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The long take

( via dailyfilmdose )

A little info. on the author of this blog:

Alan Bacchus | Toronto, ON, CA
.: He is a Toronto-based filmmaker, critic and writer. In addition to his blog, he has produced and directed several films.

The Greatest Long Tracking Shots in Cinema

PLEASE NOTE: I’m making edits and amendments to the list. Please see the bottom, for some of your additions which have been kindly forwarded to me in the comments. I’m only adding films that have youtube clips, so please send me those links. Thanks.

In a director’s cinematic bag of tricks the long tracking shot is the boldest way of making a statement. It’s the flashiest and most attention-grabbing egotistical way of flexing one’s muscle. In most cases it’s a narcissistic maneuver, “look-at-me” filming technique, but rare ones, the best ones, serve to reflect and further the story in a way that can’t be reflected with traditional editing.

Let’s examine specifically the long ‘tracking’ take which involves extensive and complicated movements of the camera. The fact is filmmakers have been doing long takes since the medium was invented. In fact the first films didn’t have any edits. Perhaps the first most notable film to use long unedited takes for storytelling purposes was Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rope” (1948) which was an entire film shot in real time created by seamless cutting together a series of long 8-10 mins shots made to look like one. In 1948 it was a bold and unprecedented experiment for Hitchcock. The film works because its takes place entirely in one room for 80 minutes, so there was limited movement and lighting changes.

The difficulty arises when the camera is forced to move which complicates the logistics ie. Focus changes, lighting changes and hiding production equipment. And so perhaps the first true, universally-accepted “long tracking shot” is Orson Welles’ opening shot in “Touch of Evil” (1958). This shot was a large step up from Hitchcock’s experiment because of the extensive movement of the camera. Let’s start the list with this masterful one:

Touch of Evil (1958) – The Opening Shot – dir. Orson Welles

This shot is perhaps the greatest, because it actually has a specific purpose to its length. The shot starts on a bomb being placed in the trunk of a car. The camera follows the car into the street. As the camera moves back we pickup Charlton Heston walking with his date. Though we’re concentrating on Heston, subliminally, as the audience, the bomb is still in our minds. The sheer length of the take heightens the tension for the payoff at the end. It’s important to note that on its first release Universal placed the opening credits over the shot, which severely retracted from its power and suspense. In a later re-release Welles original intention of the scene was re-instated.


Goodfellas (1990) – The Copacabana – dir. Martin Scorsese

The other granddaddy of the long tracking shot is Ray Liotta and Lorraine Bracco’s walk through the Copacabana in “Goodfellas”. This shot’s serves to put the audience in the point of view of Karen, who is about to be swept off her feet by the temptation of the gangster lifestyle. This introduction to Henry’s world will counterpoint their eventual downfall later in the film. The movement of the camera through the tight spaces and long corridors while maintaining constant dialogue makes this shot an impressive maneuver and a benchmark in cinema.


Boogie Nights (1997) – The Opening Shot in the Club – dir. Paul Thomas Anderson

All of PT Anderson’s films have a bit (sometimes a lot) of Martin Scorsese in them. Boogie Nights is no exception. The opening shot which starts on a marquee and moves down the street and into a 70’s disco serves to introduce to us the ensemble characters. The shot ends on Mark Wahlberg moving in slo-motion triumphantly introducing Anderson’s star character. As a side note, it was rumoured PT Anderson specifically started the shot on the marquee which reads the title of the movie, to make it impossible for the studio to re-title the movie, which was done with his first film – “Hard Eight” (aka “Sydney”).


Raging Bull (1980) – Pesci and De Niro Walking to the Fight – dir. Martin Scorsese

No youtube clips are online yet for this shot, so I’ll describe it. Starting on Jake La Motta and his brother exiting their dressing room the camera follows them down the hall to the arena, where La Motta is to face the Middleweight Champion for the first time. The shot starts in front the brothers as they make their way through the winding corridors and tunnels, then the camera moves in behind as they enter the arena. As they make their way through the cheering crowd and into the ring, the camera lifts in the air to capture the entire arena in a wide shot. In 1980 the steadycam was a new invention, but Scorsese obviously used it to its full potential as soon as he could get his hands on it. This great shot serves the story because it highlights the greatest moment for La Motta – the fight which won him the Middleweight belt.

Oldboy (2003) – The Fight with the Hammer – dir. Chan Wook Park

Perhaps not grandiose in its flare or style – the camera only moves back and forth on one axis – but the impact of the action on screen is awe-inspiring. Fight scenes are usually choreographed around the camera so the punches, kicks and falls appear real and violent. But in one majestic tracking shot Chan Wook Park puts to shame most other fight scenes. It’s a dozen baddies with just one guy, one shot… and one hammer.

BTW: The actual long shot doesn’t start until the 30 sec mark of this clip:


The Player (1992) – The Opening Shot – dir. Robert Altman

Another one of the greats. Altman was actually sending up, or paying homage to “Touch of Evil” and actually references it in the dialogue. The shot takes place entirely outside on the grounds of a Hollywood studio. The camera tracks, and picks up pieces of conversation from several characters, all setting up and providing the backstory for the film. Altman innovatively overlaps the conversations as he moves from one conversation to the next. He frames the star, Tim Robbins, in an awkward shot through an obscured window to his office. Robbins, as Griffin Mill, is taking a pitch from Buck Henry (writer of “The Graduate”) for “The Graduate 2”. Simply hilarious.


Magnolia (1999) – Entering the Studio – dir. Paul Thomas Anderson

This shot doesn’t quite have the dramatic impact of “Touch of Evil”, “Goodfellas,” or even “Boogie Nights”, but it’s still a marvel. Anderson combines the techniques of Scorsese and Altman to create a dizzying tour of the television studio where much of the drama will go down. It’s raining and Stanley Spector and his dad are late for their game show taping. It’s a tense sequence which moves at a quick pace with much help from Jon Brion’s hypnotic music cue.

Complete list here >

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Filed under: art, films

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