Spielberg, Tarkovsky, and the Power of an Invisible Long Take

Sometimes the most impressive long-take is one you don't notice is a long-take.

The long-take, or the “oner,” is one of the most celebrated filmmaking techniques out there. While some filmmakers use the oner purely as a visual, stylistic choice, others practice it with the defense that it is essential to their film’s narrative. And, let’s be honest, some just use it to flex their directing chops (but can we really blame them for that?).  Whatever the reason, it’s safe to say that, done right, the oner is both impressive as hell. 

On their YouTube channel Every Frame a Painting, video essayists Taylor Ramos and Tony Zhou highlight the cultural and stylistic importance of the oner. Instead of using an example of an iconic oner, though, like that iconic complicated restaurant scene in Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (I still don’t understand how they got the camera down the stairs so smoothly), or the film portfolio of a director like Alejandro González Iñárritu, whose Birdman is essentially staged to look like a feature-length oner, Ramos and Zhou pick an unconventional subject for their video: Steven Spielberg

Ramos and Zhou break down the technique of the oner in simple terms. They explain that “basically, all it means is doing an entire scene in a single, unbroken shot.” The camera moves, the characters move. There is only one real rule: there are no cuts. They then provide some relevant historical context for the oner and explain that in the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s, the oner was most often used as a narrative technique that moved the story along.

It wasn’t until later, notably in Orson Welles’ 1958 film Touch of Evil, that the oner became something of a stylistic gesture that was noticed by viewers and critics. Though the majority of contemporary oners draw attention to themselves to some extent, Ramos and Zhou posit that it is actually the invisible examples that are the most impressive. Unlike many other directors who have trademark formal techniques that dominate their oner, Spielberg’s oners serve one purpose and one purpose alone: they ultimately aid the story. 

It’s really hard to think of other examples of an invisible oner, and when you think about it, that makes sense. What Ramos and Zhou refer to as the “Spielberg oner” is not intended to be seen but rather to blend in like the rest of Spielberg’s prolific formal techniques that, behind the scenes, are perfectly coordinated and take a lot of effort and planning ahead. Spielberg essentially uses the oner to show action unfolding in front of the viewer in real-time and through that to build tension in the scene and raise the stakes of the film as a whole.

Surprisingly enough, Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1986 feature The Sacrifice implements a oner that is elementally very similar to Spielberg’s. This is remarkable since Tarkovsky is a filmmaker known for being more concerned with style and technique than most directors, and therefore it seems that a oner would be a pinnacle showcase of such. A Tarkovsky oner should be the pinnacle of glistening, theatrical aesthetic filmmaking. But it isn’t.

The Sacrifice opens on a quiet Swedish landscape on which Alexander, a retired aesthetic lecturer, and his young child who he calls “Little Man,” circle a tree that Alexander planted. Alexander tells Little Man his intention behind planting the tree, explaining that he was inspired by the story of an Orthodox monk who planted a tree and told his pupil to water it every day, and though the transformation of the tree was mostly unseen, one day it sprouted beautiful blossoms. “Systems have virtue,” Alexander tells his child. 

Alexander and his child wander back and forth aimlessly in the boundless landscape. Alexander relays a stream-of-consciousness-style inner monologue that Little Man doesn’t seem to be paying much attention to. Characters wander in and out of the frame, and the scene, which does not cut for an astonishing 15 minutes, does not ultimately have much order to it. The camera is unflinching, but it’s likely that a viewer may not notice the length of the take, and if they do, they may not understand why. The opening scene of The Sacrifice meanders, wanders, and does not clearly or even unclearly state its intention.  

But, of course, the scene does have an intention, and this intention exists directly in both its invisibility and seeming lack of intentionality. Where Spielberg allows his scene to unfold in front of the viewers’ eye due to the importance of the action, (Ramos and Zhou use the drinking game in Raiders of the Lost Ark as an example of a scene that needs to occur in real-time to set an important dynamic for the remainder of the film), Tarkovsky allows a seemingly insignificant scene to play out that bears vital thematic weight in The Sacrifice.

Ramos and Zhou explain that one of the elements of a successful oner is the camera following the action, and Tarkovsky adheres to this rule in his opening shot. Though the movement is subtle, the camera dollies back and forth on a lateral shift to keep the characters centered in the frame. When the characters wander toward the camera, it tilts up slightly to accommodate this movement. It isn’t much, but it makes all the difference in the world when it comes to accomplishing this oner.

Another technique Ramos and Zhou argue can make an invisible oner more engaging is the background. They use the example of Jaws, in which Spielberg gets creative and puts his shot on a ferry so he can keep the camera still while the background consistently transforms. Tarkovsky implements this style, but in a manner that is flashier than Spielberg’s. In the scene, a postman approaches on a bicycle and we follow him as he slowly approaches the camera. That way, our attention is maintained in the unbroken shot while Alexander talks to Little Man.

The remainder of the film follows Alexander’s attempt to bargain with God in order to save the world when the threat of nuclear attack is broadcast on the news. Alexander’s transformation in his relationship to his faith is so radical. In the opening scene of the film, he tells the postman his relationship to God is “non-existent,” and yet later, he offers his child as a sacrifice to God in private prayer. This kind of real-time, unmediated experience is essential. When he burns down his house at the end of the film in an act of simultaneous faith and despair, it makes sense to watch it play out in full.

If systems do really have virtue as Alexander says, isn’t it only fair to stay close to them as they transform, like the monk’s tree, until they finally blossom? The oner will undoubtedly always be one of the most exciting and well-remembered techniques of any film, but sometimes the hidden details of a film we love can subconsciously inform why we love it so much.

Aurora Amidon: Aurora Amidon spends her days running the Great Expectations column and trying to convince people that Hostel II is one of the best movies of all time. Read her mostly embarrassing tweets here: @aurora_amidon.