Keep it Rolling – The Art of the Unbroken Long Take Shot

michael keaton birdman

Recently I went to see a new film called Birdman: or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), directed by Mexican auteur Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (21 Grams, Babel) and starring Michael Keaton, who of course is best known for playing the role of Batman back in the 80’s.  The film was absolutely outstanding and will probably be near or at the top of my best of  the year list.  But, as I was watching the film, I was struck by not just the story, which cleverly derives from Keaton’s own career as an actor trying to move on after playing a famous superhero on film, but also by the technical wizardry involved in it’s making.  The film is low key and features very little in the way of visual effects, but what it does feature is some truly awe-inspiring camera work.  While not apparent in the trailer, what you’ll soon discover watching the movie Birdman is that it makes extensive use of the technique of long, unbroken takes.  In fact, the entire film is made up of long takes, stitched together so brilliantly that you’ll almost think that the whole thing was made in one two hour long continuous shot.  It’s a remarkable visual experience and it perfectly compliments the story being told, which centers around a group of actors led by Keaton’s Riggan Thompson as they put together a new play on Broadway.  Stage actors of course must put on a performance live without cuts or retakes, so a movie that let’s the cameras keep rolling reflects that same style in the best possible way.  It may not seem like a difficult thing, especially when applied to a modest budgeted movie like Birdman, but anyone who works in film will tell you just how extremely difficult this kind of technique is, because it’s time consuming and it requires a lot of things to go right all at once.  Still, it is a favorite technique for many filmmakers to undertake and an even better experience for audiences to enjoy.

The reason why the technique is such a difficult one to pull off is because of the amount of choreography that needs to happen.  It may look effortless on the screen, but what the audience doesn’t see is the stress that a long take puts on the crew and the cast.  Actors must hold their composure and hit their marks exactly so as to keep up with the pace of the camera movements.  If they are thrown off by anything, like an extra getting in their way, or suddenly forgetting their line or start to laugh uncontrollably, then the set-up must go back to square one to reset.  And every time the shot resets, it puts more strain on the crew who are trying their hardest to keep the shot running smoothly.  Imagine being the cameraman through all of this, as you have to carry heavy gear on your back and you’re also under the pressure of keeping everything in frame for an extended amount of time.  Because of the extensive amount of movement involved, most long takes are usually handheld.  And when the camera is being carried around the set, it puts more stress on the crew to stay hidden as the scene plays out.  Needless to say, there’s a lot that could go wrong while composing the scene.  Usually a lot of rehearsal is needed to pull these shots off, and when it works, it looks spectacular.  There are risks involved, however, such as the technique appearing pretentious if the material it is trying to present is not all that interesting.  That and a poorly choreographed and composed shot may just end up boring the audience rather than exhilarating them.  Thankfully Innaritu is a capable and experienced enough filmmaker to pull off the technique of long takes, and his work in  Birdman represents a great addition to a long tradition.

The technique of long takes extends back to the early days of cinema.  Buster Keaton would let his cameras roll for protracted amounts of time in order to get those amazing stunts of his fully covered.  Similar to what Innaritu does with his shots in Birdman, Buster Keaton would stitch together different shots in a way to give the illusion that everything was done in one take, which was used spectacularly in the dream sequence of Sherlock Jr. (1924).  Beyond the silent era, long takes became less commonplace, although film editing in that same period was more relaxed than it is today.  Today’s quick paced, music video style editing is markedly different than the style of Hollywood’s Golden Age, which is probably why long takes stand out so much today.  Back then, movies would play out a scene with stage-like steadiness, relying less on close-ups and fast-paced editing and letting the actors and dialogue guide the action instead.  But even with the more relaxed editing style of the period, there were some filmmakers who enjoyed making elaborate long take shots for their movies.  Probably the most famous example would be the opening shot of Orson Welles’ 1958 masterpiece Touch of Evil.  The movie opens on the image of a criminal carrying a makeshift bomb, and then pulls out to reveal the criminal running through a parking lot.  The camera then swoops across the rooftops and drops down onto a street full of pedestrians.  Once there, the camera then zooms in on our main characters (played by Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh) as they are walking down the street.  A moment later, the car carrying the bomb passes by them.  The two characters stop for a moment to kiss, but are interrupted by the blast of an explosion.  It’s at that point that the movie sees it’s first cut to another shot, which is remarkable considering all the activity that we saw in the previous shot.  It’s an amazing, groundbreaking shot that has continued to influence filmmakers to this day.

Long take shots matured in the decades since Welles, and were particularly popular with filmmakers from overseas.  The long take became a popular technique for the Kung Fu genre in Asian cinema.  Naturally, Kung Fu films wanted to showcase the amazing stunt work of their actors, so letting the cameras roll without cutting the action was the best way to present that.  This is true with a lot of Jackie Chan movies from the 80’s and 90’s.  By letting the action play out, Jackie Chan was better able to convince audiences that he was the real deal as the scenes progressively became more and more elaborate as they went along.  This tradition of long, unbroken takes in Kung Fu and martial arts movies continues to this day, with recent classics like Oldboy (2003) and The Raid: Redemption (2011).  One particular director who put his own noteworthy stamp on the technique at this time was Chinese director John Woo.  While more of an action film director than a martial arts director, Woo managed to be influenced by the films of this genre as he prepared some of the more elaborate scenes in his movies.  Probably his most famous long take is the amazing Hospital scene from the movie Hard Boiled (1992).  Although only 3 minutes in total length, this spectacular scene involves so many technical effects and precisely timed stunts that it is a wonder to behold as it plays out.  There’s even a moment where the film’s star Chow Yun-Fat enters an elevator and proceeds to continue his shootout on the next floor without interruption.  This was accomplished through a rapid fire redress of the same set that you don’t see on screen.  It just shows how some filmmakers have managed to push the technique farther than ever before and continue to raise the bar.

Today, that bar has been raised to the point where long shot takes no longer have to be complex, they have to be spectacular.  In many ways, it has turned into the ultimate challenge for directors, and only the boldest ones out there are willing to take the plunge.  Thankfully, today the tools needed to pull off the process have become less cumbersome.  Digital cameras are much lighter than their film based fore-bearers, and are less distracting to the actors as well.  Stanley Kubrick brought the Steadicam into the film-making process, when he employed it on The Shining (1980), which made it easier to follow the action on foot without having to hide any of the wiring and heavy equipment attached to the camera.  This was used to great effect with the scenes showing young Danny Torrance riding his tricycle through the Overlook Hotel’s long hallways.  Also, digital manipulation has helped to mask some of the imperfections of lengthy one-shot takes, and even gives the audience the illusion of a long take when it really isn’t one.  Alejandro Innarritu’s friend and colleague Alfonso Cuaron has included many such long takes in his movies, and often they are so complex that there’s no way to make them workable without digital reinforcement.  This is true with scenes from some of Alfonso’s most spectacular films like the Time Turner sequence in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004) or the amazing 12-minute opening shot of Gravity (2013).  Both of those moments called for digital enhancement, because there was no way they could be done in reality, and yet they still look like a seamless one-shot take.  It’s a brilliant example of how to make the technique work today with new technologies and still feel like they’re worthy of the legacy.

That’s not to say that every long take shot needs to be full of energy and movement.  Sometimes the most captivating long takes are ones that just lets the action play out in real time, helping to absorb the audience into the scene and forget that they are watching a movie.  Many indie filmmakers are particularly fond of this kind of technique.  Paul Thomas Anderson in particular has made great use of the long take in his films, which he frequently uses as a way to establish a setting or a character in the most elaborate way possible.  And for Anderson, the artistry is not in the way that the camera is moving, but what is captured in the frame that matters.  You look at the long shots from movies like Boogie Nights (1997) or Punch Drunk Love (2002) and you can see all the intricate detail that’s put into the characters actions on the screen, even sometimes when it’s something they are doing in the background.  Quentin Tarantino also lets his scenes play out as a way to build character and mood, like the spectacular long take of Leonardo DiCaprio’s dinner scene monologue in Django Unchained (2012).  But one of the most amazingly restrained examples of a long take shot that I’ve ever seen in a movie was in the film Hunger (2008), directed by Steve McQueen of 12 Years a Slave fame.  In it, there is a scene where Irish activist Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) is visited in prison by his priest (Liam Cunningham) during a hunger strike.  The two men sit down for a conversation that lasts over 10 minutes and the shot is from a wide angle, with both actors occupying either side of the frame.  Amazingly, the camera holds on this wide shot for the entire scene (all 10 minutes of it) and never cuts to a close-up.  This could have failed if the dialogue wasn’t interesting, but both actors feel so natural and the lines they deliver are so well written that the moment ends up being captivating.  It’s remarkable that an un-moving camera can have such a captivating effect, but director McQueen pulled it off.

There are many ways to make the technique of unbroken long takes work in a film, and the amazing thing is how many different ways it can work.  Pretty much, you can put the technique into any film and any scene and it would still work; it’s not about where you place it, it’s just how well you execute it.  Sometimes, when a long take becomes your signature style, it’ll end up finding it’s way into any story you wish to tell.  That has been true with British director Joe Wright, who has managed to put at least one long take into each of his movies, which range from adaptations of classic romance like Pride and Prejudice (2005) and Anna Karenina (2012) to action flicks like Hanna (2011).  Probably his most famous long take shot was in the movie Atonement (2007), which was a 6 1/2 minute trek along a war torn beach, featuring several vignettes of action played out in front of the camera as it passes by.  That spectacular shot had to involve months of planning to pull off as the action pieces needed to happen at precisely the right moment in order to make it into the shot.  Alfonso Cuaron also has made the technique part of his signature style.  His most famous example of the technique is probably the 4 minute shot inside of a moving car in the movie Children of Men  (2006), which was accomplished with a specialty rig built on the roof of the vehicle and was done with almost no digital manipulation.  Cuaron continued to build upon his already amazing camerawork in that film when he made the spectacular Gravity last year, which features some amazing shots that continue on for nearly 10 minutes in length apiece.  That spectacular camerawork earned both him and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki well deserved Oscars, showing that techniques like the long, unbroken take can help to gain a skilled filmmaker the notoriety that they deserve.

Indeed, if I were to point to a film technique that I enjoy the best, it would be the long, unbroken take.  There is just something purely cinematic about it.  It displays what I think is the pinnacle of cinematic artistry, because it requires so much work, patience, and skill to pull it off.  And thankfully, with film-making tools becoming much more reliable and less cumbersome than in years past, more filmmakers are gaining the confidence towards wanting to try their own take on these shots.  This technique is even making it’s way to television, as was witnessed with an amazingly well choreographed long take shot seen in an episode of HBO’s True Detective.  Hopefully, more filmmakers look at these amazing scenes in movies and become inspired to include them more often in the years ahead.  It certainly works more effectively than the fast paced editing that you see in movies nowadays.  For one thing, I was certainly glad to have witnessed a movie like Birdman which not only made use of the long take technique, but crafted the entire film around it.  Some of it was done through clever editing or unobtrusive visual manipulation, but you can tell that there were many parts of the movie that had to have been done purely without cutting the shot.  Probably the most spectacular one would be a scene where Michael Keaton’s character is accidentally locked out of the theater while still in his underwear.  In order to get back in to perform his scene on time, Keaton  runs around the building, crossing through traffic in a busy Times Square atmosphere, and reenters through the front lobby.  In all, the shot I would estimate is ten minutes long, and considering all the mayhem he and the crew would’ve had to cross in order to get that shot done right, the end result is incredibly impressive.  The whole movie is a brilliant showcase for the long take technique and I’m sure everyone who sees it will be just as engrossed as I was.  It’s amazing to think that fewer edits in a movie can make it more harrowing, but this is proof that it’s possible.