If there’s one thing that can elevate a movie for me, it’s a good long take. But what’s a running take, you ask. Well pull up a chair my pretties, and let uncle Thomas educate you.
Every scene is made up of shots or takes. A running take is a single uninterrupted shot, punctuated by edits at the beginning and end. How long these are depends on the movie and scene. In dramatic scenes, they can last fairly long, lingering on a single shot or on one character while they dramatic monologue, for example.
In action scenes, they tend to be shorter. Especially these days, action scenes are composed of many short shots or takes, sometimes lasting less than a second.
But sometimes, a director decides to shoot a scene or sequence in one long, uninterrupted take. Depending on the complexity of what you’re filming, this can be a logistical nightmare. If one person screws up a line or action, they have to reset and start all over again.
Despite the extreme difficulty involved, some directors like Hitchcock and decide to take up the challenge, creating a massive challenge for cameramen, actors, extras, and the entire crew. This week, I’m saluting some of my favorite long takes and the people who pulled them off.
Hard Boiled: Hospital Shootout
Let it never be said that John Woo’s Hard Boiled is not one of the greatest action movies of all time, and a high point both for Woo and star Chow Yun-Fat. It’s a classic John Woo crime story, with an undercover cop and a loose cannon cop on the edge working to take down a crime boss from inside and outside the organization, all culminating in an intense shoot-out in a hospital.
The centrepiece of this sequence is a long take lasting approximately three minutes and, due to a tight schedule, it could only be attempted once. Luckily, they nailed it.
One fun detail is that at one point the two protagonists enter an elevator to move to the next floor up. The elevator itself didn’t actually move, the crew had about 20 seconds to clean the portion of the set in front of the elevator doors and move furniture to make it look like a different floor.
Tom Yun Goon: The Restaurant Fight
Tom Yun Goon (released in the US as The Protector) was the second feature film of breakout martial arts sensation Tony Jaa. In this scene, Jaa’s character fights his way to the upper floors of a hotel/restaurant run by the men who stole his elephant (yes, that’s the driving force of the film, he wants his elephant back), which is structured like a giant spiral staircase.
The fight lasts about four minutes, and shows off both Jaa’s superb martial arts skills and the skills of director Prachya Pinkaew and fight choreographer Panna Rittikrai. This is some complex martial arts work going on, including bone-breaking pratfalls and stuntwork.
This one sequence took over a month to film and had to be re-started five times.
Children of Men: The Uprising
Alphonso Cuaron’s Children of Men is a study in long takes. Set in a dystopian future where England has become a fascist state and a plague of infertility has reduced birth rates to zero, this film is to long takes what Game of Thrones is to incest.
The takes get longer and more elaborate as the movie goes on, with the highlight being a 6 minute sequence where Clive Owen’s character Theo traverses a slum in the midst of a conflict between soldiers and insurrectionists. The sequence is easily one of the most complex long takes ever, using countless actors and extras, as well as vehicles and pyrotechnics.
An honorable mention goes to another long take shot from inside a car, for which an entirely new camera rig had to be constructed. Also Clive Owen and Julianne Moore play ping-pong with their mouths. Watch the scene, you’ll know what I’m talking about.
Russian Ark: The Whole Damn Movie
Yeah, you read right. The entire movie is one long take. It takes a serious set of stones to even TRY this, and an insane level of technical wizardry to pull off, both of which director Alexandr Sokurov clearly possesses.
The movie is a continuous POV (point of view) shot of a ghost travelling through the Winter Palace of the Hermitage in St. Petersburgh, Russia, as he finds himself interacting with figures from history and literature, such Peter the Great and Tsar Nicholas I.
The film was shot in the Hermitage museum, which could only be shut down for one day, giving the filmmakers a narrow window to work in. During the first few takes, technical problems forced them to start again, but the third attempt was successful. Apparently whenever a small mistake was made, cameraman and cinematographer Tilman Buttner would curse, so the sound had to be altered. Personally I want to hear that audio track. Somehow this film would take on a different quality if a voice from off screen cursed in Russian every once in a while.
I think it goes without saying that this film is an unparallelled achievement in film making, and something that needs to be seen to be believed.