The Good and Bad of Long Takes

As the popularity of long takes increases, the quality begins to decrease. So, what makes this technique good, and what makes it bad?
By  · Published on July 27th, 2017

As the popularity of long takes increases, the quality begins to decrease. So, what makes this technique good, and what makes it bad?

More and more, film directors are taking advantage of the long take technique in their films. The long take, or one-take shot, is a technique where a director will film a scene with no cuts in the camera movement, so it seems like the camera is continuously rolling. Most directors will achieve this with secret cuts, such as something being thrown at the camera or a sudden pan to another part of the set. Usually, these shots run for over 90 seconds without a cut, but it varies from film to film.

Atomic Blonde, the spy action thriller starring Charlize Theron, is the most recent film to rely on this technique. Many action films use the long take as a way to authenticate a fight sequence. By using the long take, it seems like the camera is tracking a fight sequence for an extended period of time without breaking, making the actors and stunt people look more impressive.

In two of the scenes, this pays off in Atomic Blonde. The action is fantastic and allows the audience to really appreciate the fight choreography. But other attempts revealed errors that ultimately hurt the action. There was even one scene where the audience was laughing at the action. The take was so long the action turned comedic when it was supposed to be a key battle. This is why it’s important to know what makes a long take. To help show the differences, here are a few tips on how to properly do a long take, with good and bad examples.

Know when to cut

Starting off this list is the most obvious piece of advice. The point of the long take is to show off the action in a continuous fashion. But, the action can only last so long before it either ends or gets repetitive. The long take becomes a waste of time if there’s nothing keeping viewers entertained in the scene.

Good Example: Oldboy (2003)

The hallway scene from Oldboy offers over two minutes of action, with protagonist Oh Dae-su taking on a large group of foes. You have enough action to keep you enticed for the time of the shot, but after the action ends, it cuts away to a close-up of Dae-su and ends the long take. This shot comes to entertain but doesn’t overstay its welcome, like a good long take should.

Bad Example: The Protector (2005)

In this specific scene, the fights get repetitive by the time you hit the 2-minute mark and there’s still 90 seconds after that. Though the fight after this in the restaurant is beautifully choreographed, these fights leave the audience looking for originality. At that point, this shot starts to feel like a Super Mario level where you have to beat all the Goombas to get to the end of the level.

Hide your cuts

As said in the opening, the majority of directors pull off their long takes by cutting together scenes to make it feel like one coherent entity. It’s not the easiest thing in the world to blend takes together, but it can be done properly. It can also be done incorrectly if you’re not paying attention.

Good Example: Children of Men (2006)

Though a bit different than a hand to hand combat scene, the action in this scene from Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men feels like it has no end, as the cuts are seamlessly turned into pans as each piece of the action unfolds. From the fiery car rolling out to the road, to Julian being shot by the gang, to Luke murdering those police officers, it’s hard to believe this isn’t one take, and just cuts mashed together.

Bad Example: Kingsman: The Secret Service (2015)

Eddie Hamilton and Jon Harris get major props for how they put this scene together, but they were a bit too careless while editing the famous church sequence. There are at least 23 cuts in the scene, which led to several continuity errors in said cuts. Even with the amount of chaos, it could look more organized than it does.

Add some camera movement

For once, shaky camera shots are your friend! Because of the lack of cuts, long takes can feel plain if you opt for a steady cam shot instead. By choosing a tracking or shaky cam shot, you add more movement to the shot, keeping the action more lively.

Good Example: Hard Boiled (1992)

The camera dollies as the actors move backward or forward, shaking with each gunshot and explosion. How much more synchronized do you want your camera movement? The camera and the action dance with each other and create this rhythmic action sequence that doubles as a great long take.

Bad Example: Kung Fury (2015)

The camera moves on its own schedule and not with the action. It’s easy to lose interest, as the camera will sometimes follow Kung Fury, but then stay still as he continues to move towards the edge of the frame. Even the little bit of shaky camera doesn’t make sense with the scene and leaves the viewer wanting more out of this fight scene.

Directors use techniques like the long take to impress the audience with their skills and storytelling technique. By improperly using the technique, it takes away from the film and makes it harder to keep the audience focused. But, with the right skills and using these tips, a long take offers a unique experience in the film and takes audiences on a ride.

Usually works best after her third Red Bull of the day. Lover of film, insomniatic dreamer.