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This Study of Steven Spielberg's Cinematography Can Help You Master the Long Take

Steven SpielbergWhen you think of the most iconic long takes in cinematic history, what comes to mind? The car bomb scene in Touch of Evil? The Copacabana scene in Goodfellas? The car scene from Children of Men? There are definitely countless ones out there, and some directors have turned the long take into an art form with which to flex their cinematic muscles. One director, however, has quietly made the long take one of his signature moves, so quietly, in fact, that he may have flown under the radar to most — and he just so happens to be one of the most well-known directors of all time: Steven Spielberg. Check out this excellent video essay that studies the subtle way Spielberg approaches his “oners,” and find out how you can implement some of his techniques in your own films.

A long take, or “oner,” is simply a shot that doesn’t cut away to other shots — they’re continuous, usually following the action of the scene as it plays out in real-time. In the early years of cinema, it was normal to shoot this way — most shots were at least 30 seconds long, many were longer. As cinema matured, the way films were made changed; cinematography became more complex, editing got much more rapid. So, the long take became a stylistic badge of honor for filmmakers wanting to prove their mettle. Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, Andrei Tarkovsky, and François Truffaut are just a few directors who are known for their long takes — we’ve even seen a resurgence of the utilization of this shot with contemporary filmmakers, like Wes Anderson, Paul Thomas Anderson, and probably most notably, Alfonso Cuarón.

However, the difference between these filmmakers and Spielberg, a concept pointed out by Tony Zhou, the creator of The Spielberg Oner: One Scene, One Shot, is that while many of these directors peacock these shots, making them highly stylized as to call attention to them, Spielberg, for the most part, takes a more subtle approach. As you’ll see in the video below, Spielberg disguises these long takes in a number of ways, allowing audiences to become immersed in the dramatic energy of the scene without feeling the kinetic energy of the camera.

Check out the video essay below:

If you’re a filmmaker who has a newfound desire to include some 3-minute long takes in your next film, you may want to study Spielberg’s oners in their entirety. In the video above, Zhou provided some great commentary on the director’s approach to capturing longer takes and what motivated his camera movements, but he also made two videos that exhibit 20 Spielberg oners in their entirety. Check them out below, and pay close attention to when and how the camera moves — how he transitions into different kinds of shots (LS, MS, CU, etc.). Also, if you think you’d benefit from seeing how a contemporary crew pulls it off, check out some behind the scenes footage of how the crew on True Detective shot such a scene from an episode in Season 1.

Do you implement many long takes in your work? How do you plan, choreograph, and light for these types of shots? What is your favorite long take? (Mine is the funeral scene from Soy Cuba – absolutely stunning.)

[via Tony Zhou & Cinephilia and Beyond]


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  • I have to say I love the Oner and it will always find a place in my films. What I take from the videos is, that the Oner indeed must not be boring, but kept interesting and moving.

    thanks nofilmschool

    • Sorry, I forgot to answer the actual question.
      For our Oners, we almost always use a dolly. In our latest short, Road we used the Pantehr Husky Dolly with jib. This is a very heavy dolly and therefore has super-smooth movements. We firstly sketch out, what movements we want and then light the entire scene so, that there will be no lights in the way. This can be a pain, but isSorry, I forgot to answer the actual question.
      For our Oners, we almost always use a dolly. In our latest short, Road we used the Pantehr Husky Dolly with jib. This is a very heavy dolly and therefore has super-smooth movements. We firstly sketch out, what movements we want and then light the entire scene so, that there will be no lights in the way. This can be a pain, but is definitely possible.
      We had a street scene, where we used walkie talkies to choreograph the cars passing by. All I can say is that everything is possible with enough planning and practice.

      I can’t really say I have a favorite long take. Children of Men is of course amazing in long takes. My favorite long-take-movie though is Rope.

      - carlo definitely possible.
      We had a street scene, where we used walkie talkies to choreograph the cars passing by. All I can say is that everything is possible with enough planning and practice.

      I can’t really say I have a favorite long take. Touch Of Evil, Children Of Men, Rope and 12 Angry Men all come to mind when thinking about long takes. What definitely rocked my world was the first long take in Touch of Evil. That’s about 200 people doing stuff in that scene.

      - carlo

  • For me, you have to way up the practical considerations of your schedule vs the impact of the oner. I absolutely love the tension you create within an audience and a crew when you place that kind of pressure on the, the ability to draw a line through multiple elemnts of human experience in the most direct way. They can be unbelievably powerful. But man are they a bitch to rehearse, shoot and get right. You almost always end up with imperfections all over the place and it’s that sound moment in the edit when you realise you’ve sacrificed clarity and impact for flair. Big fan, it’s a lovely challenge for crew and cast.

    When you think that Russian Arc is a feature length one take the mind just boggles.

  • For one of my shorts, since it fits the main character, I wanted to tell the story in just one shot. And so we did. The short takes just under 12 minutes and is one take in a public place (subway station), with two characters talking to each other all the time, while walking through a parking lot into the subway station, down two levels … and up again. I am in absolute awe for those who can do this for 90′ since it took a hell of preparation from all involved, but the result is beautiful, if I say so myself. CHIT CHAT is it’s title. ;-)

  • I shot this 96 minute oner:
    Four months of rehearsal with 22 actors. Shot the entire film 4 times in 2 days then picked the best take (#3). All steadicam.

  • I stopped watching Speilberg’s films for a period of 3-4 years. After that when I watched the films (that was the time I had started doing a little filmmaking myself) that I felt “Gosh what sentimental stupidity” and I started to feel that as a child I had an unrefined taste for cinema. But this video suddenly gave me a big jolt. I feel I had lost sight of what Cinema is. As a child his films are the one (and the only one + Terminator 2 and then Matrix in my teens) that made me fall in love with films. I think this generation of kids needs its Speilberg. Marvel films are not the answer. Maybe via Dreamworks’ animation he still is the Speilberg of this generation.
    ps: Mr. Speilberg if you are reading this, I am sorry that I, for a period of last 3-4 years, did not think of the same way as I used to think of you in the 90s as a kid (my hero).

    • Yeah, I never understood the hatred that gets lobbed at Spielberg. The criticism that his work is too “sentimental” is strange to me. I mean, I can sort of understand people who say that he tries to make you feel something instead of just presenting the thing that should make you feel something but even that as a criticism just doesn’t make sense to me. I always looked at what he did as his way of saying “This is what stirred this particular emotion in me, and this is why.” Spielberg is as close to an American Kurosawa (and yeah, I just went there) as we’re ever going to get.

    • Schindler’s List is one of the best movies ever, maybe the best. And at points the cinematography made me feel I could have been there, so real.

      Duel is one of my favorite movies ever. My sister and I used to love it when it came around every year on tv!

      Jaws was the first movie I saw in a theater that I felt was worth the time and money. And Captain Quint is one of the most indelible characters ever in movies.

      Saving Private Ryan, particularly the first 26 minutes, is some of the best film ever made, and is the best war movie footage ever created.

      The scene in Jurassic Park when the T-Rex is first revealed and is knocking around the SUV with the kids in it is maybe the most suspenseful moments in movie history—man, that T-Rex looked cool!!

      There’s some really great moments in Amistad. And I really like the respect and credit he gave in that movie to Christians, true-blue Christians, for bringing an end to slavery in America.

      One of the most touching moments in movies ever was the ending of The Color Purple, when the lead woman is in the church with the preacher.

      Having made sure I gave a list of praises about Steven Spielberg first I will say this about some of his movies being overly sentimental: to be honest, War Horse is saccharin. I was kicking myself for days that I spent valuable time and money to watch it. The best thing I read to describe the movie was, “It should have gone directly to the Hallmark Channel”. Munich and Lincoln had some serious historical inaccuracies added in only to sway emotion and opinion of the story.

      Is it ok to talk about Steven Spielberg like he’s a human?

    • Daniel Mimura on 05.21.14 @ 9:46PM

      You know, I think that move away from Spielberg, as well as a return to his films is kind of a part of a filmmaker’s journey. There is a conventionality to his movies (despite his absolute mastery of the tools and techniques)…but then it’s easy to branch out into the less literal and straightforward. You start watching Antonioni, Goddard, Lynch…etc…etc… But then part of the journey means coming back and realizing that I just like Spielberg for totally different reasons I like Antonioni. I just bought Raiders on bluray and it’s just as fascinating and I’m just as engrossed in it as when I was a kid.

  • John Wilton on 05.10.14 @ 12:34PM

    Finally a post about filming techniques and not the latest 4k Bs. Great read!

  • Gaspar Noé has some good ones

  • I’m a fan of long takes and Spielberg subtle long takes are some of the best. I try to get as much as possible in single shots as well in my films. Below is a good example.

    Bela Tarr is the king of long takes considering that is literally all he does in each set up for his films. My favorite long take is the opening shot of “Touch of Evil”, that one is so perfectly orchestrated.

  • if you just copy the filmmaker your not being true to yourself! most young filmmakers will follow this so call ONE TAKE rule and put it in every film they make and NOTHING truly will be amazing about their work, not every film needs that shot I don’t care how you make it! now some film maker will force themselves to make a ONE long take scene to impress the viewer ….ho boy! just be yourself and express what is in you not copy the other great directors to bask in their forgotten fame! you be surprise what you come up with! and stop giving a F#%%$^ how the viewer feels about your work! R.G.

    • Daniel Mimura on 05.21.14 @ 9:50PM

      …but caring about what audience thinks is showing them respect, not just masturbatory self indulgence. The reason Hitch and Spielberg connect with so many is that they design their works for the audience. Sometimes they go too far, I think, but often that’s better than not enough.

  • One of my favorite shots by far and Spielberg is a master.

  • There is an elegant apartment scene in Woody Allen’s “Manhattan” where Gordon Willis has the camera locked off for the whole scene and the movement is only from the actors.

    • I read somewhere that Woody Allen does that sort of thing quite often, on purpose, leaving the camera on a wide shot so the actors can just feel free to move around and perform organically while always being in the frame. It’s an interesting contrast to those who prefer to more carefully block out the scenes and use the camera more as a character to tell the story.

  • Brilliant- Werckmeister Harmonies, my favorite long take film ever i think. Absolute masterpiece. Russian Ark is probably the high point in terms of technical execution tho i feel.

  • This is THE SHIT! Everyone talks about lighting and cameras as if they were the most important elements of cinematography but choreography, blocking and camera movement makes up at least 51% of the narrative image to me.

    Heavily edited 21 frame MCU shots can die please.

  • The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967) by Jacques Demy also has some really really nice shots. Especially I remember a beautiful shot of people dancing on the market than pulling up to the first story of a house and have a scene developing inside the house. All ultra steady and this for the time before steadicam…

    I have myself also been experimenting with long shots. Last year I made a one shot music video from my little canoe.

  • I love the way Altman uses (and parodies) the oner in the opening shot of ‘The Player’

  • My one shot favorite: Death Of A Man In the Balkans

  • Oldboy. :)

  • Master of the long take?
    Hungarian directors, Miklós Jancsó and Béla Tarr.
    Study this video if you want to see why.

  • Great!!!

  • Great article… the best part is that he “keeps it invisible” and this is why he is so great. Editing breaks the reality, but a deliberate “long take” for demo reel sake, is bad too. My favorite Spielberg trick is the walk/or run from a wide shot to closeup (or vise versa). He is the most underrate “artist” in movie history. E.T. and Raiders were nearly perfect movies, but were frowned on because of their commercial success.

  • Many years ago I saw Soy Cuba as an example of the oner and have never been able to get it out of my head. Only recently have I been able to get a copy of it on DVD as part of an excellent box set from Milestone. Another stand out from the film is the swimsuit parade/hotel sequence. Those Russians really didn’t like western decadence, but it certainly inspired some magnificent filming.

  • I think oners are great when done correctly. Steven Spielberg’s long takes are great because there is always a motivation behind them. I would never do it just to show off, but if it could bring something more to the scene, then by all means.

    There was a mention in the video essay about the long takes saving time but I would think the opposite. The big guys may make it look easy, but I’m sure there is a lot of planning and practice that goes into making these elaborate long takes.

  • LongTake Lover on 05.30.14 @ 10:46PM

    By far the best and most complicated one takes I have seen are in the Russian (USSR) series of early 1970s “LIBERATION” It is a 6 part epic, shot on 70 mm with the biggest battle scenes I have ever seen done with no spetial effects. They even build a factory to produce German tanks just for the movie. There are couple of ocasions when real bullets and shels were used. You can see the whole series here:
    As for comlicated long takes – wach the scene starting at 1.08 hours.
    But ofcource “I am Cuba” and “The cranes are flying” are awesome. Bella Tar and Miklós Jancsó films were a shock when I first saw them.
    The best one is “The Russian Ark” – true whole film in one take:

  • Spielberg like many filmmakers in Europe and America, is simply applying what he has long admired in works by such masters as Ozu, Kurosawa and Satyajit Ray. I believe the aesthetics of the long take has a lot to do with how the artist is the east perceives reality: the collation of people as subjects against a flat backdrop, the relationship between man and his surroundings. It’s interesting that the notion of perspective is very much a European idea, how everything must take reference from a point on the horizon. The cinematic long take defies this sense of perspective and sets out to represent man in relation to his environment in the most naturalistic form, not unlike what you will find in most Chinese paintings.

  • That was fantastic.

  • This ladies and gents is one of my fav movie openers in history. I’m not the biggest fan of that movie but that opening sequence is one of the most poetic of all films, culminated with the character outside walking through the shadows