Long shots are harder to film than short cuts, but the end results can be spectacular (or unnoticable, depending on the filmmaker). Here are 13 memorable long and unbroken single takes.
1. Goodfellas (3:04)
This long steadicam shot through the back door and kitchen of the Copacabana in Goodfellas isn't just a cool-looking scene—it amounts to one of the film's most powerful metaphors. Clocking in at just over three minutes long, we watch the benefits of organized crime through the eyes of Karen, an outsider and girlfriend of Henry Hill. The mob lifestyle literally opens doors, and as Karen becomes increasingly impressed with Henry’s power and social stature, so does the viewer.
The shot took seven takes to complete, and Scorsese feared it would bore the audience.
2. Russian Ark (96 minutes)
One of the most ambitious projects ever made, Russian Ark is a 96-minute film that is made with one single shot—no cuts or edits. The film is set in 19th century Russia and takes place in 33 rooms in the Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg with a cast of more than 2000 actors. It took director Alexander Sokurov only three attempts to complete Russian Ark in a single take.
3. Boogie Nights (2:54)
Paul Thomas Anderson is a modern master of filmmaking, and his sophomore effort Boogie Nights features one of the best opening shots of the '90s. Smashing in with infectious disco music and a marquee of the film’s title, the sequence introduces Boogie Nights’ core cast in one three-minute shot.
4. Atonement (5:08)
Joe Wright's Atonement features stunning photography, and this is most evident in an amazing single shot that lasts for more than five minutes. The scene is featured towards the latter half of the film when Robbie Turner, played by James McAvoy, finds himself on a French beach at the end of the Battle of Dunkirk.
Because of financial limitations, Wright and his cinematographer, Seamus McGarvey, were forced to come up with a creative solution when the production budget wouldn’t allow for the scene to feature thousands of extras playing British soldiers. Instead, they conceived a steadicam shot that would capture the horrors of war and a soldier’s panic in a sea of well-choreographed chaos.
5. Panic Room (2:28)
Though director David Fincher started using the virtual camera on 1999's FIght Club, his 2002 thriller Panic Room solidified his love for the filmmaking technique. Although the almost two-and-a-half minute unbroken shot that flies through banisters, a keyhole, and a coffee mug handle may seem like the director is showing off what he can do with his new toy, Fincher actually uses the camera to fully establish the New York townhouse’s geography and where everyone is inside before the home invasion.
6. I Am Cuba (Soy Cuba) (1:29 and 2:34)
In 1964, director Mikhail Kalatozov made I Am Cuba (Soy Cuba). It brims with style and two of the most elaborate and awe-inspiring single shots in cinematic history. Kalatozov’s camera weaves seamlessly through the streets of Havana during a funeral procession. The first shot begins at street level, while the second gives a bird’s eye view of the streets and people below.
7. The Protector (Tom-Yum-Goong) (3:47)
Thai martial arts film The Protector (Tom-Yum-Goong) brought action star Tony Jaa to the American mainstream. When the film opened in the United States in 2005, it was the first Thai film to ever break into the top 5 at the box office during its opening weekend. With dynamic and elaborate action and stunt choreography, you can easily see why The Protector was so popular. One of the most notable action sequences involves a long, unbroken shot that took one month to develop and stage, and five takes to get right. The end result is a breathtaking piece of action filmmaking.
8. Touch of Evil (3:31)
The gripping opening scene from Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil is one of the director's most intricate and complicated shots. It begins with a time bomb placed inside of a car trunk and lasts for three and a half minutes as the car drives through a busy border city, its occupants unaware of the disaster about to occur.
9. Rope (10:06)
Alfred Hitchcock wanted Rope to play out in real time much like the stage play that it was based on. To pull off this impressive feat, Hitchcock had to shoot Rope in a series of long and extended takes and cut it in such a way that it would appear seamless. The film consists of ten segments, with the longest take clocking in at a little over 10 minutes.
10. Hard Boiled (2:49)
Hong Kong action film Hard Boiled was John Woo’s calling card for American studios to take note of his work. Although the film was made in 1992, Hard Boiled still showcases some of the best action sequences in modern cinema history—notably, this unbroken and uninterrupted shoot-out that lasts for almost three straight minutes.
During Inspector Tequila and Tony’s raid in a hospital, the pair takes a break to re-load in an elevator, while inside John Woo’s production team frantically re-dressed the demolished corridors to make it look like a different floor before the action starts up again.
11. Paths of Glory (1:39)
Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory shows off the director’s use of beautiful black and white photography while capturing the horrors of war. Although some of the movie takes place in trenches during WWI, Kubrick manages to make the small space feel dynamic and engaging with a series of long tracking shots.
12. The Player (8:08)
Director Robert Altman’s comeback film The Player features an 8-minute unbroken take showcasing the film’s post-modern tone. In the opening scene, Altman’s actors ad-lib a majority of their dialogue, including references to Touch of Evil’s unbroken tracking shot, Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, and the fictional sequel to The Graduate.
13. Children of Men (3:57)
This film about a dystopian future features a number of long and unbroken scenes, but the most memorable is the car attack sequence. It runs about four minutes long and features playful and flirty banter between Theo and Julian, played by Clive Owen and Julianne Moore, which quickly turns into mayhem and panic when an armed gang attacks the car from all directions. Cuarón’s production built a special rig around the car so a camera could swivel and capture the action from every angle. The end result is one of the more thrilling and intense moments in the film. You can watch it here.