Long takes are continuous shots that last considerably longer than the typical shot in a given historical period. (Although it is easy to confuse long takes with long shots, the terms refer to two different relationships: long takes suggest the duration of a shot, while long shots specify the distance between a figure and the camera.) During the studio era, the average shot in a Hollywood release lasted approximately eight to eleven seconds; since the 1960s faster cutting rates have resulted in shot lengths averaging less than half the studio-era norm. In the absence of editing, long takes tend to use camera movement in combination with sound and mise-en-scène to direct the viewer's attention toward important narrative elements. Tilting, panning, tracking, and craning can create a series of new compositions during a long take in much the same way as editing, but without breaking from a continuous recording of space and time. During the 1940s and 1950s, mainstream directors such as Otto Preminger (1906–1986), Vincente Minnelli (1903–1986), Max Ophüls (1902–1957), and Samuel Fuller (1912–1997) incorporated long takes with camera movement into their visual aesthetic, but since the 1960s extended shot lengths have predominantly been embraced by art cinema directors, such as Theo Angelopoulos (b. 1935), Hou Hsiao-hsien (b. 1947), and Tsai Ming-liang (b. 1957).
A long take can comprise one shot within a scene, the entirety of a scene, or even an entire movie. Long takes with camera movement alter the rhythm of a scene and the presentation of space within it. Most often, directors will vary the lengths of shots within scenes, integrating a lengthy take with close-ups or shot-reverse
From the 1930s through the 1950s, Max Ophüls directed over twenty films in five countries, establishing himself as one of the preeminent visual stylists of his generation. His films are marked by the systematic use of a continuously moving camera that emphasizes the fleeting nature of his characters' romantic dreams.
Although Die Verkaufte Braut ( The Bartered Bride , 1932) contains Ophüls's initial use of elaborate camera movements and deep-space staging, Liebelei (Flirtation, 1933) is commonly recognized as the first fully developed example of his signature style. A tale of a womanizing young officer in turn-of-the-century Vienna who briefly finds true love, the film uses sweeping camera movements and parallel sequences to develop the excitement of courtship and the couple's tragic fate.
After Hitler came to power in 1933, Ophüls fled Germany and began a nomadic existence, eventually landing in Hollywood in 1941. Although he enjoyed working with the skilled technicians and state-of-the-art dollies and cranes available at the studios, Ophüls's fluid long takes challenged classical methods of production when consistently used in place of traditional coverage and close-ups. His wrangling with Columbia executives during the production of The Reckless Moment (1949) inspired the actor James Mason to rhyme:
I think I know the reason why
Producers tend to make him cry.
Inevitably they demand
Some stationary set-ups, and
A shot that does not call for tracks
Is agony for poor dear Max
Who, separated from his dolly,
Is wrapped in deepest melancholy.
Once, when they took away his crane,
I thought he'd never smile again.
In 1949 Ophüls returned to France, where he made his final four films— La Ronde (Roundabout, 1950), Le Plaisir (Pleasure, 1952), Madame de … ( The Earrings of Madame de … , 1953), and Lola Montès (1955)—with a core group of artistic collaborators. Ophüls's intricate use of camera movement and symmetry to develop the short-lived euphoria of love is illustrated in a waltzing scene during Madame de … , when the camera pans and tracks with the heroine and her lover as they dance around columns, statues, and extravagant decor over a series of five nights, each night a new location and orchestra, but the same couple, and the same waltz. The symmetry of action and music and the swirling movement of the camera express the overwhelming joy of the couple, oblivious to all around them. The camera dances with them until, on news of her husband's imminent arrival, it abandons the couple, trailing off to follow a servant who extinguishes the chandelier, foreshadowing their doomed romance. Andrew Sarris and other critics have argued that Ophüls's style visualizes the effects of the inevitable passage of time. As they capture his characters' ill-fated efforts to preserve love, Ophüls's graceful camera movements, long shot lengths, and parallel sequences imbue his films with a defiant romantic spirit and exquisite poignancy.
Die Verkaufte Braut ( The Bartered Bride , 1932), Liebelei (1933), Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), The Reckless Moment (1949), La Ronde (Roundabout, 1950), Le Plaisir (Pleasure, 1952), Madame de … ( The Earrings of Madame de … , 1953), Lola Montés (1955)
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Wexman, Virginia Wright, and Karen Hollinger, eds. Letter from an Unknown Woman, Max Ophüls, Director . New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1986.
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shot sequences. In East of Eden (1955), Elia Kazan (1909–2003) uses camera movement to emphasize the gulf between a father and his unloved son during an intricately choreographed long take. Lasting five times as long as the previous shots, the long take tracks and pans backward as the father walks in the foreground away from the son, leaving the son diminished in the rear of the frame; the father's favored son then enters in the open space between the two men. The camera movement, in combination with the blocking of the actors, creates a physical distance between the father and his unloved son, punctuating their emotional distance and visually expressing the son's isolation.
Camera movement frequently breaks the narrative within a long take into discrete units, distinguishing the various phases of action by creating a series of framings, much like edited shots. In Fuller's Forty Guns (1957), the camera follows the blocking of the actors during a five-minute, forty-six-second shot as they position themselves in successive areas of the set, tracking and reframing to produce twelve distinct compositions in different shot scales. At the beginning of the shot, the camera establishes the space and tracks to frame a couple, Griff (Barry Sullivan) and Jessica (Barbara Stanwyck), sitting at a piano discussing the conflict that divides them; an off-screen crash prompts a fast track forward, marking a narrative shift as the sheriff who loves Jessica barges through the door and brawls with Griff. Subsequent phases of the shot feature the sheriff confessing his love to Jessica, Griff exiting offscreen, and Jessica paying the sheriff to leave. The camera then tracks back to reveal Griff again at the piano; he is subsequently joined by Jessica, who suggests they can forget about the sheriff. As the two begin to kiss, it appears the narrative has come full circle, but an offscreen sound of knocking interrupts their moment of passion. A cut reveals the payoff: the swinging legs of the sheriff, who has hung himself. The extended duration of the long take, the circularity of the camera movement and blocking, and the apparent narrative closure within the shot all make the sudden revelation of the dead sheriff that much more shocking. Camera movement helps to articulate each phase of the narrative action, highlighting the development and resolution of conflict within the scene.
Long takes can also serve a formal function, initiating a pattern at the beginning of a film that is then repeated and varied. Directors may reserve long takes for certain types of scenes or locations, producing an identifiable stylistic motif; examples include the transitional tracking shots in Sans toit ni loi and the slow, unmotivated crane shots that advance from the beach house to the sea throughout Mia aioniotita kai mia mera . A plan-séquence , or sequence shot, is a scene made entirely of one long take. Sequence shots may be varied with scenes that rely heavily on editing so as to encourage comparison and contrast between scenes. Alternatively, sequence shots may form the foundation of the film. Hou Hsiao-hsien organizes Shanghai Hua ( Flowers of Shanghai , 1998) according to sequence shots lasting approximately three minutes each and separated by fades to black; in the sequence shots, the camera roams around a single room, following first one character and then another, positioning the viewer as a distant, objective witness to all that unfolds. When the pattern of fluid, long-take long shots is broken through the use of a quick point-of-view close-up, the close-up carries additional weight. After watching events from a distance, for a moment the viewer is allowed access to a character's direct experience; the significance of the shot then resonates more strongly within the narrative.
Until the end of the twentieth century, constructing an entire feature-length film out of one extended long take was an impossibility, as a 35mm camera could typically hold only about eleven minutes of film. As a result, while Hitchcock sought to give the illusion of filming Rope (1948) in only one shot, he was forced to
The ability of digital video to produce extended shot lengths would very likely have appealed to André Bazin, the first film critic to champion the long take. He celebrated the photographic properties of cinema and the film camera's unique ability to record continuous space and time, thereby revealing the reality of the world in front of the lens. Although he recognized that film could never completely reproduce reality, Bazin argued that technological and stylistic developments could advance the medium closer to that goal. In particular, he embraced the ability of long takes with camera movement, deep space staging, and deep focus cinematography to maintain the spatial and temporal unity of recorded events and make ambiguous the most significant action within the frame. Bazin thus elevated the work of Jean Renoir (1894–1979), William Wyler (1902–1981), and others, who frequently used long takes and attempted to capture the spontaneity, ambiguity, and specificity of reality as it unfolds over time.
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