There’s a scene in Children of Men that runs us through a war zone with Clive Owen. We hear the sound of a baby crying. We feel gunshots rebound all around us. It’s frightening and thrilling all at once, and its effectiveness is amplified by using a long, continuous take. This technique was used a number of times in the film, and has become a favourite in the toolkit of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, whose credits also include Gravity and the recent Birdman.
So why is the single take so powerful? It’s been around for years, of course. Sometimes it’s a carefully planned, intensely rehearsed setup involving many players, such as seen in musical ensembles. Other times it’s a happy accident. After all, most scenes are filmed in long takes on the day from multiple angles, and later cut and stuck together during editing. So on occasion, a director may not have decided to use one long, un-sliced segment until the post-production process. Both approaches give similar outcomes, though the former tends to be more visual impressive.
Take Gravity as an example. This is a film in which every frame was planned over the course of months, possibly years. Having a single scene, showing just one astronaut floating though space is an impressive feat to achieve with any kind of realism. But showing three actors being flung amidst all kinds of destruction, combining both live action and animated visuals, and maintaining a seventeen minute opening scene without a single visible cut…well that’s just movie magic. This obviously couldn’t have been done if Alfonso Cuaron had decided afterwards that he wanted a single take. Planning was everything here. And the result was probably the most immersive space sequence those of doomed to eternity on earth will ever experience.
There are times, however, when the single take is not the best option available. The top directors know when to use this technique. When you want to add gritty realism to an action sequence (eg. Oldboy), or slowly reveal aspects of a character or a world (eg. Goodfellas), a long take can be amazing. But I’ve seen films, in particular a few shorts, which have used it as a ploy to create an ‘expensive’ look. I’ve even known some filmmakers to use a long take to save time on set, assuming one set-up will take less time than four or five. In reality, the planning that goes into a scene like this is extensive and time consuming. And don’t believe for a second you’ll nail it on the first try. Also, if a certain decision is made to ‘save time’, it’s rarely going to be the best artistic choice.
Oldboy – still images don’t do it justice.
A film that absolutely nailed the long take is Birdman, Lubezki’s latest cinematographic achievement. It’s a bizarre movie, and the story isn’t perfect. It’s not even consistently engaging (I can’t imagine how difficult this would have been to pitch to studios). What this movie had was immersion. With odd characters, and events disconnected from reality, it was necessary to grab the audience from the first frame and not let go. By using a single take for (almost) the entire running time, Birdman absolutely managed to do this.
Lubezki has become the go-to guy for the ‘long take’. And it’s because he doesn’t just hire a steady-cam operator and let them follow the actors. He employs all the devices a cinematographer should, maintaining great framing, lighting and focus while the camera moves. A week after seeing Birdman, I’m still stunned by its visual quality. It managed to break as many rules as it followed, and it did so without ever breaking the wall. The one that makes the viewer remember they’re watching a movie and this is all just pretend.
The big question now…what’s the next challenge? Lubezki is outdoing himself every year. Birdman wasn’t the first film to dedicate its run time to a single take, but it’s the first I’ve seen that didn’t feel forced and unnatural. I’m eager to see what Lubezki manages next. Or could there perhaps be another contender to break new ground here?