Long uncut master shots in films

Reader’s question:

As a fan of Andrei Tarkovsky I really love long takes with few changes of angle. I believe that with the utmost balanced use of track shots, composition, lightning, foreground and action within a frame, an audience won’t be bored even without sudden changes in camera placement. I understand that this isn’t the case in consumer and marketing commercials and so on. I would like to hear your thoughts on long takes!

My answer:

I personally love long uncut shots, provided they involve a variety of shot compositions, with the camera and actors moving in concert.  To the best of my knowledge, there are only two directors who do this type of shot consistently well: Steven Spielberg and, somewhat less frequently, James Cameron.  (I have only watched one film by Tarkovsky.) I specifically described this technique in my post on Steven Spielberg’s movie techniques.

When I was a total beginner, I could see that Spielberg’s famous master shots were absolutely brilliant in a way that most moviegoers do not even realize.  I was in awe of this technique and promised myself that one day I would be able to do the same.  I achieved this with a lot of practice, experience and thought, and pretty much any decent filmmaker can do the same if they are willing to put in the commitment.  It’s like getting good at anything, really: daily commitment is the way forward.

Then there is of course the static long take in which the camera is simply locked down and the actors perform in front of it.  Again, a very dynamic effect can be achieved even if the camera is not moving, because the actors can move: they can approach the camera to be framed in a close-up, turn around to produce an over-the-shoulder shot of the actor behind them, then move away to produce a two-shot, then perhaps back towards the camera for another close-up. This is also an extremely pleasing technique.

But most filmmakers simply don’t do this, and are not even aware of this possibility.  They simply lock down the camera and have the actors perform in a similarly static fashion.  I am not a fan of this style at all, but to each their own.  Stanley Kubrick had many such shots in his films, and I will not deny that they have a charm of their own, but with most other filmmakers it simply looks dull and mediocre.  Part of the reason for which we instinctively crave multiple viewpoints and editing is that we want that cinematic experience, that feeling that is sometimes known as “superior continuity,” the smooth, seamless, imperceptible cut from one shot to another for the purposes of affording different viewpoints, different framings and hence different textures – this is the sublime art of film editing.  Most people – myself included – are simply not satisfied by protracted static shots of a static scene, so it is a real risk if you seek popular success, but at the same time it is perhaps more important to make films the way you want to make them and do your vision justice – after all, we have a finite amount of time in which to share our vision of the world.

Fascinating question – I hope my answer is of some assistance to you!

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