The Narrative Benefits of the Long Take

Watch this video essay about a cinematography technique keeps you engaged with your setting, characters, and plot by keeping entire scenes uninterrupted by cuts.

Birdman Long Take
Fox Searchlight

We often praise long takes because, when done properly, they help to develop the narrative of a film. Long takes can display a beautiful landscape, draw you deeper into a character’s situation, and at its core, the technique keeps you engaged with the screen, allowing you to see every action on screen without interruption.

A new video essay from Studio Binder teaches us how to better master and understand the long take. The video explains that there are three basic keys to mastering this advanced technique: the setting long take, the character long take, and the plot long take.

As the video describes, the setting long take allows audiences to see everything going on in regards to location. Using long takes to describe a setting should make viewers feel like they’re in the film. They bring up the example of Spectre, which uses the long take to bring the audience into Mexico City during the Day of the Dead festival. Here, the long take allows the viewer to walk along the parade, transplanting them into the festival to experience the joy and vigor of everything going on.

Furthermore, the setting long take can also enhance action films. By using a long, uninterrupted take to showcase the setting of an action sequence or fight scene, you can truly witness what’s happening on screen. Some action films, like those in the Bourne franchise or the Marvel Cinematic Universe, render action scenes that are nearly incomprehensible because of excessive cuts and edits.

However, the action sequences in Marvel’s Netflix series Daredevil and Ryan Coogler’s Creed are absolutely fantastic because you can see the setting. You can see how Daredevil is beating down bad guys in dark alleyways or descending staircases, and you’re in the boxing ring with Adonis Creed as he fights his opponent, watching the audience react in real time. The setting long take transports you to the film’s location, and in action films, that gives you a front row seat.

The character long takes should “make the viewer feel like the subject.” By following the characters around, you understand who they are and their current state of mind. The video brings up how the Copacabana scene in Goodfellas puts us in the shoes of Lorraine Bracco’s Karen Friedman, as she traverses the club with Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill, meeting many new faces and seeing many new sights. Here, we experience a gangster’s world for the first time as we, along with Karen, go on a date with Henry.

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is full of character long takes. The whole film is shot as one uninterrupted cut, but there’s a specific character long take that I absolutely adore in which Michael Keaton’s Riggan Thomson is walking down the street with Birdman as he contemplates the future of his career. This long take brings us into Riggan’s world and we experience his fantasies and subconscious along with him. Here, we learn more about his inner turmoil. Through an insane scene featuring exploding cars and a flying Birdman, we learn how Riggan struggles with his deep desire to feel relevant. It’s a captivating scene from an incredible movie.

Lastly, the plot long take allows the viewer to witness different actions and events in one scene that will inform the rest of the story. The video uses the opening of 1958’s Touch of Evil to show how the actions of a bomb placement can suspensfully prepare an audience for what’s to come later.

In Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, there’s a plot long take that shows Sam Rockwell’s Jason Dixon beating up Caleb Landry Jones’ Red Welby. This long take starts from Jason’s office, taking us across the street before he confronts Red. From the get-go, we know where this scene is going. As we see Jason take his baton and gun out, we can expect some violence to ensue. I love this scene because it’s intentional the whole way through. Rockwell’s demeanor is charged and angry and the cinematography reflects this perfectly.

Long takes can be beautiful, but most importantly, intentionally laid out long takes (like any intentional cinematography) can enhance and develop a story’s narrative and plot. Understanding long takes isn’t just beneficial to aspiring filmmakers, it’s important for both casual film fans and cinephiles to understand how different techniques can demonstrate a filmmaker’s true craft and passion.

Lover of coffee, the emdash, and General Hux. Journalism student at Biola University in Los Angeles.