Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Long Take Part I: The Tracking Shot

Long takes in movies are very rare nowadays.  The aesthetics of modern American cinema are geared towards short takes and heavy editing for the sake of creating a a fast pacing.  Audiences get antsy without things moving along.  The long take can be seen as harmful to this purpose.  Tracking shots are a very important form of long take.  Tracking shots create a continuity that is necessarily lost with every edit.  This continuity can have multiple purposes.  Tracking shots also bring movement and balance out the perceived loss of energy and pacing that comes with less edits.  They also bring the sense of a point of view that is less "invisible," often that of a character within the film.  Lastly they create a certain economy, both aesthetically and in production.

All edits are breaks.  As Godard says, "Every edit is a lie."  It is the taking of one thing and splicing it with something else from a different time and place.  Long takes are a continuity.  Spatio-temporal continuity is upheld in a long take.  One frame leads to the next which directly proceeds it, not merely in the movie, but in the reality of the shooting what was being shot.  Both inside the world of the movie and in its making, these images are a continuity.  This is of course a continuity of time.  Normally it is safe to assume that time is playing out in real-time within a singular shot.  This can be used to dramatic effect as when a time-bomb is set off in the beginning of Orson Welles' film, Touch of Evil.  The continuity of time reminds us of the time ticking away on the bomb.  To break that continuity would relieve the purposely created tension as well as "cheat" in the timing of the bomb. Every edit is a possible time break and by definition a break in space.  Some new space is moved to or something new magically appears in a space. The break in continuity of space is usually performed quite smoothly under certain conventions, but is always ever-so-slightly more abrupt than no edit at all. 

This continuity can sometimes draw an audiences attention to the continuity of shooting and create some extra-textual meaning.  In the classic films with Fred Astaire, the dancing scenes would be done in less takes so the audience can appreciate the skill of the continuous dancing, and not see just a few steps between each cut.  The dancing was not merely a part of the story, but an exhibition of great skill by the dancer, not just the character, but Astaire himself.  This has also been done in a number of action films, a genre more known for fast pacing.  It adds to the realism because if the actor or stunt double can do things that we might normally assume are over the top, then the character in the film can certainly do these things.  On the other hand, this exhibition takes away from the realism by being somewhat self-conscious, but amazement with the feat of an actor or stunt double is itself an enjoyment.

Continuity can also be used for thematic purposes.  Take the case of Alfred Hitchcock's Rope, perhaps the first feature to be seemingly done in one take (of course there are hidden edits when the camera moves in on something because the film reels at the time were not long enough for one giant take).  The move is one long continuous line like a long rope.  There is also the case of Russian Ark, a film that follows many years of Russian history.  Russian history is a continuity until the end of the film which is the beginning of the Russian Revolution.

Tracking shots can avoid the biggest pitfalls of the long take.  Long takes can tend to remove energy from a movie which can bore some audience members.  Tracking shots use movement to recreate this energy and sense of movement.  In the case of Russian Ark, despite having no cuts in the entire 99 minutes, some who have seen it did not recognize this aesthetic until it was pointed out to them.  A camera can move around giving us a lot of information, all the same information as if heavy editing had been used and without the abruptness of editing.

Tracking shots also can be used to create or remove depth.  When the camera moves through objects, it creates a sense of depth.  Things go from small to large and they move past the camera.  This creates a more realistic, 3-D space.  When the camera pans across the side of a scene looking at it in profile, it removes a sense of depth.  Not all depth cues are removed because some things are still in front of or behind others visually, but the space is flattened.  Jean-Luc Godard uses tracking shots thematically to remove the illusion of depth from the shallow world he portrays as well as to give us a scene to look at without pulling us into the scene.

Long takes also give in to a sense of point of view.  They are like a human eye.  Our perceived reality, as Pier 
Paolo Passolini puts it, is "a long take that ends with the end of our lives."  The viewpoint of the camera is encumbered by the same powers as the eye of a living animal.  The longer we are held in this singular take, the more likely we are to think about its perspective, this perspective often not being omniscient, but the perspective of a character.  Almost no explicit point of view shot can be anything but a long take.  To shorten it would take away any sense of the continuity of human perception.  Filmmaker Jean Renoir, son of the famous painter, sought to give his camera movements the feel of a human eye scanning a room, following in the footsteps his father, Pierre Auguste Renoir, whose impressionistic paintings sought to give the viewpoint of the human eye in their own way.

In his book The Intellectual Life: It's Spirit, Methods, Conditions, A.G. Sertillanges, a French Dominican, touts the need for an "economy of style" in writing and art.  Nature has no embellishments and everything in nature serves a purpose.  The arts should follow suit.  Many great artists throughout history have espoused the idea of economy of style.  In transplanting this idea to film, we are led to two possibilities in the case of editing.  The first is that economy would mean less cuts when you could show all the information in one take.  The other would be to show only the most crucial information, but in more cuts.  I believe the first is more in keeping with the idea because it is an economy in the creation while the second is an economy of viewing because only the pertinent information would be onscreen.  This economy of course would also spread to production in that you would film less and take less time to do so.  Edits are mostly a needless embellishment.

The tracking shot is an interesting technique, a halfway between a static long take and editing. It is as elegant as it is exciting. It should be carefully embraced with all its power and charm.

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