Unlike most cinematic techniques, which aim to portray visual information while hiding the director's hand behind-the-scenes, long takes draw attention to the technical elements at play.
With no cuts to break up the action, long takes must rely on creative camera work––usually tracking shots and pans––to carry viewers through a scene. Long takes can be used to build tension in a dramatic scene or highlight expert choreography in a fight. A well-executed long take often stands out as the highlight of a movie. Here's our list of the five best long takes in cinematic history:
Oldboy - 2003 - Dir: Park Chan-wook
Oldboy - 25:1 Fight Scene (HQ) www.youtube.com
Few fight scenes can hold a candle to Park Chan-wook's master class in choreography that is the hallway fight scene from Oldboy. It's an incredible fight scene because the set-up is so simple. The protagonist, Oh Dae-su, is at one end of a hallway. He wants to reach an elevator on the other side. An army of thugs stand in his way. He has a hammer. The camera tracks horizontally as Oh Dae-su fights his way through the hall. There are no fancy angles and no camera tricks. It's just raw, unbroken choreography from one end of the hall to the other. This is arguably the best fight scene ever committed to film.
Goodfellas - 1990 - Dir: Martin Scorsese
goodfellas Copacabana nightclub www.youtube.com
Scorsese's mobster masterpiece, Goodfellas, opens with Ray Liotta's character, Henry, saying, "From as far back as I can remember, I wanted to be a gangster." Goodfellas is an incredibly violent movie, but in this scene where Henry takes a date to the Copacabana, a bustling club, we see what drove him towards this line of work. There's a line out the door, but he goes right inside through an underground entrance, loops through the kitchen, and gets the best seat in the house. Everyone knows him and respects him. That's what it means to be a gangster to Henry. The single shot highlights the swagger and confidence with which Henry moves through life and the small, specific ways he interacts with people along the way.
Touch of Evil - 1958 - Dir: Orson Welles
Touch of Evil Opening Shot www.youtube.com
Orson Welles was one of the most innovative minds in cinema history, so it should come as no surprise that he experimented with some of the earliest—and still most impressive—long takes. This one from 1958's Touch of Evil has a bomb planted in the trunk of a car. A young couple gets inside, oblivious, as the camera cranes across a U.S./Mexico bordertown. We meet Mike Vargas, a drug enforcement official, as the couple passes him in their car and make their way through the checkpoint onto U.S. soil. Then the car explodes. The long take serves to both establish setting and build tension. It's also very impressive that such a spanning shot could be performed before films were even shot in color.
Children of Men - 2006 - Dir: Alfonso Cuarón
Children of men: Car Scene www.youtube.com
Alfonso Cuarón's post-apocalyptic Children of Men features this incredible long take filmed from inside a car. We stay with the group of protagonists as they hold a light-hearted conversation that gets interrupted by a violent mob attack. The mob kills one of them (Julianne Moore) as the car attempts to reverse. They escape but soon get stopped by the police, leading to another group member (Chiwetel Ejiofor) killing the cops. It's a brutal, disorienting scene, and the long take makes the viewer feel like a member of their group, hanging out in the car with them and trying to make sense of all the carnage.
The Shining - 1980 - Dir: Stanley Kubrick
"The Shining" - steadishot by Garret Brown www.youtube.com
The tricycle scene in The Shining is probably one of the most famous shots in any movie, period. In order to disorient viewers and hammer in the labyrinthine nature of the Overlook Hotel, Kubrick created a rotating set with rooms and corridors that could be moved around at will. We follow Danny as he navigates his tricycle through an inconsistent layout that makes no sense. The longer he rides, the more sure we are that he's about to encounter something awful. So when the twins show up at the end of the hall, it's almost a welcome release of tension. Almost.