A Camera Unblinking: Ten of Cinema's Coolest Extended Takes

A Camera Unblinking: Ten of Cinema's Coolest Extended Takes

Mar 06, 2012

Silent House posterDirecting team Chris Kentis and Laura Lau first came to our attention with their debut feature, Open Water, back in 2003. That tale about a husband and wife left behind in shark-infested waters after their scuba tour guide miscounts the heads back on the boat earned praise not only for its hair-raising story, but for the way Kentis and Lau shot the film. The directors filmed Open Water in the ocean, and had their actors swimming with real sharks.

Not to be outdone, the duo is back with their latest effort – Silent House. A remake of a Uruguayan film from 2010 entitled La Casa Muda, the film ditches the ocean and killer sharks in favor of a haunted house, but it still brings some interesting technical tricks to the table -- the most notable being that the entire feature was shot in one 80-minute long extended take.

If there’s one thing that film geeks and casual movie fans both love, it’s extended takes. We suspect the adoration springs from the fact that they’re generally easy to spot, but require a huge amount of preparation. Watching an extended take or a single-sequence film is not unlike watching someone play Jenga, because we all sit breathlessly waiting for the inevitable mistake that brings the whole thing crashing down, while secretly hoping it never comes.

There have been numerous films over the years that employed this technique – the most famous being Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (which actually does have cuts in it) – but some of the best examples of the technique exist in shorter long-take sequences. While the stakes might be lower – screwing up at the last stage of a ten-minute scene is far different than at the end of an 80-minute film – these extended takes are still visually impressive and highlight why we love the technique as much as we do.

With that in mind, here are ten of the coolest extended takes in movie history. 

1. JCVD -- Directed by Mabrouk El Mechri

Most film fans remember Mabrouk El Mechri’s 2008 film JCVD because it put aging action icon Jean Claude Van Damme back on the filmmaking map – and because it had a pretty amazing monologue from the Muscles from Brussels in its middle section.

As cool as all of that is, what we always remember is the opening credit sequence, which features Van Damme fighting his way through a horde of enemies in one long, continuous shot. Unlike many of the other extended takes featured herein, the JCVD scene isn’t crisp and exact. It features (by design) technical mishaps like a missed explosion, obviously-pulled punches, and a ragged looking Van Damme doing his best to recapture the magic of his past. It ends with the whole scene falling apart (literally) when a building façade collapses.

The beauty of the JCVD scene is that it isn’t just about a director and crew showing their level of technical skill – it’s a visual personification of Van Damme’s floundering career. Each missed mark is a reminder of a bad career choice – of how he was defined through choreography and special effects, and how time ultimately waits for no man. This isn’t the Van Damme of our youth, but the film, and this scene, is better for it. 

2. The Passenger -- Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni

Michelangelo Antonioni’s filmography features no shortage of impressive sequences, but the one we always think of when his work is mentioned is the seven-minute uncut take at the end of his 1975 film The Passenger.

The film’s languid pace is mirrored in the extended scene, which finds Jack Nicholson’s character finally earning his comeuppance at a hotel in Spain. The shot – which is often referred to as “the penultimate shot” – starts off in Nicholson’s hotel room, peers into the courtyard, moves through window bars, out into the world, then back around to the hotel room.

Since the sequence was conceived prior to the creation of the steadicam, the camera started out in the hotel room on a ceiling track, then was picked up by a crane after it exits the room (the window bars were modified to allow the camera to move between them). According to the film’s Wikipedia entry, the transition from track to crane required a pause in movement – which was hidden by slowly zooming the lens to distract the viewer until movement could resume.

While not as flashy as some of the other entries on the list, Antonioni’s shot is still masterful – particularly since it was done with less than optimal technology. 

3. Breaking News -- Directed by Johnnie To

It’s unfortunate that more western movie lovers aren’t familiar with the work of Hong Kong filmmaker Johnnie To. This maestro of mayhem is one of the greatest action directors in the world, and we see that firsthand in this nearly seven-minute sequence from his 2004 film, Breaking News.

To and his team pull of some incredibly complex camera work in this shot, switching altitude several times, moving from inside to outside, and capturing an intense gun battle between cops and criminals.

The sequence was achieved by attaching the camera to a crane that allowed for a full 360 degrees of rotation. It works almost perfectly – with only a few tiny shudders thanks to the breeze. Scenes like this are why diehard action fans love Hong Kong cinema. 

4. Children of Men -- Directed by Alfonso Cuaron

As movie-making technology continues to advance, it becomes easier for filmmakers to create the illusion that a particular sequence was all shot in one extended take, even though there may be several cuts hidden (often unnoticeable) in the actual scene.

Such appears to be the case with Alfonso Cuaron’s car chase scene from his film Children of Men. There’s been a great deal of debate as to whether or not there are hidden cuts in this sequence, but even if there are, it’s still a fantastic piece of filmmaking.

Clive Owen and his friends are ambushed, forced to flee in their minivan in reverse while people with sticks and men on motorcycles chase them down. It’s just one of several harrowing and visually impressive long takes in Cuaron’s film, but it’s arguably my favorite.

To achieve the shot, Cuaron and his crew built a modified minivan that allowed for a camera on a motorized arm to be constantly present and moveable within the vehicle. Actors were forced to perform without knowing where the camera was in some instances, while also having to continually move their seats (mounted with hinges) so that it could roam about the cabin freely. Check out the sequence here, then watch a behind-the-scenes piece below. 

5. Hunger -- Directed by Steve McQueen

Not every extended take is about amazing camera movements and action – which is what director Steve McQueen showed audiences with this lengthy dialogue scene from his film Hunger.

McQueen’s movie, which focuses on the hunger strike of Irish freedom fighter Bobby Sands, isn’t big on dialogue, but for one sixteen-minute stretch, an exchange between Sands (played by Michael Fassbender) and a priest (Liam Cunningham) takes center stage. Unlike the other entries on the list, this extended take features no camera trickery at all – the camera never moves. Instead, the scene highlights the power of the performers – two men bantering back and forth for an extended amount of time without ever flubbing a line.

Couple that with the shadowy lighting scheme and it’s easy to see why everyone who’s seen Hunger remembers this conversation. Watch the first ten minutes of the scene below, then catch the rest by clicking here

6. Hanna -- Directed by Joe Wright

Joe Wright’s Hanna is the newest film featured, but that doesn’t diminish its technical excellence in the slightest.

The Hanna extended take follows actor Eric Bana as he disembarks a bus, walks through a train station, wanders back outside, then down into a subway tunnel – where he engages in physical combat. It’s really got a bit of everything happening (including some brief dialogue), and yet it all comes together pretty much perfectly over the span of three minutes.

Perhaps the greatest challenge here was the lighting – with the early shifts from outdoors to indoors to outdoors yet again, keeping the light levels consistent throughout must have been a real logistical issue. The scene manages to overcome it, and Bana even makes the combat look realistic enough to not shatter the illusion. All in all, a great sequence from a very good movie.

7. Touch of Evil -- Directed by Orson Welles

Perhaps the most well-known long take in the history of cinema, no list would be complete without the opening of Orson WellesTouch of Evil. The three-minute shot remains the gold standard of extended takes – it’s a masterclass in filmmaking encapsulated in a brief 180 seconds, one that has been referenced in other films and popular culture more times than we can count.

Everything about Touch of Evil’s opening is essentially perfect – the multilayered sound design, the interplay of light and shadows, the juxtaposition of gaudy American cars with rundown buildings, and the brilliant visual tension of starting a scene with a bomb and ending with an explosion. That all of these elements come together so seamlessly is a testament to Welles’ prodigious talents as a filmmaker.

The shot was difficult to pull off, requiring numerous takes to satisfy the director. We’re glad Welles didn’t give up, though – the end result more than justifies all of the effort that went into filming the sequence. 

8. Atonement -- Directed by Joe Wright

Every extended take is impressive – these sorts of shots require meticulous planning, attention to detail, and perfect excution – but some are more magnificent than others. This scene from Atonement is certainly amongst the most majestic examples of the form.

In it, the camera follows James McAvoy’s character for roughly five minutes as he wanders the beach at Dunkirk during World War II. It’s a tragic scene that captures the despair of one of the war’s darkest episodes – horses are shot, vehicles destroyed, and people vacillate between pure sorrow and a sort of gallows joy.

The logistics of the scene must have been incredibly difficult to pull off – it was shot on sand, with over a thousand extras, and covers nearly a quarter mile before it ends. To accommodate all of that, camera operator Peter Robertson alternated between shooting on foot and riding in a vehicle and rickshaw – and hiding that fact upped the difficulty level significantly.

It all pays off in the end, though – Atonement’s long take on the beach is masterfully executed and breathtaking to watch. View it for yourself and see if you don't agree. 

9. The Protector -- Directed by Prachya Pinkaew

As anyone who’s watched the outtakes to a Jackie Chan film realizes, shooting an elaborately choreographed martial arts sequence is difficult even under the best of circumstances. So imagine how much harder it is to pull off when you’re trying to capture four minutes of continuous fighting with no room for a single edit.

This was the task facing director Prachya Pinkaew in his 2005 film, The Protector – and the plan worked out smashingly. The sequence, which features Tony Jaa fighting his way up through a building, took over a month to pull off, and its easy to see why. Everything here is pretty much perfect, and we’re amazed that anyone even attempted to try something so audacious. This scene might even be more impressive than the much-loved hospital shoot-out extended take (which actually has a subtle cut in it) in John Woo’s classic Hard Boiled. That’s about the highest praise you can get. 

10. GoodFellas -- Directed by Martin Scorsese

If the Touch of Evil long take is the most famous one in cinema’s history, Martin Scorsese’s sequence in his 1990 mobbed-up classic GoodFellas is a close second.

The shot follows Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) and his girlfriend Karen (Lorraine Bracco) as they travel from the street into the Copacabana nightclub to see Henny Youngman perform his routine. The beauty of the set-up is that it places the audience right behind Hill, making us feel like we’re along for the ride as the gangster schmoozes with all the behind-the-scenes people who acknowledge what a VIP he is.

The lengthy three-minute shot is kept fluid by the appearances of these behind-the-scenes folks – taking what could have been dead space in the sequence and filling it with something to keep our interest as the shot works towards its conclusion.

While not the most difficult extended take on the list, the GoodFellas nightclub scene serves to illuminate character in a way not unlike the one in JCVD. We come out of the scene with a newfound appreciation for who Henry Hill is, which is why so many people revere this particular scene. 


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