long take (film narrative) The narration of a film without editing, using a single shot for the sequence, scene or a major part of a film. There is no set measure for when a shot becomes a long take, but it will encompass action the might be shot with coverage or with shot by shot set ups: for a long take screenplay is written and action is staged to facilitate a single shot to cover the action of the scene. This blocking technique is sometimes called ‘editing in camera’, because the staging and choreographing which produces a single set up scene replaces the need for post-production editing and therefore the term ‘editing in camera’ is appropriate. The technique is also known as ‘long take’ and sometimes ‘plan sequence’.
Advantages: There are several advantages in using a single set up, a single long take, to cover a scene. The single set up scene is economical in terms of time and therefore money, because only one set up is required for the scene. Even if the single take is complex it will still produce more finished footage in less time than several set ups covering the same action from different angles. The use of a single set up for a scene also reduces editing time, making it a very effective budgeting tool and for this reason it is a favorite with low budget productions.
When a scene is shot using coverage, involving a number of camera set ups, the actors have to control and repeat their performance quite precisely to prevent continuity problems. In a single set up scene the performers’ need to make their marks and the camera needs to be carefully choreographed, but the actors can perform more freely during a take knowing that they will not have to repeat the same actions for set ups covering the scene from different angles to allow for continuity editing. Inexperienced directors can benefit from using single set up scenes because, ‘what you see is what you get’. The performance the director sees in the single set up is not going to be altered by editing. It is easier to judge the pace, quality of performance and the overall effectiveness of a scene if an inexperienced director does not have to imagine how the set ups will appear when they are edited.
Disadvantages: There are some disadvantages and problems in using a single set up to shoot a scene. If the single set up does not work well within the film as a whole there is little or no way to change it apart from cutting off chunks at the beginning or the end of the shot. It requires confidence and skill to rely on a single set up scene to work well within a story. If a drama is shot in a series of long single set up scenes the pace may become stodgy and the story loses dramatic emphasis. This is can be due to the lack of change in the use of camera angles and because the absence of cutting makes the audience feel that the tone of the story is somewhat predictable.
In the television soap the single set up scene can be used, because of the need to shoot a lot of material very quickly and the short snappy scenes of the soap opera suit this treatment. However in the ‘quality’ television drama the single set up scene is avoided and scenes are usually covered from several angles. Coverage is used for television drama because these programmes have to fit specific time slots; eleven minutes between adverts, etc. Also, television production is producer controlled and this control can be exercised in the editing if multiple set ups are used. Also, productions may need to be re-edited due to broadcast policy and further re-editing may also take place when different versions of a programme are prepared for screening in countries around the globe. In the television drama frequent use of the single set up scene is rarely an option open to a director, because the single set up scene severely limits the options in the editing stage.
How to successfully design and stage single set up scenes. The primary rule is simplicity: Keep the camera movement simple and repeatable and move the performers. It is easier to get people to move intricately rather than a camera and its crew. Use a simple panning shot, or a single straight track. The options for framing and blocking in the single set up scene are numerous. If the camera is simply static performers can: Move away or towards the lens. Change sides in the frame. Move into and out of frame and across the frame. If camera movement is added to the long take: The camera can reveal and frame a range of spaces with a variety of backgrounds and compositions. The camera can reveal performers. The camera can move with performers or away from the performers. The camera can participate in the action. The camera can comment on and tell the story by leading the audience towards a certain viewpoint. For example by allowing the spectator to see one character’s private reaction.
A director will find this procedure useful when planning and story boarding long single set ups: Draw out a simple overhead diagram, a basic map of the performance space, Choose a spot for the camera to be positioned. Choose the angle of the lens and through imaginary camera movements and which follow the performers’ movements work through the possible options for framing and choreographing the shot. Planning the single set up just on paper is one option, but this creative process can be made three dimensional by using some small miniature figures to acts as the performers and then they are actually moved around in front of an imaginary camera. Trial and error will eventually produce a result where the drama can unfold in front of a single set up. If getting the framing with a single lens angle proves difficult this is an occasion when an adjusting zoom can prove highly effective. The warning for pre production planning is that if set ups are very complex in terms of camera and choreographing it may be difficult, if not impossible to successfully stage them on the set. As a rule keep the camera movement to a simple movement. For dramatic effect move the performers in decisive ways; into and out of shot and from the foreground to the background. The single set up scene offers a great deal of variety if properly designed and many scenes can be successfully covered using this type of blocking.
The biggest potential problem in rehearsing a long, complex set up is the possibility that the performers will be forced into such a rigid and precise pattern of movement that they will become worn out in rehearsal and as a consequence produce a tired, stilted and unconvincing performance. Similarly, if a single set up is designed to be overly-exact the camera crew will never be able to achieve the necessary precision in performing the shot and frustration will set in. In practice if the director has the skills to thoughtfully design a long single set up then the actors’ movements will be fairly straightforward and the choreographing of the set up will match the dramatic intention of the scene. In these circumstances, when the director takes care not to become too fussy or complex, the performers and the camera crew will be able to work well with the necessary blocking and they will not find it a restriction.
In order to avoid problems during rehearsals and filming an inexperienced director’s attempts at the single set up scene should be kept as simple as possible. Any overly complex, impossible to rehearse shot, evidences poor direction: if the performers can’t make the required marks to match the camera it is the director’s fault and the director should adjust the set up if this begins to occur. The procedure for running a single set up scene on the set should be as follows: The performers and the director develop how the scene will be played in relation to the set up in the storyboard. Nothing is finalized before this stage. The camera is placed in the approximate position for the story boarded set up and the scene is simply walked through until the choreographing and continuity is clear. The director should not expect to finalize and fix the camera position or the performers’ marks during the first stage of this process, because it is during this rehearsal period that the director and performers can usefully improve and develop the scene and putting down marks at the very start will only hinder the rehearsals and even slow down the shooting time, because marks will change and the performers and the camera crew will become unclear as to what blocking and marks have finally been decided. The director when agreeing to the performers’ wishes will be quietly bearing in mind that the scene is to be recorded in a single set up, but this will be done subtlety and not be used to confine the performers’ own interpretation of the scene.
There is a trade-off to be made between the performers’ suggestions for staging the scene and the pre-planning of the set up. A good director will balance these without conflict and a weak director should always bear in mind that a poor performance will badly damage a production, while a simplified set up may make little difference to the overall film. The director will, in most circumstances, favor the performers’ wishes if rehearsing the scene proves difficult.
During the initial on set rehearsals for a single set up the camera operator and the cinematographer may well be observing and considering how the single set up will work, but the camera operator and cinematographer do not decide how a scene should be played. The camera operator will be considering which lens angle and which camera position will be best for the scene, but will never be the person who tries to control the blocking of a scene. The production team are working to support the director and the performers, not to confine them. If it turns out that the performers’ ideas are completely unusable for the planned set up the director will either guide them back to the original plan for the set up, or devise a new set up.
Principles for successful long takes: Single set ups are used to shoot scenes using a single long-take set up. They can be complex or simple. They are a fast and efficient ways to cover a scene and save time in production. For this reason they are often favored by low-budget filmmakers.
Single set ups simplify continuity for a scene because there is no need for the director to break a scene down into separate set ups that overlap and therefore need to match in terms of continuity of action, props and dialogue.
Single set up scenes can be dynamic, complex and may require a high degree of skill. They allow actors to show off their talents, because actors can change their performance for each take.
There are three approaches to single set ups with a growing level of difficulty at each stage:
One: Keep the camera movement simple; completely static, or a simple pan or track, and then move the actors rather than the camera. It is easier for a person to move and change direction in a complex path than a camera.
Two: Use complex camera movements; twisting, curving, following, panning, tilting, etc., but keep the movements of the actors simple; standing, walking, etc.
Three: Use complex camera movements and complex actors’ movements where both camera and actors need to be highly choreographed and coordinated.
Plan your set up in advance of shooting using a floor plan of the location and small models for the actors and the camera positions.
Plan the scene in a rehearsal prior to shooting where the actors, or stand-ins for the actors, and a camera operator work slowly through the scene and the camera positions. This will take time and effort.
Do not try to prepare a long single set up on a production day with a full crew in attendance as it results in time being wasted and having a large crew standing around doing nothing is often frustrating for them.
What the director needs to identify for a successful single set up are the key frames for each part of the shot. These are the framings that match the camera position to the actor’s positions in relation to the action and the dialogue at key parts of the scene. These can then be noted on the script so that the set up as practiced on paper or in rehearsals can be reproduced on set. A good single set up will clearly show the action and reactions of the actors in the scene; it will help tell the story. It will control the pace and dynamism of the story because single set ups are expressive; they can be frantic, formal, stately, chaotic etc., depending on the camerawork used.
On set single set ups will be prepared by actors slowly walking through the action and dialogue for the scene with the camera movements being made at the same time and marks being put down for the positions of the camera and actors for the key frames. It is important to note that keeping the camera movement simple and moving the actors is the first level of skill for shooting single set ups. If a set up too complex for the skill of the actors or the crew it will fail.
A single set up scene will be a success if: It is properly planned in advance and the key frames identified. If it is planned within the skills and experience of the cast and crew. If the camera operator is competent, concentrated and prepared.
Single set ups will fail: If they are only imagined in the mind of the director and there is no physical planning or rehearsal for the set up. If the set up is too complex for the camera operator and the cast to perform. If actors do not know their lines and their performance of the scene breaks down during the shooting of a long take, then the planned set up will fail.
Copyright: Eugene Doyen 2019