Some movie scenes are relatively simple to stage and film. Others require immense planning and precision—and none more so than these, sequences all filmed in one single uninterrupted take.
The long take can be a tricky beast to master, but the end result, if handled with care, can be glorious, as evidenced in the following seven movies.
We love it when a plan comes together.
After you’ve watched that magnetic two-round boxing match in Ryan Coogler’s Rocky spin-off, where Michael B. Jordan’s Adonis Creed knocks Leo Sporino (Gabe Rosado) to the ground, you’ll be left wondering why every other screen fight in the history of cinema hasn’t been treated to the single-take format.
The camera circles the two men engaged in combat, drifting in, out and around, and the result is a dizzying, exhausting, relentless and claustrophobic display, everything you imagine boxing to feel like.
Speaking to the New York Times about his decision to capture the scene in that way, Coogler said: “This scene represents the boxer/coach relationship, the parental relationship. You can work with someone… but when the bell rings they are all alone, so we wanted to shoot this in one unbroken take to represent that.
“It took a lot of memorisation and choreography and body control. And with this scene being shot in one unbroken take, it was similar to a monologue in the lines an actor will have to learn.
“Michael had to learn different punches and different steps to make sure he was in the right place at the right time.”
2. The Shining
Watching a kid race around on a tricycle shouldn’t make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, but Stanley Kubrick’s 1980s horror, based on Stephen King’s novel of the same name, does exactly that, flipping an otherwise innocent moment into something really quite unnerving.
The camera follows five-year-old Danny Torrance (Danny Lloyd) as he pedals the rooms and corridors of the Overlook Hotel. The iconic scene is initially entirely silent, aside from the noise of his three-wheeler spinning frantically across the polished wooden floor, every so often broken up by a rug or stretch of carpet.
Not once does the camera take its eyes off Danny’s back, which gives the scene a whole new sense of urgency, and as the score creeps in, shifting from a barely-there hum to haunting, shrill strings, it only continues to unsettle.
We don’t need to tell you what he eventually stumbles upon.
Any film aficionado will instantly know what you mean when you utter the words: ‘Copa shot.’
Arguably the most iconic one-shot sequence in the history of cinema, that phrase refers to the moment in Goodfellas when gangster Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) places his hand on the small of Lorraine Bracco’s (Karen Hill) back and leads her, along with you, the audience, into the depths of New York’s Copacabana nightclub via the back door.
The pair weave their way through the building, greeting staff and familiar faces as they head into the hustle and bustle of the kitchen, before eventually finding themselves seated at a table.
It’s an incredibly fluid, seamless scene, so it may surprise you to hear that it only took half a day to shoot, requiring just eight takes to get it right.
“I’m thinking the first two minutes of this shot are going to be awful,” steadicam operator Larry McConkey, who worked on the film, told Filmmaker Magazine. “There’s no way they’ll ever use it. They’re going to cut it to hell.
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“There are technical problems when you’re trying to do an uncut shot. You want the wide and you want the tight in the same shot, but how do you connect the two? Do you just wait while the camera trundles in? You can’t do that.
“So we essentially had to invent a way to edit it in the shot. So we structured events within the shot that covered the limitations of not being able to cut in order to give it pace and timing.”
Those “events” were the many interactions that Henry shares with the people he greets and scoots past.
“What I didn’t expect, and what I only figured out later, was that all those [interactions] ended up being the heart and soul of the shot,” he continued. “Because Ray incorporated his character into those moments, those moments actually became what the shot was about instead of being tricks or being artifices.
“It’s pretty remarkable when I look at that shot now and it looks perfect… Steadicam really was a powerful way to tell a story and it did have merit and value beyond being a technical feat. It seemed to resonate with people and not just with filmmakers. That was a revelation for me.”
Christopher Nolan received plenty of plaudits for his portrayal of Dunkirk in his feature film of the same name, but before that there was Atonement, Joe Wright’s adaptation of Ian McEwan’s novel.
The film is set both before, during, and after World War II, with the destabilising effects of the conflict laid bare for all to see, in particular the families and lovers ripped apart – and it really wouldn’t be a film about WWII without the inclusion of Dunkirk.
You, the viewer, are transported to the beach, such is the realism of the moment, as the camera casts it gaze over the mass of men bereft of spirit sat waiting for something, anything. Horses are being shot, the sky has had the color sucked out of it and the air is choked with smoke. Gun shots ring out intermittently as soldiers tend to makeshift fires to keep warm and pass the time. There is little joy to be found.
It’s an affecting display, every little detail captured in a five-minute single-take tracking shot that holds your attention. But as powerful as the end result is, it was never supposed to be that way.
“It was conceived out of necessity,” Wright told the Chicago Sun-Times. “We had one day with the extras and then the small issue of the tide coming in and washing away the entire set” – a set comprised of 1,000 extras, and loads of horses and vehicles, not to mention all of the other debris you can see in the shot.
Had circumstances been entirely different, we could have ended up with a very different-looking shot.
5. Children of Men
The car attack scene in Alfonso Cuarón’s dystopian thriller Children of Men is Harrowing with a capital H.
Theo, Julian, Miriam, Luke and Kee are bouncing along the road, bookended on either side by forest, and for just a moment things are relatively normal. Peaceful, even. But then a surprise charge is launched on the revolutionaries and their world is once again catapulted into disarray.
It’s brutal, unforgiving, and the single take keeps you firmly there in the moment with them, penned in on all sides, unable to escape the onslaught.
Speaking at San Diego Comic Con back in 2013 (via Gizmodo), Cuarón spoke about the complexities of filming one single, continuous shot and the things that can go wrong (and very, very right in this particular instance).
“We had 12 days to do the car attack scene,” he said.
“10 days into it, we were still staging it. After 12 days, we were going to lose the location. Day 11 came and there were accidents, and we could only do 2 takes a day. On the last day, we knew we were losing location next day. In the morning it was great, but an operator fell down so we only had only one more shot.
“We were shooting the last take, everything goes great, but then by accident the blood spills onto the lens. I yelled ‘Cut’, but there was an explosion and nobody heard me so they kept shooting. Then, later, I realised that the blood splash was the miracle.”
6. The Protector (Tom-Yum-Goong)
After travelling all the way from his native Bangkok to Sydney, Australia, the hero of this story, Kham (Tony Jaa), makes his way to Tom Yum Goong Otob, an exotic meats restaurant, where it doesn’t take long for him to get stuck in.
The man is on a mission to rescue Por-Yai and baby Korn, two elephants he grew up with in the jungle back home that have been stolen from him by the nefarious Madame Rose and her cohort of ne’er-do-wells.
He barges into the restaurant’s VIP area where a giant spiral staircase and a raft of mobsters primed to snuff him out stand before him, and he rises to the occasion. The glorious four-minute fight scene follows Kham as he meets each and every challenger, ascending the levels of the restaurant to tackle each new boss, taking out all who dare to clash with him.
For the most part, the camera sticks with him, but occasionally it will dart to the oncoming traffic, utilising the element of surprise as Kham would also have experienced it, before switching back to him.
It’s frantic, unrelenting and you can’t take our eyes off of it.
It doesn’t take long for you to work out that Erik Heller (Eric Bana) is being followed, the ex-CIA operative glancing over his shoulder at every turn, before the camera briefly brushes over a suited man wearing an earpiece, concealed behind a pillar. The game is officially on.
What this one-shot take manages to do exceedingly well is make it feel like the subject matter is being monitored at all times, pinned beneath the camera’s gaze, and that sense of tension is heightened as it tails Erik all the way down the escalator into the subway – and when do good things ever happen in subways, right?
As the Chemical Brothers’ ‘Bahnhof Rumble’ kicks in, Erik is hemmed in on all sides by operatives, and there’s only one thing for it: brawl his way out of it.
It’s a scene oozing with tension right from the start, amped up tenfold by that long, single take, and we can’t get enough.
From: Digital Spy
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