Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The lost art of the extended take

with 8 comments

Karen Allen in Raiders of the Lost Ark

For Christmas, I got my wife a copy of The Wes Anderson Collection by Matt Zoller Seitz, which is one of those ideal presents that the giver buys for the recipient because he secretly wants it for himself—I’ve spent at least as much time browsing through it as she has. It’s a beautiful book of interviews with a fascinating subject, and I suspect that it will provide a lot of material for this blog. Today, though, I’d like to focus on one short exchange, which occurs during a discussion of Anderson’s use of extended tracking shots. Seitz points to the drinking contest in Raiders of the Lost Ark as an example of a great director subtly shooting a long scene in a single take without cuts, and shrewdly notes that our knowledge that the action is unfolding in real time subliminally increases the suspense. Anderson agrees: “You’re not only waiting to see who’s going to get knocked out with the liquor; you’re waiting to see who’s going to screw up the take.” Elsewhere, Seitz has written of how the way the scene was shot adds “a second, subtle layer of tension to an already snappy scene…our subliminal awareness that we’re seeing a filmed live performance, and our sporting interest in seeing how long they can keep it going.”

This is a beautiful notion, because it exemplifies a quality that many of my favorite films share: the fictional story that the movie is telling shades imperceptibly into the factual story of how the movie itself was made, which unfolds in parallel to the main action, both invisibly and right in front of our eyes. It’s something like Truffaut’s statement that a movie should simultaneously express “an idea of life and an idea of cinema,” but it’s less about any specific philosophical idea than a sense that the narrative that the movie presents to us is a metaphor for its own creation. We see this in a movie like Citizen Kane, in which it’s hard not to read the youthful excitement of Kane’s early days at the Inquirer as a portrait of Orson Welles arriving on the RKO lot, and its later, disillusioned passages as a weird prefiguring of what would happen to Welles decades down the line; or even a movie like Inception, in which the roles of the participants in the mind heist correspond to those of the team behind the camera—the director, the producer, the production designer—and the star looks a little like Chris Nolan himself. (Someone, possibly me, should really make a slideshow on how directors tend to cast leading roles with their own doubles, as Anderson often does as well.)


And the ultimate expression of the marriage between the filmed story and the story of its creation is the extended shot. It’s a moment in which the movie we’re watching fuses uncannily with its own behind-the-scenes documentary: for a minute or two, we’re on the set, watching the action at the director’s side, and the result is charged with the excitement of live performance. If every cut, as Godard says, is a lie, a continuous take brings us as close to the truth—or at least to a clever simulacrum of it—as the movies can manage. It doesn’t need to be overtly flashy, either: I’ve never seen a better use of an extended take than in the party scene in 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, in which the camera remains stationary for an entire reel. But there’s also a childlike pleasure in seeing filmmakers taking a big risk and getting away with it. You see this in the massively choreographed long takes, involving dozens or hundreds of players, in movies as different as Absolute Beginners, Boogie Nights, and Hard BoiledAnd if the hallway fight in Inception ranks among the most thrilling sequences of the decade, it’s because we’re witnessing something astonishing as it must have appeared that day on the set, with Joseph Gordon-Levitt getting battered by the walls of that rotating corridor.

So it’s worth taking a moment to remember that it’s not the long take itself that matters, but the fact that it puts us in the filmmaker’s shoes, which we lose when an extended take is the result of digital trickery. I’m as big a fan as any of the opening shot of Gravity, which recently made my updated list of the greatest movie openings of all time, but there’s no escaping the fact that we’re seeing something that has been invisibly stitched together over many different days of filming, and nearly everything in sight has been constructed through visual effects. This doesn’t make it any less miraculous: along with Life of Pi, it marks a turning point, at least for me, in which digital effects finally live up to their promise of giving us something that can’t be distinguished from reality. But it’s a triumph of vision, planning, and conceptual audacity, without the extra frisson that arises from the sustained tightrope act of an extended shot done in the camera. As time goes by, it will become easier to create this sort of effect from multiple takes, as Cuarón himself did so brilliantly in Children of Men. But it can’t compare to the conspiratorial tension we get from a true tracking shot, done with the full possibility of a disastrous mistake, in which the movies, so often crafted from tricks and illusions, really do seem to defy gravity.

Written by nevalalee

December 26, 2013 at 9:10 am

8 Responses

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  1. Nice post and blog.

    If there is any chance you like films from around the world from any period please check out my blog.


    December 26, 2013 at 9:44 am

  2. Thanks—glad you liked it!


    December 27, 2013 at 9:20 am

  3. I noticed you included the opening sequence from Contact in your earlier list. Contact is actually my single favorite film of all time, as odd a choice as I’m often told it is, and I could probably start my own blog for the sole purpose of explaining why I think it’s among the most underrated in history (to say nothing of how remarkably well it’s aged over the last 15 years).

    I bring it up because Contact’s opening, despite being totally contrary to your examples, compliments your point. I think it’s one of the rare cases in which a VFX shot—in fact a *pure* VFX shot—can convey the same kind of vulnerability and intimacy as the strictly in-camera shots you mentioned. If anything, the impossible nature of the sequence allows the audience to dismiss any cynicism that might accompany the fact that it’s entirely digital.

    And the simplest creative decision of all, the agonizing silence that follows the garbled roar of Third Eye Blind, Spice Girls and the theme to Seinfeld, and refuses to let up for what feels like minutes on end, is ultimately what delivers the brunt of its impact. What we’re left with, ironically, is an entirely synthetic intro that’s as natural a summary of Carl Sagan’s intent as both a writer and an educator as any other moment in the film (or novel).

    Alex Varanese

    December 27, 2013 at 10:14 pm

  4. It’s one of my personal favorites, too! I can quibble with some of the human drama, but it’s still a remarkably intelligent, visionary, exciting movie—I could watch the opening shot or the wormhole sequence any day of the week. It’s one of the few science-fiction films since 2001 to generate a true sense of awe.


    December 28, 2013 at 12:44 pm

  5. Is there a one-take movie that really works? I’m not widely enough … uh … read (watched?) in movies, and the only one I know is Russian Ark, which used a bit of tech to play with an authentic single take. I liked it, but the knowledge in advance that it was a single take was too much in the front of my mind and got between me and the narrative. I agree about your comments on the long take adding suspense — in the well-known opening scene of The Player, in the long take during which long takes are discucussed, when the camera pans down and looks at the paper on the ground for a moment, there is a visible jump where clearly there was a cut we were (I assume) not supposed to notice, and it sort of kills part of the point of the scene. Or maybe I missed something.


    December 29, 2013 at 4:26 pm

  6. On an unrelated note, by the way, I was in Castro Valley for the holidays and pulled into a parking spot across the street from The Village where I noticed that a shop owner had posted three printouts of your book covers in their window. I assumed you either know someone who owns the place, or your publisher has an EXTREMELY granular marketing strategy. In any case I thought it was a funny coincidence worth passing along.

    Alex Varanese

    December 29, 2013 at 8:56 pm

  7. @Darren: I’ve seen Russian Ark and Rope—which actually contains several visible cuts—and I enjoyed both more on their technical merits than for their storytelling. And I haven’t heard great things about Silent House, which is the most recent attempt to do the same thing. (I’ve always wanted to write a heist movie that would take place in a single uninterrupted take, but the format might be inherently unworkable: it just robs filmmakers of too many of the tools they need.)

    @Alex: I do know the owners—they’re my parents!


    December 29, 2013 at 10:23 pm

  8. which scenes were stitched together in children of men? i distinctly remember watching that movie and a couple times suddenly realizing “wait, i haven’t seen a cut in a while.” so either cuaron’s craft was good enough to truly fool me into seeing an extended take, or even the components that were stitched together were themselves longer than the usual jump cuts we’re all used to now.


    December 31, 2013 at 12:06 am

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