Many filmmakers treat the shot as an extended unit of expression and composition. Such filmmakers as Orson Welles, Akira Kurosawa, Jean Renoir, and William Wyler favored a practice of working within the boundaries of a single, extended shot (called a long take ), rather than cutting among many camera setups (which is the normative practice in cinema) in creating a scene. At its most extreme form, this practice results in sequence shots , an entire sequence lasting several minutes done as a single, extended shot. The Hungarian filmmaker, Miklós Jancsó ( Red Psalm , 1971), composes his films as a series of sequence shots; a ninety-minute film by Jancso may contain as few as ten shots.
This aesthetic practice emphasizes the structural integrity of a shot with overwhelming expressive force because the shot takes precedence over editing. In Welles's case, the sequence shot may be coupled with deep-focus composition; in Kurosawa's, by a static camera emphasizing the hieratic positioning of the actors; in Renoir's, by a continuously moving camera that fluidly reframes the composition. In each case, the design insists upon the real time that exists within the shot and disengages it from the structured cinematic time of the rest of the film as created through editing.
Admittedly, by the standards of contemporary commercial cinema, filming in long takes is a very deviant practice. Films constructed from montage, from very quick cutting, have become the norm today in commercial cinema. Montage, however, devours the structural integrity of the shot as a unit of meaning that can stand alone. In montage, no shot stands alone; instead, the total gestalt produced by the montage is what counts. The expressive possibilities which the shot enables—extension
It is endangered for yet another reason. As cinema evolves from its photomechanical base in celluloid to a new existence on digital video, shots are no longer strictly required. Shooting on digital video, a filmmaker need never cut. He or she can compose an entire feature film as a single, unbroken shot, as Alexander Sokurov did in Russian Ark (2002).
Until the digital era, films existed as a series of shots because filmmakers had no alternative. They had to cut numerous shots together to make their films because the camera's magazine held a limited amount of footage (generally about ten minutes). This mechanical constraint compelled them to cut, and as film moved toward longer forms early in its history, filmmakers had no choice but to conceive of films as a series of shots created in artful relation to one another. The beauty of cinema lies in this orchestration of expressive design across numerous shots. In this respect, the aesthetics of cinema were rooted in a mechanical constraint. Occasionally, a filmmaker might explore the potential of doing away with shot-by-shot construction. Alfred Hitchcock's Rope (1948) aimed to create the illusion that most of the film was constructed as a single shot. In fact, however, Hitchcock was cutting among numerous shots; he was merely hiding the cuts. As long as it was based in celluloid, feature film required that filmmakers work shot by shot.
As Russian Ark demonstrates, digital video has removed this requirement. On the one hand, the single shot design of Russian Ark is such a flamboyant conception as to represent the apotheosis of the shot. How could a shot ever rise to a more monumental form of expression than here, where Sukorov moves his camera across several centuries of narrative time and orchestrates the movements of 800 actors? Yet, just as montage devours the shot by severely limiting the weight of its expressive design, it turns out that the expansion of its boundaries in Russian Ark produces a similar effect. By eliminating editing altogether, the extreme shot duration made possible by digital video dissolves a powerful source of cinematic design. Removing the alteration of visual expression across shots by removing the edited series, the unbounded shot of digital video loses its identity as a shot. Without boundary there is no essence. The power of the long takes employed by Kurosawa, Welles, and others lies in the way they open up a stylistic alternative in the body of a film whose editing does not rely on extended shots. Virtue lies in contrast. By removing contrast, the unbounded shot of Russian Ark , and its potential in digital cinema generally, poses as severe a threat as montage to the structural integrity of the shot in cinema.
Despite what the digital future promises, the shot as the basic unit of cinema is unlikely to perish. The contrast among shots suspended in series has been, and will likely remain, the key aesthetic experience of the medium.
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