It’s no spoiler to say the opening shot of “Homecoming” is filmed in one continuous and elaborate long take. Amazon’s upcoming drama series cheekily acknowledges its Hitchcockian secrets from the start, moving from a palm tree within a fishbowl to a fancy therapist’s office within a run-down building. All is revealed via an unedited camera movement, casually yet carefully wandering through the room, stopping to examine Heidi (Julia Roberts) straightening her pencils and greeting Walter (Stephan James) before eventually moving out the window to reveal the dilapidated exterior. It’s clear things are not what they seem.
In just one shot, “Mr. Robot” creator Sam Esmail sets a tone, establishes a theme, and introduces his two main characters. This is the power of a long take, an increasingly popular visual device used to tell TV’s most ambitious stories. But are they really an improvement? What makes for a good long take vs. a bad one?
Those are the questions posed on this week’s Very Good TV Podcast, and while beauty may be in the eye of the long-take beholder, a few recent examples of long takes don’t hold up to close scrutiny. Whether the director fakes a long take by masking cuts, or actually shoots 10 uninterrupted minutes, isn’t material (unless you’re measuring the technical achievement). The sticking point is if a long take is the best choice for a scene and the story surrounding it.
Sometimes called a “one shot,” the camera rolls and things happen in front of it. This demands intricate camera movements, blocking, staging, and plenty of behind-the-scenes complications. Formerly the domain of cinema maestros like Martin Scorsese and Alfonso Cuaron, it’s entered the language of TV storytelling as audience expectations rise, budgets balloon, and technology advances. In the last few weeks, everything from Showtime’s “Kidding” to Netflix’s “Daredevil” have utilized eye-catching long takes — for better and for worse.
Take “Kidding.” Riki Lindhome plays Shaina, a drug addict living in squalor who turns her life around by watching “Mr. Pickles’ Puppet Time.” Shaina is a relatively minor character, so her scene can’t take up five minutes of a 30-minute episode. Episode director Jake Schreier and writer Halley Feiffer constructed a sequence that’s brief (two minutes) but strong: Rather than cut from her inspiration to her newly renovated apartment, they highlight the effort she puts into getting clean. The gradual application, step-by-step changes, and passing of time add value without weighing down pace.
In the video above, you can see how the crew crafted a two-minute long take through a series of stage commands for the camera operator, actors, and crew members. There are wardrobe changes, lighting cues, and more moving props than anyone would want to count. The only constant is Mr. Pickles on the TV screen, showing that throughout all the changes, he was there for Shaina. It’s a beautiful illustration of how the audience can connect with a TV personality, and an eloquent rendering of his consistency in her turbulent life.
Another successful set of long takes arrive in the fifth episode of “The Haunting of Hill House.” Set in two different time periods and utilizing two drastically different settings, casts, and practical effects, Mike Flanagan’s Netflix adaptation hits audiences with a nearly 17-minute long take inside a funeral home before shifting to the haunted house itself for another six-minute shot filled exploding windows, disappearing ghosts, and a cast who knew when to hit their marks.
What’s impressive is how they bolster the storytelling by supporting one another. The first feels like a play, where the actors banter back and forth, revealing hidden feelings and deep-rooted secrets that drive the human drama. Yet the characters don’t notice plenty of creepy stuff going down in the background. Once that scene ends and the next long take begins, the frights are ratcheted up and the family faces an all-out spectral onslaught. Terror builds slowly in one long take and then literally explodes in the next — the two takes compliment one another and ring true to what’s revealed in each.
“Marvel’s Daredevil” is a series that staked its reputation on the long take, but that foundation is as flimsy as Matt Murdock’s left jab. Though the Netflix original earned plenty of giddy publicity for its Season 1 long take, this scene — as well as the latest, longer example from Season 3 — exemplify why long takes can prove unconvincing. Mistakes take you out of the scene, and Matt’s Season 1 phantom punches were did just that. He whiffs repeatedly in his hallway brawl, and an end-over-end closing kick misses his mark so badly the audience can see it — even though their vision is blocked behind his full body.
These issues resurface in Season 3 — a prisoner runs head first into a door when pretending to kick Matt, and our hero “punches” a helmeted guard by reluctantly tapping his face plate — but what makes this take more egregious is its lack of artistry. Season 1 had the foresight to ground its camera in the hallway and use offscreen space for laughs and rising tension, inviting the audience to use their imagination. (Practically, it also gave the actors a chance to reset.) But the dutiful tracking in Season 3 leaves no mystery and, worse yet, slows things way down.
This brings up another problem of modern action sequences. In “Captain America: Civil War,” superhero melees are cut together so fast you could claim that The Rock and Vin Diesel made cameos and no one could say otherwise. They’re disorienting, and that’s the point: The faster the movement, the more intense the feeling (or so proponents argue). Since this style has become predominant, long takes become even more appealing because it lets the audience see everything.
Yet a bunch of brief shots can build a better action scene than one bloated take. A film like “John Wick” doesn’t need flashy cuts because it’s built by an amazing stunt team and a fight choreographer who doubles as a director. Plus, it helps to have short takes so you can actually shoot it a bunch of times and, you know, make sure it looks right.
In the end, all that matters if if the audience believes it. If they’re enamored with the process, or caught up in the whirlwind of the camera, they’re on board and entertained. Some “Daredevil” proponents could argue that with Matt caught in the middle of a prison riot designed to kill him and unable to catch his breath, those agonizing 11 minutes are supposed to feel draining. All that matters is if the viewer is drawn further into the scene, the story, and the shot.
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