The following is the opening shot from Orson Welles’ 1958 film, “Touch of Evil.” You will note that, for three and a half minutes, the camera weaves in and out of traffic at a border station on the US-Mexican border and during this entire time the camera never blinks. Which is to say that this was all shot in one long take.
This is probably the most famous long take in all of cinema. There are numerous others, of course.
Altman’s opening for “The Player” is another one of my favorites, mainly because you get the feeling after seeing it a number of times that Altman is making fun of long takes by using a long take…which is just plain wonderful:
To round out this group I’ll go with Henry Hill’s walk through the Copa in Scorcese’s “Goodfellas:”
There are tons of reasons why these shots are impressive. First, especially for the “Touch of Evil” one, is the technical aspect. Welles shot that in 1958. In 1958 you weren’t supposed to be doing things like that. For most people it wasn’t even possible to do things like that. Welles had to push the limits of all sorts of technology from lighting apparatus to camera cranes to get his shot made. Nowadays the technical aspect gets a bit lost. If you’ve seen Yoda levitate a space ship somehow watching a long dolly tracking shot loses some of its verve. But, still, all shots like these possess an aspect of technological wizardry. Just watch the one from “The Player” and ask yourself how they were holding the camera.
The second thing that’s amazing about long takes is the human element. You get one chance to do everything right. If something goes wrong, somebody flubs a line or somebody misses a mark, then that’s it. You have to cut and start the entire shot over from the beginning. Rumor has it that during the long take in “Goodfellas” Henny Youngman (the last person to have dialogue in the shot) kept messing up his lines. Which is to say that they would shoot the entire thing and then Henny Youngman would mess up and they’d have to redo the whole shebang.
Then again that might be just a rumor.
All of this, though, the choreographing of a long take and and (at least for Welles) getting the lighting and sound correct, all of this really doesn’t mean a whole lot outside of cinema classes except for one very important thing. They work. These shots work. You can marvel at how cool it is that the directors pulled them off but you can also ignore that entirely and the shot still works within the context of the movie. You can debate exactly why they work, whether you want to discuss the narrow hallways that the “Goodfellas” shot leads us though or the pacing set up in “The Player,” the point is these shots add something to the movie as a whole. They aren’t the director just showing off.
Which is why Welles is the king of these things in my mind. The first thing we see in “Touch of Evil” is a bomb getting put into the trunk of a car. Then we have this three minute shot where we’re bouncing through everything, all the while wondering about that bomb, wondering when it’s going to go off and even, at one point, listening to the passenger in the car complaining about some “ticking noise” that she says won’t go away. It builds ridiculous tension and sets up the movie to come amazingly well.
I am, currently, 16,488 words into my next book and I have yet to take a scene break. And while I know the comparison between the written word and film is flawed, it is time to admit to myself that I’m in the midst of a very long take.
And I’m not sure it’s working.
This week I’m going to honestly ask myself if I couldn’t be telling my opening better by putting some section breaks in or if this giant long take following various characters through their day is for real. Because it’s starting to feel silly and I have no real way to get from the scene I’m in to the scene I want to write next without a section break, and if I jump scenes now then I see no reason to bother keeping this up. If I could do the entire opening in one giant scene, yes, that would be something. But if I have to put one break in anywhere I see no reason not to go back and put breaks in everywhere.
And even if I could do it all in one take, so to speak, what I really need to ask myself is, “Does it work?”
Or am I just over complicating things for no good reason?