25 Great Extended Shots in Film History

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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.

25. Magnolia
Length: 2:15
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
Length: 12:30
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.

23. Timecode
Length: 90:00
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.

22. Hanna
Length: 2:30
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
Length: 1:53
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.

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.

20. Rope
Length 8:00 (average)
The Players: Alfred Hitchcock (Director), Joseph A. Valentine/William V. Skall (Cinematographers)
Taking inspiration from the infamous Leopold-Loeb murder trial of the 1920s, Rope tells the macabre story of two boys who murder their roommate in an attempt to prove that they are “Nietzschean supermen” who are above petty things like remorse and guilt. In an even sicker twist, the two stuff the victim’s body into a wooden chest in the middle of their living room and host a dinner party with their deceased roommate’s family and friends in attendance. All the while, the body lies right under everybody’s noses. Alfred Hitchcock’s first foray into the world of color film stock, Rope is often inaccurately cited as a story filmed in one continuous take. In fact, due to the technical limitations (the film stock could only run so long before running out), Hitchcock was forced to shoot the film in eight-to-ten minute increments, hiding the cuts in both clever (panning the camera across someone’s back) and not-so clever ways (there’s a straight up hard cut in one or two instances that people seem to never notice). Despite the film’s rough edges, Hitch’s meticulous staging and his ability to build suspense and drama without ever letting the gimmick get overly distracting, makes Rope a must-see experience for any Hitchcock completist.

Here’s an excerpt

19. Werckmeister Harmonies
Length: 9:35
The Players: Béla Tarr (Director), Patrick de Ranter (Cinematographer)
In his nearly 40 years of making films, Hungarian director BélaTarr has released some of the most gorgeous, arresting images ever put to screen. Yet, one need only casually glance at his films’ average running times and hear the term “glacial pacing” to quickly go running for the hills. But for those with the patience and fortitude to endure Tarr’s brand of highly left-field experimentations, there’s much beauty to be found in his technique—particularly in his use of lingering, long takes. One of the best examples comes at the beginning of Werckmeister Harmonies his 2000 follow-up to the seven-hour magnum opus Sátántangó. The film depicts life in a small Hungarian town that soon begins to collapse when a traveling circus rides in lugging a dead whale (don’t ask). This shot, which acts as the film’s climax, is probably the closest thing you’ll get to a Tarr-directed action scene. And, like the rest of the film, it’s as beautiful as it is dreary.

18. Nine Lives
Length: 9:12
The Players: Rodrigo García (Director), Xavier Pérez Grobet (Cinematographer)
Whereas Mike Figgis’ Time Code used the single-shot format as an almost cold experiment, director Rodrigo Garcia took a far more emotional approach with Nine Lives. Clocking in at under two hours, the film consists of nine vignettes about nine different woman, each told in one continuous take. As is the case with many films boasting this structure, each of the woman are intertwined in some way. Ignoring that bit of ham-fisted philosophizing about the connectedness of our human existence, however, and the film plays like a great short story collection. And while several of these vignettes could easily have made this list, the one that hits the hardest is the story involving Robin Wright Penn as a pregnant woman who ends up running into her former flame (Jason Isaacs) at the grocery story. While their interaction starts politely awkward it soon becomes clear that they are far from over each other.

No significant clips available online, but here’s the (albeit poor) theatrical trailer to give you an idea.

17. Hunger
Length: 16:30
The Players: Steve McQueen (Director), Sean Bobbitt (Cinematographer)
When one talks about memorable one-take shots, the discussion inevitably hones in on the amount of action or tricky camerawork involved. Director Steve McQueen’s debut feature Hunger, however, shows how sometimes the only thing you need to make a memorable one-take shot is a single, static set-up and two great actors in front of the camera doing what they do best. The film tells the true story of the events leading up to the infamous 1981 Irish hunger strike, when imprisoned IRA volunteer Bobby Sands and his accomplices participated in a period of widespread fasting that ultimately resulted in several deaths (Sands’ included). The cornerstone scene of the film comes shortly after Sands has decided to participate in the hunger strike. Placed in a dimly lit room, Sands is soon met by Father Dom, his priest. From there—in what amounts to an almost 17-minute single shot—the two exchange pleasantries before discussing Sands’ motivations and reasoning behind participating in such an extreme activity. In a performance that truly demonstrated his skills as an actor, Fassbender lays out his reasons for acting the way he does. Moreover, in a film filled with lengthy stretches of silence, hearing a human being open up in this way is a true marvel to hear.

16. Breaking News
Length: 6:48
The Players Johnnie To (Director), Cheng Siu-Keung (Cinematographer)
A massively popular filmmaker in his native Hong Kong, Johnnie To is perhaps best known to Western audiences for his genre film Election. Yet those fluent in Hong Kong cinema are no doubt well aware of To’s frighteningly prolific nature. As proof of his talent, one need only watch the opening, seven-minute shot from his 2005 crime thriller Breaking News. Starting as a quiet, low-key scene depicting an exchange among a few gangsters, chaos soon emerges around the four-minute mark after a cop swings by to question the men, leading to an epic, street-bound shoot-off.

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.

15. The Bonfire of the Vanities
Length: 4:42
The Players: Brian De Palma (Director), Vilmos Zsigmond (Cinematographer)
First of all, yes, The Bonfire of the Vanities is a confused mess of a movie and a true butchering of the great Tom Wolfe novel it was based on. Yet, one can’t deny that its opening shot is a technical marvel. Beginning in the parking lot of a ritzy New York building, we follow a drunken, stumbling Peter Fallow (played by Bruce Willis) as he’s escorted through the building, put on a elevator, led through a kitchen and given a quick wardrobe change—all in one take. Unfortunately, it’s all downhill from here.

14. Oldboy
Length: 2:34
Players: Park Chan-wook (Director), Chung-hoon Chun (Cinematographer)
When it comes to Asian cinema, the conversation surrounding long takes typically centers around the meticulously choreographed action set pieces that filmmakers fit into these single shots. In contrast to many other one-take action scenes, the action in Olboy’s hallway scuffle comes across as either highly improvised or intentionally sloppy. Either way, it’s an excellent expression of its main character. Oh Dae-su (played brilliantly by Choi Min-sik) is a man who has been confined to a single room for 15 years for unknown reasons, losing his family and being branded a fugitive in the process. He’s a desperate man with nothing to lose and fueled only by a burning desire for vengeance; his fighting style reflects this mindset. Reportedly, when this scene played during its Cannes Film Festival premiere back in 2004, the audience bursted into a round of rapturous applause after this shot ended.

While I’m as excited as any film fan to see Spike Lee’s take on the film later this year, I remain skeptical that anything there could equal the sheer brilliance of this long take.

13. Carlito’s Way
Length: 1:55
The Players: Brian De Palma (Director), Stephen H. Burum (Cinematographer)
A devoted student of Hitchcock, director Brian De Palma knew precisely what went into making something suspenseful. While this certainly was true of his Hitchockian thrillers—Dressed to Kill, Body Double, Sisters—it also held true for more out-of-the-box genre pictures like Carlito’s Way. The film stars Al Pacino as a newly released prisoner determined to stay clean and follow the straight path. Naturally, this doesn’t work out like he plans. Eventually, a dispute with several undesirables leads to a foot chase throughout Grand Central Station. In one nail-biting long take, De Palma follows Carlito as he attempts to dodge his pursuers.

12. I Am Cuba
Length: 2:27
The Players: Mikhail Kalatozov (Director), Sergey Urusevsky (Cinematographer)
In the early 60s the USSR commissioned several filmmakers to travel down to Cuba. Their plan was to make a documentary about the Cuban Revolution for the sake of promoting international socialism. Vexed by the vibrant culture of Cuba, however, the filmmakers took the project in a slightly different direction and began experimenting with lengthy tracking shots and offbeat mise en scene. While neither the Russians nor the Cubans were happy with the end result, the film became a treasured document among film fans for its technical innovation.

One of the film’s most notable shots, for example, has the camera rising above a large crowd and subsequently floating high above the streets. This shot was accomplished via the camera operator’s rudimentary, pre-Steadicam vest and an assembly line of technicians who would hook and unhook the operator’s vest to various pulleys and cables that spanned floors and building roof tops. Dangerous? Horribly. Worth it? Most definitely.

11. The Protector
Length: 3:55
The Players: Prachya Pinkaew (Director), Nattawut Kittikhun (Cinematographer)
As an actor, Tony Jaa never quite captured the charisma and pathos that gave martial arts-performing actors like Jackie Chan or Jet Li their breakthrough roles in Hollywood. As a martial arts expert, however, one could not deny his skills. Never was this more on display than in this nearly four-minute Steadicam take from his 2005 film The Protector. The shot finds Jaa climbing a long, winding staircase as he dispatches a series of bodyguards. Not surprisingly, the scene took nearly a month to get right and various logistics only allowed the crew to shoot the scene twice a day. Shockingly, it all turned out alright and there were no major injuries.

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.

10. Week End
Length: 7:31
Players: Jean-Luc Godard (Director), Raoul Coultard (Cinematographer)
For anyone who studied film in college, the name “Jean -Luc Godard” inspires as much nausea as it does reverence. The director of highly influential French New Wave films such as Breathless and A Band Apart, Godard decided at a certain point in his career that he was more interested in creating visual political essays than making anything approaching a linear narrative. While fascinating, this made even his most accessible films difficult—if not flat-out alienating—viewing experiences. But for all his maddening obtuseness, Godard also frequently stumbled upon genius. Case in point—his 1967 film Week End features an extended take that follows the protagonists as they attempt to navigate a major traffic jam. As the camera tracks down the lane of cars, we bear witness to a series of activities that grows more and more surreal. A commentary on the role that cars play in our society, it’s akin to watching a art house version of a Monty Python sketch.

9. Atonement
Length: 5:07
Players: Joe Wright (Director), Seamus McGarvey (Cinematographer)
Ian McEwan’s 2001 novel, Atonement, became one of the defining literary works of the 2000s. It was epic in scale, deeply emotional and, by all accounts, unfilmable. Enter director Joe Wright and screenwriter Christopher Hampton who transformed McEwan’s novel into a intimate epic about the nature and power of storytelling itself. What’s more impressive is how Wright and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey translated the book’s very literature-based structure into a distinctly cinematic experience. And what better way to celebrate the beauty of cinema than with a majestic long take?

In condescending the book’s mid-section, which involves one of the character’s traumatic experiences in World War II, Wright cuts out much of the action from the book and instead turns the character’s arrival at Dunkirk into the defining scene. As the scene begins, the camera follows the main crew as they make their way across the Dunkirk beaches, where thousands of men await anxiously to be transported. Eventually, the camera breaks away from the group and we are treated to a widespread, kaleidoscopic view of the camp. Here, the film communicates all the scale, tragedy, chaos and camaraderie that characterize the book’s chapters into a single, five-minute take. Reportedly, the crew tried the shot four times before the Steadicam operator, Peter Robinson, collapsed from exhaustion. Though Robinson disputes this claim as “melodramatic” in a write-up about the shot, it’s still a nice bit of myth-making.

Unfortunately, embedding for the clip has been disabled, but you can watch it here.

8. Hard Boiled
Length: 2:42
The Players John Woo (Director), Wang Wing-Heng (Cinematographer)
Hard Boiled would be director John Woo’s final Hong Kong production before launching his Hollywood career with the Jean-Claude Van Damme film Hard Target . Already having set the bar with his brand of operatic, high octane action via films like The Killer, Woo seemed to determined to go out with guns literally blazing. He certainly achieved that with Hard Boiled, which once again reteamed him with frequent collaborator Chow Yun-Fat. Near the climax, the film features a scene that has police officer Tequila (Chow Yun-Fat) and undercover cop Tony (Tony Leung) running down a hallway full of baddies. The two are armed only with a pair of handguns and a high-calliber shot gun. The result is a sequence that’s pure eye candy to action film fans.

7. The Player
Length: 7:48
The Players: Robert Altman (Director), Jean Lepine (Cinematographer)
After a dry spell that lasted for much of the ‘80s, director Robert Altman came back in a big way with the one-two punch that was 1992’s The Player and 1993’s Short Cuts. A cynical satire on the corporate monster that is the Hollywood studio system, The Player makes its subversive nature known from the beginning with a very un-Hollywood eight-minute shot that takes the audience through every facet of the studio lot—from couriers delivering mail to a young Jeremy Piven giving a tour to screenwriters trying to pitch the next Hollywood blockbuster. Also, in a nice bit of self-reflectiveness, one of the characters we overhear complains about the frenetic cutting style of today’s films and bemoans the kind of long takes seen in Orson WellesTouch of Evil.

6. Goodfellas
Length: 3:00
The Players: Martin Scorsese (Director), Michael Ballhaus (Cinematographer)
Between Ragging Bull, Goodfellas, Casino and The Aviator, no one does the rise-and-fall story quite like Martin Scorsese. A master of the moving camera, Scorsese can often say in a single shot what normal films would need three scenes to communicate. This is especially true with Goodfellas, a film centering on the 25 year-long criminal career of Henry Hill. Like the best long takes, the Copacabana Nightclub entrance in Goodfellas serves to not only deliver a major “wow” moment but also to express significant character information. With this shot, Scorsese illustrates the apex of Hill’s criminal life—he’s a man who can bypass any barrier and have any door open for him. In the process, he’s taking his current girlfriend (and future wife) down the rabbit hole that is his corrupt, yet glamorous lifestyle.

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.

5. Children of Men
Length: 4:08
The Players: Alfonso Cuarón (Director), Emmanuel Lubezki (Cinematographer)
In creating a film adaption of P.D James’ dystopian sci-fi book about the collapse of society due to years of infertility, Children of Men director Alfonso Cuarón made a decision early on to film certain scenes in very long, fluid takes in order to “take advantage of the element of real time.” The resulting film contains some of the most jaw-dropping and beautifully choreographed extended takes in recent years. While there are several options to choose from, the one that immediately springs to mind is when the protagonists are ambushed during a car ride. As with many entries on this list, the amount of activity going on in this shot is baffling: the Clive Owen and Julianne Moore character perform a stunt involving a Ping-Pong ball, a main character is killed, a fiery car is thrown in front of the group’s pathway, a gang of savage wood-dwellers attack the car and, if all that weren’t enough, the vehicle is then held up by the police, leading to one character being forced to take some drastic actions.

In order to achieve all this activity in such a confined space, the camera crew built a special rigging system both inside and around the car. You can watch a feature on the making of this shot here.

4. Boogie Nights
Length: 2:54
The Players: Paul Thomas Anderson (Director), Robert Elswit (Cinematographer)
If the opening to Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1997 classic Boogie Nights only depicted porn director Jack Horner’s (Burt Reynolds) voyage from the street to the inside of a swinging ‘70s night club, it would have been an impressive achievement in itself. What makes this opening shot so amazing, however, is how it introduces almost every one of the film’s major players and gives them each a defining characterization. After feeling that his first film, Hard Eight, was compromised throughout the post-production process, Anderson saw Boogie Nights as his second chance to make a big first impression. And boy did he ever.

3. The Passenger
Length: 6:33
The Players: Michelangelo Antonioni (Director), Luciano Tovoli (Cinematographer)
Italian director Michelangelo Antonio’s filmography is ripe with stories of existential isolation involving characters drowning in a sea of ennui. His films are often slow, episodic and, needless to say, an acquired taste. Yet, while some may not warm to Antonio’s style automatically, his sheer talent for creating memorable, haunting visuals is undisputed. One of the major landmarks of his career is the penultimate shot of The Passenger, his 1975 film starring Jack Nicholson as David Locke, an American TV journalist caught up in a sticky, international dispute. A six-and-a-half minute dolly take, the shot begins in Locke’s hotel room before traveling through the bars on his doorway, doing a 180-degree turn in the outside courtyard and then returning back into the room.

In his commentary for the film, Nicholson confirms a long-standing rumor that Antonioni had the hotel built specifically to pull off the logistics of this one shot. Without the advent of the Steadicam, Antonioni and his crew designed a series of gyroscopes to pull off the shot’s fluid look. In order to achieve the effect of the camera moving through the bars, crew members designed a door that could be broken in two at the right moment to fit the camera through. What’s more, Antonioni directed the shot from a nearby van, communicating instructions via a series of monitors and microphones. In his commentary, Nicholson lovingly refers to it as an “Antonioni joke.”

2. Touch of Evil
Length:3:15
The Players: Orson Welles (Director), Russell Metty (Cinematographer)
Perhaps one of the most famous and oft-cited examples of the long take ever, the opening shot of Orson Welles’ 1958 masterpiece Touch of Evil remains one of the most extraordinary innovations in filmmaking. Beginning on a close-up of a bomb that is being placed into a trunk of a car, the camera pulls back and allows the audience to watch in horror as an unsuspecting couple gets into the vehicle and begin making their way across the nearby U.S.-Mexico border. While this is happening, the camera moves away from the car and hones in on the young couple (played by Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh) who will serve as our protagonists. It’s a shot that helps introduce both the characters and the world to the audience while simultaneously endowing the proceedings with a major hint of Hitchcock-level suspense. Welles would continue to make thought-provoking, cinema in his subsequent years, but never again would he achieve anything quite as visceral as this again.

1. Russian Ark
Length: 87:40
The Players: Alexander Sokurov (Director), Tilman Büttner (Cinematographer)
Making a historical drama that covers over 300 years of Russian history in 96 minutes? That’s a logistical nightmare. Doing it all in a single Steadicam take with a cast of over 2,000 actors with over 33 rooms to travel through and three full-blown orchestras to incorporate? That’s madness. Yet that’s precisely what director/co-writer Alexander Sokurov did in 2002. And, regardless of how you feel about the final product, it’s an achievement that should earn him a comfortable spot in film history.

The film follows an unnamed and (supposedly) recently deceased narrator as he wanders through the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. There, he eavesdrops on both real and fictionalized people from various points in Russian history.

Russian Ark was shot in uncompressed high definition video using a Sony HDW-F900. Whereas the information from the cameras was typically compressed to a tape, the filmmakers choose to compress it to a hard drive, which allowed for 100 minutes of continuous shooting. After two failed attempts due to technical malfunctions, the crew achieved the shot on the third try.

An ambitious project if there ever was one, Russian Ark acts as tangible proof that there is still room for wonder and awe in today’s cinematic landscape.

You can watch the whole movie here.

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