Last month saw the release of The Place Beyond the Pines, director Derek Cianfrance’s much-hyped follow-up to his 2010 romantic drama Blue Valentine. Starring Ryan Gosling as a aimless motorcycle stuntman who turns to a life a crime in order to make a life for his new family, the film commences with a long, continuous shot of a bleach-blonde Gosling as he moves across the fairground to his job. It’s a gorgeous opening that both entices the viewer and demonstrates Cianfrance and his crew’s technical prowess.
Such a shot would not have been possible in the early days of film, where filmmakers were forced to keep their bulky, sensitive cameras in a static position and shoot their movies with the flatness of a filmed stage production. As technology advanced, however, the introduction of both lighter cameras and the Steadicam, a stabilizing mount introduced in 1975, has allowed today’s filmmakers the freedom to move and weave their apparatus through set-ups once thought impossible.
Unfortunately, in a world where film editing has ramped up its pacing to near music video-levels, any kind of lengthy, sustained shot has become a rarer and rarer prospect.
Yet, every now and then, a film will feature an extended, elaborately planned shot ready to wow audiences with its aesthetic beauty or complex movement. Whether lingering and contemplative or packed with highly choreographed action, a well-constructed continuous shot is like catnip to the excitable film buff.
Here are some of the greatest examples of the extended shots throughout film history.
The Players: Paul Thomas Anderson (Director), Robert Elswit (Cinematographer)
Paul Thomas Anderson is that rare breed of director capable of performing elaborate, showy set-ups that, despite their inherent flashiness, still feel intregral to the fabric of the story. In the case of this long Steadicam shot from Magnolia, the real-time experience helps capture the overwhelming confusion that game show contestant Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman) feels upon being thrust into this bustling, chaotic TV studio. With the pressure from his overbearing father and the flurry of activities going on around him, the shot helps seed his eventual on-air meltdown.
24. Snake Eyes
The Players: Brian De Palma (Director), Stephen H. Burum (Cinematographer)
Get used to seeing Brian De Palma’s name, he will be coming up again. A director for whom extended tracking shots serve as almost a quasi-festish, De Palma usually manages to include at least one notable shot, even in his more mediocre work. Such is the case with his 1998 mystery-thriller Snake Eyes. The film opens with a very lengthy take that both introduces the film’s main characters and seeds future plot twists for the mystery that will unfold. While the shot does incorporate some digital trickery in its construction, it remains an undeniably cool way to open a movie.
What’s more, this scene marks the first appearance on this list of Steadicam operator Larry McConkey. A quick peruse of McConkey’s credits on IMDB reveals a man who has helped give us some of the all-time great Steadicam shots of all time. Credit where it’s due.
The Players: Mike Figgis (Director), Patrick Alexander Stewart (Cinematographer)
After the emotional roller coaster that was his Oscar-winning 1995 drama Leaving Las Vegas, English director Mike Figgis began slowly gravitating towards a more experimental route. This culminated with his 2000 drama Timecode. The film is divided into four continuous takes that were all filmed simultaneously. What’s more, the screen itself is divided into four quadrants that has each shot playing at the same time. The result is both fascinating and head-ache inducing. And while the shots themselves are far from the most well-composed and the actual narrative is a bit slight, Figgis deserves a spot on this list for ambition alone.
Player: Joe Wright (Director), Alwin H. Küchler (Cinematographer)
In the course of his still burgeoning film career, British director Joe Wright has—between Pride and Prejudice, Atonement and Anna Karenina—proven himself to be a master of unconventional adaptations. While other directors might become bound by their film’s source material to the point of stodginess, Wright is always up for shaking things up for the sake of experimentation. As of now, the action-thriller Hanna remains his only film not based on a pre-existing property. Nevertheless, it still contains all the visual luster of one of Wright’s acclaimed costume dramas. It also continues Wright’s tradition of filming complicated set ups in one long continuous take (another will appear later on this list). The shot in question involves Eric Bana, playing the father of the titular character, descending onto a subway platform only to be assaulted by a group of men that he quickly dispatches. Watching the mastery and grace in which this sequence unfolds, you’d never believe that Wright has not been shooting movies like this all his life.
21. Kill Bill Vol. 1
Players: Quentin Tarantino (Director), Robert Richardson (Cinematographer)
Quentin Tarantino has never been the kind of filmmaker to let his style fade comfortably in the background. This was especially true with the Kill Bill movies. Always one to push everything to the extreme, Tarantino wasn’t content to have the vengence-seeking Bride merely walk into a Tokyo nightclub to face her adversaries. No, he had to insist on an elaborate, long take that not only followed the Bride into her changing room but also tracked the activities of several nightclub employees as they run about their business, unaware that chaos is about to descend upon them.