Monday, May 9, 2011

One Shot

Earlier this semester, many of us had the pleasure of experiencing the excellent cinematography of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode entitled "The Body." During the opening scene, Buffy comes home to find her lifeless mother sprawled on the couch and through a fifteen minute uninterrupted take, we witness every distraught feeling that Buffy does. Through a long-take we are engrossed into the scene and vicariously experience her emotions shifts from denial, to disgust, to panic, and to breakdown. By using a single moving camera, the long take allows viewers to feel like they are present in the scene and witnessing the action through their own eyes. This creates a powerful effect that can enhance emotionally rich and exciting scenes, where constant switching of view-points (of cameras) is unnecessary and even a hindrance to the experience.

This technique was successfully employed in the 2005 martial arts film The Protector, staring Muai Thai boxer Tony Jaa, and directed by Prachya Pinkaew. The following is a four minute long scene shot with a single camera with zero editing. Get ready; it will blow your mind:

Notice the similarities this scene has with professional wrestling. The absence of editing requires every fight to be performed flawlessly to suspend the audience's disbelief. The actors must be highly trained and ready to fulfill their choreographed job while selling their injuries to the audience. They are ready to be thrown into walls and off thirty foot ledges to engage and capture the audience's attention and appreciation. Botched long takes are physically, emotionally, and financially taxing as in pro wrestling. Should Tony Jaa botch a throw or kick he could seriously injure an actor. For instance, the moment he throws one henchman off the third story ledge is reminiscent of when the Undertaker threw Mankind off of the top of the cage during the 1998 Hell in a Cell match. When Mankind hit the floor, some viewers including the Undertaker thought he was dead. Now imagine that happening to the guy who was tossed off the ledge. When deciding whether or not to shoot a long take, Pinkaew had to consider the costs of repairing the set's many damaged railings, windows, and ceramic sinks. A botched long take does not have the luxury of editing to minimize costs of repairs and retakes.

Ultimately there is a huge risk looking an action scene looking fake, as in professional wrestling, when using a long take. Nevertheless the power to amaze the audience has influenced celebrated directors like Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese to embrace the long take in their own action movies.


  1. There's a great long take fight sequence in the Korean film Oldboy. It's probably a more realistic depiction of violence than something with Tony Jaa in it, but still is absolutely brutal. Here's the scene on youtube, sadly it is missing the part where he removes a man's front teeth with a hammer claw:


    I forgot about the Hard Boiled hospital scene! As the youtube title suggests, this is probably the greatest action scene ever filmed.

  3. I liked the moment when the camera pointed downwards to get the man falling two storeys, then immediately went back up to capture more action. Tony Jaa is a great choice for long takes because he was originally trained as a stuntman.

    Get ready, the famous fight scene from Oldboy will blow your mind. Oldboy is the incredibly violent second installment of Park Chan-Wook's Vengeance Trilogy. It's a very disturbing story of torment, revenge, incest and tongue surgery. After having been trapped in a room for 15 years for no reason, the protagonist finally has the opportunity for vengeance. The famous corridor fight conveys the extent of his anger and desperation. After being beaten down, he fights for his life with a knife sticking out of his back. The choreography in this long take is flawless in its execution and depiction of emotion.

  4. Just saw Stephen's comment! Oldboy is the best.

  5. This is a comment from the YouTuber who posted the John Woo Hospital fight scene:

    "On the commentary, John Woo said the one-take idea was done because of low morale amongst the cast and crew. When he told everyone what he wanted to do, it gave everyone something to look forward to and be excited about. From then on, it was gravy until Tony's injury."

    Just goes to show how fun and exciting it must be film those scenes. Knowing that there are no second takes must fuel the actors with a true adrenaline rush to help them get in character.

  6. It's interesting that you bring up the theory that long takes motivate the actors to get more in character. I don't know if it boosts morale because it's fun, but the process of filming long takes is so physically grueling and emotionally taxing that the actors tackle their roles much more intensely than usual. Christopher mentioned in class that people didn't think Sarah Michelle Gellar was a good actress until the Body episode. I don't think her acting suddenly improved-- I think that the long take, with its constant flow of movement and heightened sense of reality, was so difficult to do that the "adrenaline rush" forced her into character.

  7. Just think how tiring those scenes must be if your director is a perfectionist! Christopher mentioned how Sarah Michelle Gellar had to repeat the scene multiple times to satisfy Whedon's vision. In an interview she commented on how difficult it was to transition back and forth between emotions and how emotionally taxing the entire scene was. Plus that scene was unusually long making it doubly challenging for her.

    Now imagine a stuntman being forced to have his head rammed through the wall or slapped repeatedly to get that "perfect" shot. When John Woo filmed the hospital scene, a few actors were lightly injured by ballistics and still had to do the scene over again. Overall the scene was filmed six times.

    I imagine the rush must diminish as the scene is repeated over and over and the novelty wears off.

  8. When I Googled the long take, almost everything that came up was violence related. On a completely nonviolent note, here is a six-minute long take Johnnie Walker commercial starring Robert Carlyle. The Man Who Walked Around the World was filmed in Scotland and took several takes, and the director was such a perfectionist that they came close to stopping production several times because the vision was so impossible. Carlyle basically recites the history of the company while walking, which isn't particularly innovative, but the fact that it's one very long shot redeems it. There is something magical about the long take that draws the audience's attention even though the subject matter is not that exciting. It is one of the boldest way for any director to make a statement. It is flashy and attention-grabbing, and often overly stylized. However, when done well, like in The Body, it serves to reflect and further the story in a way that cannot be accomplished with traditional editing.

  9. Well, since my last (and much longer comment) somehow manage to not be posted I'll just keep it shorter this time around.
    The long take in "the protector" essentially allows us to shadow Tony Jaa as he kicks multi-storied ass. It allows us to get closer and to examine his moves and his use of his environment in fights. Whereas in Buffy the long take establishes a first person perspective in which we get to somewhat instrusively witness Buffy's emotions in their rawest form.

  10. I just think this is amazing. It has to help with morale because someone told me that this actor actually kicks and punches the guys sometimes. Its almost like WWE in that some guys want to be as realistic as possible and will actually hurt the other characters. Doing this in one long take means that all those stunt guys will only have to go through this kind of abuse once. Of course if they mess it up then they have to go back and start all over again, which is the opposite of a morale booster.

  11. In contrast, a fight scene from the Bourne Identity (and just about any Jason Bourne movie):

    Notice how it's cut after cut. Every shot is about one or two seconds long. It's the complete opposite of the long take, but it looks super real. A nice effect to use.

  12. I always love watching elaborate long takes in movies. Like Andrea said, it’s definitely attention grabbing and maybe overly stylized, but if used correctly in the right kind of movie it can be amazing to watch. There’s even an entire movie that’s composed in one long uninterrupted take called Russian Ark, with two hundredish actors and extras that each had to perfectly hit every mark and give a flawless performance of each line or otherwise they would have to start the whole take (and of course movie) from scratch. It took two broken takes before they finally nailed it the third time.


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