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The Longest Average Shot Lengths in Modern Hollywood

The Longest Average Shot Lengths in Modern Hollywood

Director Alfonso Cuarón likes long
takes, preferring to cut his films as little as he can. His 2006 movie Children of Men features three
relatively long single takes: the scene where Kee gives birth (3:19); the
roadside ambush (4:07); and the final battle (7:34). (Here’s a video that features all of them,
as well as every other take in the film that runs at least 45 seconds.) Now
he’s preparing to release a new film, Gravity, which supposedly opens with a 17-minute-long
take. (The first trailer was recently released, and can be viewed here.) What’s more, the rest of the film apparently
contains only 155 other shots. Assuming that the movie runs 2 hours long (the
actual run time hasn’t been announced yet), that would mean that each shot is,
on average, slightly longer than 46 seconds apiece.

That’s extremely long for
contemporary Hollywood, where shots typically don’t last longer than a few
seconds each. For instance, Michael Bay’s Transformers movies are pretty
rapidly cut, with Average Shot Lengths (ASLs) between 3 and 3.4 seconds.) But
that’s not altogether unusual. For instance, Inception (2010) has an ASL of 3.1. (I
made a video about that, here.) Scholars such as David Bordwell and
Kristin Thompson have documented how, over the past thirty years, cutting in
Hollywood films has gotten faster, resulting in ASLs of under 5 seconds.
Foreign films have remained slower by comparison, and European filmmakers often
bring those habits to Hollywood. Drive, for instance, which was directed
by the Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn, features pretty long takes, and
an ASL of 7 seconds/shot). But that’s still much faster than what Cuarón has
just accomplished.

Advance word about Gravity got some friends and me
wondering: what other contemporary Hollywood films have ASLs higher than 46? Or
is Gravity going to set some new record?

To answer that question, I turned to
the Cinemetrics Database, an online database
for ASLs and other measurements for films. It’s important to note that the data
there is submitted by volunteers, and very prone to errors. Furthermore, the
database is also far from complete. Still, it’s a very useful tool. (The site
also provides free software that anyone can download to use and to

Here’s what I did. First, I clicked
“Show all,” so I could sort the films by ASL—simple enough. I saw right away
that Russian Ark was #1, which makes sense.
That 2002 film consists of only a single shot, and thereby yields an ASL of 5496.3). So far, the database appeared

The next step was harder. I imported
the sorted data into Excel, and began distinguishing the Hollywood films from
the rest. This is important because, as already noted, lots of foreign films contain
longer takes than their US counterparts. But we want to know how remarkable Gravity is going to appear in US
cineplexes this summer. I took out a lot of works by familiar European names here:
Béla Tarr & Ágnes Hranitzky, Theodoros Angelopoulos, Chantal Akerman, Hou
Hsiao-Hsien, Kim Ki-duk, Pedro Costa, Jean-Marie Straub & Daniele Huillet,
the Dardenne Brothers, Jafar Panahi, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Tsai Ming-liang
… (If you’re unfamiliar with their films, you’re missing out on some of the
best movies being made today).

The next step was to weed out
experimental/underground directors like Andy Warhol and George Kuchar, and
older Hollywood directors like G.W. Bitzer and D.W. Griffith. Again, we want to
compare Gravity to recent Hollywood
films. Shot length slowed down a lot when sound was introduced, and has been
speeding up over the past eighty-something years. For instance, Howard Hawks’s His Girl Friday (1940) has an ASL of
about 15 seconds. (That said, an ASL of 46 would be remarkable even in Classic

And here’s what I found (although
keep in mind I wasn’t able to independently confirm any of this, and I had to
weed out a lot of anomalies—the
database really needs some cleaning up!)

1. Rope (1948, Alfred Hitchcock),
ASL = 433.9

OK, this isn’t a recent
recent film, but it has to be noted, as it’s most likely the highest ASL in
Hollywood. Hitchcock used only 10 shots in making it (the film’s Wikipedia page
lists them). (As you probably know,
Hitchcock designed those shots, then edited them such that the finished film appeared
to be a single take.)

After that, editing speeds up considerably:

3. Down by Law (1986, Jim Jarmusch),
ASL = 51.1

4. Elephant (2003, Gus Van Sant),
ASL = 49.4

5. Bullets Over Broadway (1994,
Woody Allen), ASL = 48.2

6. Last Days (2005, Gus Van Sant),
ASL = 46.5

Actually, we’ve already encountered
an omission. The #2 film isn’t in the database (yet)—that being Gus Van Sant’s Gerry (2002), the first part of a
trilogy that also includes Elephant and Last Days. Gerry is one of my favorite of Van Sant’s
films, and since I’ve seen it many times I know that its footage of Matt Damon
and Casey Affleck wandering through different deserts doesn’t feature much
cutting, The IMDb trivia page for the film claims that it consists of exactly 100
shots, which over 103 minutes would yield an ASL of 61.8. (Subtracting the
credits would put it closer to 60 seconds per shot.)

So, given the data so far, Gravity
looks ready to clock in at #7 in the list of Hollywood movies with the highest

However, like I said, the Cinemetrics
Database contains a lot of anomalous data. One entry that stood out was Blizzard, a 2003 children’s film about
a magic reindeer, directed by Star Trek‘s own LeVar Burton (who played
the blind engineer Geordi LaForge). There are two records for this film: 46.5 and
76.9. One entry I could overlook, but two raised my suspicions (even if their
claims wildly differ). So I obtained a copy of the film and gave it a look. And
I didn’t watch the whole thing, but I can report that, unless there’s
some 15-minute-long shot lurking in there somewhere, its ASL is entirely
typical—about 3–4 seconds per shot.

After that, Woody Allen has a lot of
the list locked up:

8. Alice (1990, Woody Allen), ASL =

9. Sweetgrass (2009, Ilisa Barbash
& Lucien Castaing-Taylor), ASL = 39.5

10.  Mighty Aphrodite (1995, Woody
Allen), ASL = 34.6

11. Redacted (2007, Brian De Palma),
ASL = 34.4

12. Don’t Drink the Water (1994,
Woody Allen), ASL = 33.1

13. Everyone Says I Love You (1996,
Woody Allen), ASL = 32.9 (another entry lists 31.9)

14. Shadows and Fog (1991, Woody
Allen), ASL = 32.7

15. Celebrity (1998, Woody Allen),
ASL = 32.1

16. September (1987, Woody Allen),
ASL = 31.3

17. Slacker (1991, Richard
Linklater), ASL = 31.1

18. Vernon, Florida (1982, Errol
Morris), ASL = 30.5

19. Cloverfield (2008, Matt Reeves),
ASL = 28.9

20. Husbands & Wives (1992, Woody
Allen), ASL = 27.8

21. Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993,
Woody Allen), ASL = 27.7

22. Another Woman (1988, Woody
Allen), ASL = 26.9

23.  My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done
(2009, Werner Herzog), ASL = 26.9

24. Gates of Heaven (1980, Errol
Morris), ASL = 26

25. Mystery Train (1989, Jim
Jarmusch), ASL = 25

26. Rules of Attraction (2001, Roger
Avary), ASL = 24.9

27. Hannah and Her Sisters  (1986,
Woody Allen), ASL = 24.5

28. Grizzly Man (2005, Werner Herzog),
ASL = 24.4

This isn’t surprising. Woody Allen
has long been noted for his reluctance to cut, and his preference for shooting
whole scenes in single takes. This makes shooting the film more complicated,
but it does allow actors more flexibility in their performances (since they can
move about the set more freely), and greatly speeds up the editing process.

That said, it is odd that the sorted
data didn’t include any Woody Allen film made after 1996. Their absence would
indicate one of two things: that the man has changed his way of working (which
I don’t think is the case), or that his later films have yet to be analyzed and
included. I find the latter possibility more likely. (Also, note that the most
recent film here is four years old, so it’s possible some recent titles are

I’ve seen every film on this list
except for Sweetwater, Redacted, Cloverfield, and My
Son, My Son
, so I can’t vouch for them, but the rest looks correct. (Mystery
also has two other entries that claim 24.1 and 23.9, respectively;
either way, it probably ranks somewhere around 24.)

That said, Rules of Attraction
has to be a mistake. It is a remarkable film for many reasons, featuring an
extraordinarily wide variety of cinematic techniques: splitscreen, reversed
footage, extensive slow motion, and more. And it does contain many wonderful long
takes—but it also contains a sequence comprised of hundreds, if not thousands, of
rapid cuts. My guess is that whoever was measuring the film chose not to count all
the shots in that section, which is of course incorrect. (To get the ASL, you
have to average the length of every shot in the film.)

I stopped analyzing the data at this
point because after this the field starts getting increasingly cluttered,
meaning the inaccuracies in the database render the results less meaningful.

So with Gravity‘s
release, Cuarón looks ready to not only make his most languorous film to
date, but also to take his place alongside long-take masters like Allen, Van
Sant, Jarmusch, Herzog, and Morris.

Seventh place, to be exact.

A.D Jameson is the author
of the prose collection
Adult Fantasy
(Mutable Sound, 2011), in
which he tries to come to terms with having been raised on ’80s pop culture, and the novel
and Gibson
, 2011), an absurdist retelling of the Epic of
Gilgamesh. He’s taught
classes at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Lake Forest College,
DePaul University, Facets Multimedia, and
StoryStudio Chicago. He’s also the
nonfiction / reviews editor of the online journal
Requited. He recently
started the PhD program in Creative Writing at the University of Illinois at
Chicago. In his spare
time, he contributes to the group blogs
and HTMLGIANT. Follow him on Twitter at @adjameson.

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One film missing that jumped out at me is Jarmush's "Stranger than Paradise" which consistes of almost no cutting in scenes. I checked the database and it isn't in there, but I think it would be near the top.


You may also want to check out Derek Cianfrance's 'The Place Beyond The Pines"; Sean Bobbit (BSC) opens the film (:43) with a steady cam long take that has a length of 114 seconds with with (in my opinion) consistently average long (longer than average) takes throughout the movie…

Mark Rosoff

What about Citizen Kane?


I recently read an interview with Werner Herzog where he said that modern movies use very quick cuts to trick the viewer into thinking something interesting is happening on the screen.

I think directors (and studios/producers) lack confidence in both their material and their audience to risk lengthy shots for fear of being boring.

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