents’ home for her inheritance from her dying father, the two find their road trip punctuated by violent car crashes and surreal encounters along the way.

The shot introduces the audience to the chaos, as the camera (mounted to three hundred meters of dolly track) slowly pans along as Roland and Corinne’s car moves past other vehicles of all shapes and sizes. The action of the sequence takes place on the crowded street positioned against a barren landscape backdrop, further emphasizing just how cramped the drivers all are.

Weekend OneShot Vimeo from Flip Films on Vimeo.

As spoken communication is forgone in favor of a deluge of honking car horns, Godard and cinematographer Raoul Coutard simply continue the flow of the camera as it captures Roland and Corinne zipping along further insanity, from overturned cars to trucks carrying zoo animals to car wrecks and the ensuing carnage. The camera is unfazed and so too are the characters; they’re just trying to get to their destination.

A brilliant visual representation of bourgeoisie disillusionment and detachment from reality, this tracking shot has far more on its mind than an impressive visual.

4. Hunger

con Film Distribution

In terms of visual spectacle, this is the simplest entry on the list. Yet, this seventeen minute and ten-second long shot is the emotional centerpiece of the film. Steve McQueen’s Hunger follows the devastating true-life story of Bobby Sands’ hunger strike in the Maze Prison in 1981.

The shot in question simply captures the conversation between Sands (Michael Fassbender) and Father Dominic Moran (Liam Cunningham) as the priest attempts to steer Sands away from his hunger strike. Rather than cut between the two actors, McQueen and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt allows the conversation to unfold naturally in front of the static camera. In doing so, the viewer is effectually placed at the center of an urgent moral debate and forced to reckon with the implications of both sides.

The inherent boldness of such a patient sequence fades away as the two men argue their positions; the sequence’s intensity rests more on their empirical dialogue and the conviction of the characters than on the showiness of the filmmaking. Fassbender and Cunningham prepared by moving into an apartment with each other and rehearsing the entire scene between twelve to fifteen times a day. Apparently, they got the scene down pat on the fourth take. The hard work shows as the sequence rests entirely on the intention of their delivery of such politically and philosophically loaded dialogue.

The effect works and makes for captivating viewing, capturing a different type of intensity than the harsh violence of the rest of the film.

3. Russian Ark

Wellspring Media

To include Russian Ark almost feels unfair to the other entries; they hardly stand a chance. Director Alexander Sokurov and cinematographer Tilman Büttner’s radical experiment with period cinema yielded a singular achievement in filmmaking; the entirety of Russian Ark takes place over one, ninety-six-minute long shot. Following a spectral narrator floating through the Winter Palace, Russian Ark ambitiously condenses different periods of Russian history into one shot as he encounters those, both real and fictional, who lived through them.

Filmed in the Winter Palace of the Russian State Hermitage Museum through thirty-three different rooms and with over two-thousand extras, Russian Ark’s tracking shot took four takes for Büttner to get it right. After three failed takes, dwindling battery power on the camera, and the available daylight hours passing by, Büttner successfully shot the entirety of Russian Ark on the fourth and final take.

Russian Ark is comprised of crowded, complicated scenes, heavily choreographed ball sequences, and more. To coordinate such a sequence in a regular take is a challenge all on its own, but to do so all in one shot with ninety-six minutes of other material to grapple with in all one shot is an entirely different beast. This shot is less mind-blowing than it is absolutely insane.

2. Boogie Nights

New Line Cinema

Boogie Nights launched Paul Thomas Anderson’s directorial credibility into the stratosphere. Taking inspiration from Scorsese’s Goodfellas, Anderson charts the sprawling narrative of Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg) and his rise-and-fall as a porn star during the late-1970s and early-1980s. Not only does it tell an ambitious, entertaining, and powerful story, but it also features two incredible tracking shots.

Proudly declaring Scorsese’s influence from the first frame, Anderson opens Boogie Nights with a shot tracking Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) and Amber Waves (Julianne Moore) as they enter a nightclub. Floating through the club, shifting perspective from character to character as they interact with each other. The scene uses the club to introduce the bevy of major characters that the film follows in a place that they keep coming back to.

Anderson’s films often study the changes catalyzed by shifting eras and Boogie Nights is no exception. The first act climaxes at a New Year’s Eve house party that proves traumatic. The shot in question follows Little Bill (William H. Macy) as he realizes his wife, a chronic adulterer, is indulging in infidelity at the party, walks into their room, ambles out to the car for his revolver, stumbles back into their room to murder his wife and her lover, and finally shoot himself in the mouth.

The deliberate camerawork moving along with an increasingly unhinged Macy make for a dread-inducing sequence that sets the darker tone moving forward.

1. Children Of Men

Warner Bros.

A miracle film, Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men is a masterpiece in every sense of the term, featuring heartwrenching performances and a well-textured portrait of a society on the brink of apocalypse. Cuarón’s vision is realized through Emmanuel Lubezki’s camera as it captures the fracturing world in long takes, often getting caught directly in the carnage and destruction as the cracks grow deeper.

One such long take follows the central characters as their car is ambushed by an armed gang in the middle of the woods. The camera rotates around the car, capturing the lighthearted interactions between the characters before it shows a rolling inferno careening into the road in front of them. The tone shifts dramatically as Luke (Chiwetel Ejiofor) desperately attempts to back the car from the ambush and Julian (Julianne Moore) is hit by gunfire as ex-husband Theo (Clive Owen) desperately tries to stop the bleeding.

Not only does the one-take style keep the action immediate and frightening, but placing the camera in the car entraps the characters in a state of helplessness as chaos descends around them. The only prayer they have is in Luke’s ability to get away from the hordes of gang members. As a result, Cuarón and Lubezki have crafted a harrowing and tragic action set piece that sets an even higher bar for the rest of the film to match.

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