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Indiewire’s Favorite Long Takes (Because Cuts Are for Quitters)

Indiewire's Favorite Long Takes (Because Cuts Are for Quitters)

If you want to be wowed this weekend, we encourage you to go see Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu’s critically acclaimed “Birdman (Or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance).” The dark comedy, which recently closed the New York Film Festival and opens in select theaters today (it expands to more theaters throughout the month), was shot by Oscar-winning “Gravity” DP Emmanuel Lubezki, who worked his magic to make the entire two-hour feature play as if it was shot in one single, fluid take. (It wasn’t.) In honor of Lubezki’s remarkable feat, the Indiewire staff has selected their favorite long take sequences in film. Tell us your picks in the comment section!

READ MORE: Why ‘Birdman’ is the First Modern Showbiz Satire

Nigel M. Smith, Managing Editor
“Birth” (2004)
Nicole Kidman’s turned in some great performances over the years, but none rival the two-minute single take Jonathan Glazer captured of her in his spellbinding sophomore feature “Birth.” After watching a strange ten-year-old boy (Cameron Bright) who claims to be her be her dead husband reincarnate fall to the floor (just go with it), Kidman’s character Anna, a rich Manhattanite, rushes in late to the opera accompanied by her new husband (Danny Huston) — with a lot on her mind. The late and great DP Harris Savides (“Zodiac,” “The Bling Ring”) tracks Anna entering the theater and taking her seat, then slowly zooms in to rest on Kidman’s wildly expressive face as she wrestles with what just occurred. Without being too showy, Kidman’s face runts the gamut of emotions, from despair to astonishment, as a bombastic Richard Wagner opera score booms around her. It’s an astonishing moment in an altogether entrancing film.

Eric Kohn, Head Film Critic/Senior Editor
“Russian Ark” (2002)
Steven Spielberg once called Russian director Alexander Sokurov’s 2002 drama, shot in a single unbroken take in the Winter Palace of the Russian State Hermitage Museum, his favorite movie of all time. There’s a good reason for that: As the biggest name in movies, Spielberg practically represents their fundamental appeal to the masses, and no one does a better job of crystallizing the language of cinema than Sokurov’s masterful use of the Steadicam. As the camera roams the lavish halls and explores their history, a ghostly narrator ruminates on the sights and sounds as they float by. The movie is on the one hand steeped in realism — its entire filming process unfolds before your very eyes — and departs from the real world with breathtaking formalism. “Russian Ark” is the best testament yet to the power of the camera to awaken our senses, while tethering them to an underlying familiarity. 


“Touch of Evil” (1958)

Orson Welles’ final studio project is a perfect illustration of why he didn’t belong in the studio system: He was simply too ambitious and innovative for the commercial arena. It doesn’t take any time to see the scope of his vision in “Touch of Evil,” which opens with a magisterial long take starting with the covert placement of a bomb in a car trunk and concluding with its explosion. In between, Welles’ camera swoops up in a remarkable crane shot that captures the full scope of the seedy border town where the action takes place, then slowly comes back down to earth. In the studio cut, an orchestral score gets in the way of the sheer audacity of the camerawork; later versions restored Welles’ desire to only use diegetic sound, allowing viewers to experience a full immersion into the dark, ominous world of crime where this noir drama unfolds. 

Paula Bernstein, Technology/Filmmaker Toolkit Editor
The Player” (1992)
The opening shot of Robert Altman’s “The Player” sets the self-referential tone of the film in seven minutes and 47 seconds (without a single camera break). During this time, the camera roams around a Hollywood studio lot, capturing snippets of conversation and glimpses into the so-called creative process of filmmaking and, more importantly, “the players” — the Hollywood assistant managing calls, the screenwriter pitching (“The Graduate: Part 2”) to the studio executive, the “D-girl” and more. Even the long-shot itself references Hollywood: “The pictures they make these days are all MTV, cut, cut, cut, cut. The opening shot of Welles’ ‘Touch of Evil’ was six 1/2 minutes long,” says the studio security guard (Fred Ward), who adds that “It sets the whole picture with that one tracking shot.” You could say the same thing for Altman’s opening.

Casey Cipriani, Assistant Editor
“Gravity” (2013)
Clocking in at around 17 minutes, the opening segment of Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity” sets the scene for the rest of the visually extraordinary film. It opens on a gorgeous shot of Earth from outer space, and faint radio chatter can be heard as tiny but recognizable objects float into frame: the Hubble Space Telescope, a space shuttle, minuscule astronauts. We slowly linger with them in routine before the chaos sets in. Additionally, the vast expanse of space is beautifully rendered before we even see any of the actors. Cuaron told the New York Times, “We wanted to slowly immerse audiences into first the environment and then to immerse them into the action, and the ultimate goal of this whole experiment was for the audiences to feel as if they are a third character who is floating with our other two characters in space.” To capture the realistic movements of space, Cuaron and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki came up with the idea of “The Cage” — rotating lights around a single actor, which make it appear as if they are moving rapidly and fluidly. The effect is incredibly successful and makes the opening sequence all the more riveting. Watch part of it below:


Liz Shannon Miller, TV Editor

Children of Men” (2006)
Set in a world without children, and thus a world without hope, Alfonso Cuaron’s 2006 sci-fi drama dwells in despair, cultivating a mood so dense that you might overlook its many moments of sublime and subtle filmmaking. This includes multiple scenes shot as long takes, including the opening moments as well as a six-minute climatic battle that crosses city blocks. Perhaps the most memorable, though, is a sequence mid-way through the film where Theo (Clive Owen), Julian (Julianne Moore) and Luke (Chiwetel Ejiofor) transport precious cargo through the English countryside. For four minutes, viewers are trapped inside a small four-door sedan while a pleasant reconnection between former lovers turns into a violent bloodbath; in order to achieve the shot, Cuaron and his team built a complicated rig that allowed them to move the camera around the car’s interior from the roof. It’s a masterful technical achievement, but what’s most impressive about it is that the first time you watch it, you don’t even notice — you’re too engrossed to care about how they pulled it off. It’s the perfect distillation of great filmmaking: So powerful and affecting, you don’t even notice it’s there.

Ben Travers, TV Critic

True Detective” – Season 1, Episode 4 – “Who Goes There” (2013)
HBO’s smash freshman drama wasn’t the first TV series to implement the showy art of the long take into its already elaborate cinematography, and it won’t be the last (“Gracepoint” recreated the shot from its predecessor, “Broadchurch,” just a few weeks back). What made Cary Fukunaga’s take so impressive was both its rapid execution and cultural significance for the medium. Unlike in film, Fukunaga didn’t have a lot of time to plan and execute the six-minute “oner.” He was given a day-and-a-half to map out the route with his actors and not much longer to determine the path of the camera — including a tricky bit where both the actors and camera had to climb a chain link fence. Despite giving himself an opportunity to cut two of the takes together (most likely when the camera pans up into darkness to look at the helicopter circling above), what audiences ended up with was a single take, starting when Matthew McConaughey says “Freeze, motherfucker” and running continuously until Marty’s car speeds away. The move became crucial to the climate of modern television because, in fittingly grandiose fashion, it marked the arrival of a TV auteur. Even though Fukunaga had used the technique before in his earlier films, the long take in “True Detective” established the show as a force to be reckoned with — and soon imitated. The wall between film and television is quickly disappearing; with his graceful and technically proficient oner, Fukunaga helped morph it from a brick barrier into a chain link fence. 

Shipra Gupta, Editorial Assistant
“Goodfellas” (1990)
In “Goodfellas,” the long take not only reinforces the character building that takes place within the film’s plot, but it also defines Scorsese’s own attitude towards the material he deals with onscreen. Although Scorsese uses the long take more than once over the course of the film, the most iconic use of the technique occurs towards the beginning. In that sequence, Henry is at the top of his game: The camera tracks behind Henry as he leads Karen through a private entrance into an exclusive dinner club, where they are subsequently seated at a table set up specially for them. Even as he greets club employees and acquaintances along the way, Henry never pauses, and neither does the camera. It’s almost as if he has the camera on a leash. The relationship between camera and subject, as generated by the long take, generates an aura of anxiety and suspicion around Henry. Even though you may want to look away — perhaps even look at the scene unfolding before your eyes from a different angle — the camera forbids it. Rather, you must continue to look in the direction that the protagonist is looking, and thereby, begrudgingly assume his point-of-view. And if impressed on you for long enough, you find yourself accepting it — which exactly resembles popular culture’s relationship with the myth of the mafia. 

Michele Debczak, Intern
The Shining” (1980)
In a film with a blood-filled elevator, a decaying granny and an axe-wielding Jack Nicholson, it’s surprising that perhaps the most chilling scene in “The Shining” is also one of its simplest. This long take starts with young Danny Torrence riding his Big Wheel through the abandoned halls of the Overlook Hotel. What’s memorable about this three-minute scene is not how much Kubrick is able to stuff into a single take, but the feeling of seclusion that he creates. The sound of Danny pedaling against the hardwood, punctuated by muffled silences from the carpet, strikes the perfect unsettling tone for the scene. It ends when Danny turns a corner to face the iconic Overlook Twins — guaranteeing a lifetime of nightmares for everyone watching. 


Jake Folsom, Intern
Rope” (1948)

On the whole, Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rope” relies on the long take more heavily than any other movie. Clocking in at 80-minutes long, the murder mystery is composed of just ten takes that range from 7-10 minutes, separated by simple fades, hard cuts and dissolves. Most striking is the transition where Jimmy Stewart’s character throws open a chest containing the evidence, and the camera quickly moves forward and tilts down in to black: Those who haven’t seen the film might expect it to feel like a play, but the structure creates an effect unique unto itself. Below, watch the opening scene from the film (YouTube doesn’t have the transition we highlighted):

Zainab Akande, Intern
Pulp Fiction” (1994)
A scene that stands out for its humorous, crude dialogue also paints itself as visually distinct for its lack of cuts when Vincent (John Travolta) and Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) walk and talk down a lengthy hallway corridor — the proverbial calm before the storm. Shortly after, gratuitous violence follows, in the form of gun shots that follow Brett’s (Frank Whaley) untimely execution for getting on the wrong side of Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames). The long take itself isn’t the longest, but its usage is effective, given that Vincent and Jules’ characters walking just before the showdown is rather easy on the eyes. In turn, it forces the viewer to pay attention to the finer points of the discussion (“But you know, touching his wife’s feet and sticking your tongue in the holiest of holies ain’t the same fucking ballpark,” Jules responds to Vincent), that could have been missed otherwise if any more action made its way into the final cut. 

READ MORE: Michael Keaton and His ‘Birdman’ Crew Reveal Secrets From the Shoot at Awards Luncheon

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