The 10 Greatest Long Takes Before ‘Children of Men’ Changed the Game

     December 23, 2016

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Children of Men wasn’t the first film to stage lengthy scenes with intricate camera movements all contained within one shot, but it was certainly a game changer. For decades, directors had orchestrated many breathtaking shots with people moving in and out of the frame, intricately timed as a camera moves on a crane, track or steadicam. However, none contained as much violence and carnage as Men was able to display in lengthy shots that required days of orchestration to time explosions, bullets, motorcycles and charging counterrevolutionaries.

Children of Men was the most elaborate big budget film that had multiple long orchestrated takes—and it is still a stunning achievement. 10 years later, the long take that packs in massive carnage with shifting camera vantage points become a common part of action filmmaking. It’s easy to understand why. By not cutting there’s an adrenaline rush and tightening tension that occurs that makes viewers feel like they’re witnessing the events in real time. There are no cuts to weapons, fists, expressions, to provide extra context or a break from said tension; instead it’s viscerally present, all in one moment.

Children of Men’s two biggest pieces—a surprise attack on a car that’s holding revolutionaries who are escorting the first woman to become pregnant after a decade of worldwide infertility, and an extensive battle within a bombed out building—required days to set up. For the car chase, the crew had the location for that shot for 12 days. 10 days were spent getting the camera axes correct on the car rig, placing the attackers in their proper places to enter the shot after launching a fiery roadblock, charge the car, back up the car, send a motorcycle toward the car to fire, crash and then pan back around to reveal one of the most shocking early deaths of a well known actor ever filmed. That doesn’t even include the beginning portion of the scene where two former lovers, Clive Owen and Julianne Moore, play a charming parlor trick involving a ping-pong ball to lull the viewer into feeling safe before the attack. It took 10 days to set up all those human and camera movements, which gave them only two days to shoot. And due to all those movements, director Alfonso Cuaron could only attempt three total shots due to the reset time over two days to get it.

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Image via Universal Pictures

Rather famously, in another, longer set-up for the shootout at the end, when the camera moves through a building during a battle, Alfonso Cuaron yelled cut when blood hit the camera but the crew didn’t hear him due to all the sounds from the action they were capturing, so they kept rolling and that bloody take is what we have in the film. Days of preparation and timing of specific movements were spent on getting both of these elaborate shots. Both are integral moments in the film and it’s hugely impressive that they were pulled off with only a few tries to get while filming. But the result is much more than a showiness of technical proficiency. These long takes enhance the narrative by creating an immense and consistent feeling that something can go wrong at any moment because the long take maintains a level of discomfort without a release until the threat of the attack is over. The two mentioned set pieces are the biggest, but Cuaron uses the long take throughout the film, whenever a physical threat is coming. A video essay of every shot in Children of Men that lasts longer than 45 seconds (viewable at the bottom of this page) clocks in at 32 minutes, or ¼ of the film’s total runtime. The tension is constant.

The very cinematographer who pulled off some of the biggest camera feats of all time on that film, three-time Oscar-winner Emmanuel Lubezki (who shockingly didn’t win for Children of Men), has since gone on to shoot many more elaborate long takes with Gravity, Birdman and The Revenant. But as the thirst for the complex long take has increased, the line has blurred more in the past decade of what constitutes a pure long take. Cinematographers consistently use scripted edit points to create shots where there’d be a natural cut that could seamlessly combine two takes and still appear like it all occurred in one take (see: Birdman taking that approach to make an entire film look like one continuous take, and True Detective’s epic six-minute escape from a drug den to the streets which features two built-in edits that went unused but were plain to see where they could have been used, like the pan up to the helicopters, to make it appear like a long take even if it were two shots).

Image via Universal Pictures

Image via Universal Pictures

For cinema’s first 50 years, it was impossible to have shots that would last as long as almost all of the long takes in Cuaron’s 2006 film—because cameras could only hold 1000 feet of film (10 minutes) before it was unable to reload more film. Long before Birdman, Alfred Hitchcock wanted Rope to look like one continuous shot, so he shot ten minutes at a time, a whole role of film, ending each shot on a flat surface and then zooming out when the new reel was loaded. There are 11 shots in the film. Since Hitchcock’s experiment, the long take has largely been favored by an auteur who’s earned enough goodwill to be entrusted with a shot that would take a whole production day (or more) to set up (such as Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma, Robert Altman, Robert Zemeckis and Michelangelo Antonioni) and frequently it was used for glorious intros to many characters at once or an outro of a darkness enveloping our main characters. However, post Children of Men the long take has become a desired built in trait for many action and thriller films and many crews are more formally trained to pull it off.

Since Children of Men has greatly influenced the blockbuster use of the long take, on its 10-year anniversary we’ve decided to look at some of the best long takes that pre-dated and perhaps influenced the film. Although the shots below contain less violence and over-boiling tension, there is a commonality in how much information they relay to the audience to create a sense of growing unease.

Peruse our list and let us know which is your personal favorite long take from Children of Men. Which are your favorite post-Men? And how’d we fare on our roundup of the best long takes that pre-dated 2006’s monolithic achievement, Children of Men.

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