Don’t look now, but movies are becoming faster than ever. Average shot lengths — the amount of time between camera cuts — have decreased significantly from about 12 seconds in 1930 to only two and a half seconds, according to Cornell University psychologist James Cutting. While the change in shot length may not seem to have much of an effect on viewers, over the course of hundreds or even thousands of cuts, the effect is substantial.
Shorter shots are designed to feel as though something important is happening at all times. In shorter scenes, there is hardly a moment to breathe, let alone reflect on the action. Against this movement, long-take films like director Sam Mendes’ World War I epic “1917” stand out. Long-take films better showcase artistry and thoughtfulness in moviemaking. An explanation of the history of the long or single take and how we got here offers insight into what makes “1917” and its long-take peers like “Birdman” and parts of “Goodfellas” really stand out in a sea of choppy action films.
By hiding the cuts between shots, films like “1917” create the illusion of one continuous stream of action. Each moment is important because everything on screen is causally related to what comes next. Long-take films express the stream of consciousness approach to storytelling that encourages the audience to be engaged throughout the entire film. Lose your place or skip ahead, and you’ll end up lost with no way to recover.
The long-take film is by no means a new approach to filmmaking. The technique was pioneered by Alfred Hitchcock’s 1948 film “Rope,” based on the stage play of the same name and starring James Stewart. Working under the limits of film stock, the transparent plastic film strips, Hitchcock filmed shots in segments of up to 10 minutes. He hid transitions with timely cuts and camera movements when the lens was temporarily obscured, such as panning over an object or a wall.
Though “Rope” has become a cult classic among movie buffs, critics argued that the unproven long-take approach was too distracting. They claimed that the real-time pacing coupled with the restricted apartment setting rendered the film overly theatrical rather than cinematic. But “Rope” marks one of the many examples that distinguish Hitchock as a master filmmaker who was far ahead of his time. Long-take in “Rope” is able to draw the audience deeply into the story of publisher Rupert Cadell (Stewart), who inspires the murder that motivates the plot, keeping viewers fixated on every action and every movement.
Critical and commercial responses to “Rope,” however, ultimately turned generations of filmmakers away from another big-budget attempt at a single-take motion picture. If Hitchcock, with his history of critical acclaim and abundant accolades, couldn’t pull it off, then perhaps no one could. Instead, intensified continuity editing, which involves brief shots and abundant close-ups, has become increasingly common, particularly in action movies.
The relentless “Fast and Furious” franchise exemplifies this technique. The aim of intensified continuity editing is essentially to overwhelm viewers with action and intensity. Split-second shots create the false impression of stunning action in place of more practical choreographed stunts, which require more technique and skill to execute, championed by the likes of Buster Keaton and Jackie Chan in the past.
The modern resurgence of the single-take films indicates that filmgoers are exhausted by the influx of jumpy, full-throttle pacing. Of course, there will always be room for action-packed summer blockbusters with their choppy shots. Outcomes at the box office and award shows, however, reward films at the longer end of the pacing spectrum, like “1917” and “Birdman,” which illustrates newfound appreciation for the merits of the long take.
In the era of intensified continuity, the single-take film has found redemption at the least expected of times. Hitchcock did not fail in his so-called “Rope” experiment — he was only 70 years too early to witness its success and appreciation.
Tucker Oberting is a junior in the College. The Reel Deal appears in print and online every other Friday.