The greatest long takes in film and TV

With a long take, the director chooses to follow the narrative with one shot for the length of an entire scene—or longer—in order to provide a unique perspective and/or speed up production. Popularized by films like Alfred Hitchcock's 1948 thriller Rope, the long take can now be found in many films and TV shows; some are nearly invisible unless you know what you're looking for, while others are masterful tour de forces meant to grab the audience's attention. Here are some of our favorite long takes from film and television, along with our "take" on what makes them so special.

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

It's only 96 seconds, but the scene introducing the character of Marion Ravenwood in Stephen Spielberg's 1981 adventure film Raiders of the Lost Ark is a classic example of what's come to be known as a "Spielberg Oner." While there have been a few exceptions (like in Saving Private Ryan), Spielberg Oners tend to be unobtrusive—you don't realize you're even looking at a long take in many cases.  The one from Raiders is particularly noteworthy because it does such a great job of introducing the audience to Marion, while also adding some tension to the drinking contest and heightening the hilarity of her opponent's eventual collapse.

Game of Thrones (2016)

In the penultimate episode of season six on Game of Thrones ("Battle of the Bastards"), director Miguel Sapochnik pulled off an long take tracking shot following protagonist Jon Snow as he navigates through a pitched battle between his army and Ramsay Bolton's. At just 60 seconds, it's the shortest long take on our list, but gives audiences a visceral and bloody look inside a frenetic battle, making it perhaps one of the more realistic depictions of a medieval clash between armies. Audiences and critics alike loved the episode; it remains one of the highest-rated by viewers on IMDb, and it won a record-setting seven Primetime Emmy Awards.

True Detective (2014)

While well-executed long take tracking shots have long been featured in movies, in recent years, they've started to pop up in television productions more frequently. In 2014, HBO set the bar during season one, episode four of their crime anthology drama True Detective, starring Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson. Directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, the six-minute long take at the end of the episode follows Rust Cohle (McConaughey) through a complex scene involving a gang robbery gone wrong, several shootouts, a hostage-taking and chase through multiple houses, and an escape over a fence into a waiting vehicle. It's an amazing take in a great episode, one that propelled True Detective into the mainstream, earning Fukunaga and the rest of the crew multiple Primetime Emmy Awards wins and nominations.

Oldboy (2003)

Not only is the "hallway fight" scene from Park Chan-wook's noir thriller Oldboy one of the best action sequences to be found in Korean films of the 2000s, it's also an impressive three-minute long take. The cinematography isn't anything complex; the motion of the camera simply slides sideways, following protagonist Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) as he advances down a hallway while beating up (and getting beaten up by) a group of thugs. However, the simplicity works, especially when paired with the gritty surroundings and simple fighting techniques. The scene's reminiscent of old beat-'em-up arcade games like Double Dragon—if Double Dragon allowed you to take on dozens of bad guys at once and bash their heads in with a claw hammer.

The X-Files (1998)

Inspired by the 1948 Alfred Hitchcock film Rope (which was cleverly edited to appear as if the entire movie was one long take), The X-Files director Chris Carter made the decision to film an episode of his hit sci-fi series the same way. In the season six episode "Triangle," Carter used several long takes stitched together to achieve the same effect, also using some interesting split-screen techniques to weave together the past and present storylines depicted.

This particular long take features Agent Scully as the camera follows her throughout the FBI building and eventually into a VW van, where she makes a quick escape. The episode was primarily filmed on a soundstage, which meant that each time Scully used the "elevator" to switch floors, crew members and extras had to rush around in order to change the set and get in place before the elevator doors opened again.

Gravity (2013)

Already known for his groundbreaking long take car scene from 2006's Children of Men, Alfonso Cuarón one-upped himself with the release of the 2013 science fiction thriller Gravity. The film opens with an amazing 17-minute long take, beginning with a stunning view of Earth from orbit and ending with an astronaut (Sandra Bullock) flung away into the blackness of outer space. While Cuarón won't give away all the secrets behind the making of this shot (and who can blame him?), we do know the crew created a special cage-like lighting rig, which was able to rotate lights around the actors at high speed to give the illusion they were spinning or flipping in zero gravity. No matter how it was achieved, there's no question that this long take will remain Cuarón's calling card for a long time—until he raises the bar yet again.

Strange Days (1995)

Although it was a commercial failure when it premiered in 1995, Kathryn Bigelow's sci-fi thriller Strange Days deserves a second look. Particularly impressive were the many point-of-view shots which served as a main part of the film's plot (as neural recordings which were then sold on the black market). The film opens with one of these point-of-view "SQUID" recordings, which is also an extended long take that sets the tone for the rest of the movie.

In the shot, a group of criminals attempt to rob a Chinese restaurant and are pursued by police onto the rooftops, where the criminal making the recording falls to his death after trying to jump between buildings. While the three-minute take does contain a couple of very well-hidden cuts, the overall effect is that of one continuous shot, which was filmed expertly by camera operator James Muro (with the help of a stuntman for the building jump.)

Bonfire of the Vanities (1990)

Director Brian De Palma has become known as a frequent champion of the long take; you can spot them in many of his films, including Carrie, Carlito's Way, Mission: Impossible, and The Untouchables. While many fans might point to the opening scene from the 1998 Nicolas Cage thriller Snake Eyes as his best example, it's surpassed by the similar tracking shot that opened De Palma's 1990 black comedy adaptation of The Bonfire of the Vanities. Like Snake Eyes, Bonfire was poorly received, but this shot stands out as a bright spot. The long take introduces us to Bruce Willis' character, who drunkenly makes his way from the basement parking garage of a hotel to the main lobby for a black-tie event surrounding the release of his book.

It's a masterfully choreographed shot, one that Steadicam operator Larry McConkey recalled took at least twelve takes to complete and even resulted in one crew member needing stitches. Even more impressive, McConkey managed to nail the shot (featuring several changes in position relative to Willis) while trailing a collection of other crew members—who had to synchronize their neighboring elevator so they all exited onto the upper floor at the same time.

The Sacrifice (1986)

Over the course of his career, Soviet filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky (Solaris, Stalker) became known as a master of the long take, with many of his movies including masterful examples. Tarkovsky's final movie, filmed while he was suffering from terminal lung cancerThe Sacrifice is dotted with a number of long takes, the most moving of which marks the finale. 

In the climax of the film, the main character sets his house on fire, and Tarkovsky commences his long take once the fire starts to take hold. For six minutes, a wide angle reveals the drama unfolding with simple side-to-side tracking: the rapid progression of the fire, the weeping and disturbed man who set it, his stunned family (recently returned from a walk), the maid he had an affair with, and the ambulance that comes to take him away.

What's most remarkable about this long take was the effort involved: during the first attempt, Tarkovsky's camera jammed, rendering the take useless. The house had to be rebuilt quickly (at great expense) for a second try. In this take, the shot ends abruptly right after the house collapses—because the camera had run out of film.

Russian Ark (2002)

Unlike the previously mentioned "one-shot" Hitchcock film Rope (which hid its cuts in annoying close-ups of the actors' backs), Alexander Sokurov's 2002 historical drama Russian Ark is literally one 87-minute take. While director Mike Figgis achieved a similar running time first with his one-shot experimental film Timecode in 2000, Russian Ark sets the bar for complexity and beauty.

Filmed entirely within the Winter Palace at the Russian Hermitage Museum, the movie takes us on a tour of 33 rooms and three centuries of Saint Petersburg's history as director of photography Tilman Büttner navigates with a Steadicam through a cast of nearly 1500 people and three orchestras. Beyond the visual appeal of Russian Ark, this fact that the shot was completed in the minuscule four-hour filming block they were given is amazing given the massive amount of planning, choreography, and blocking that had to be executed to perfection.

The Secret in their Eyes (2009)

Directed, co-written, produced, and edited by Argentinian filmmaker Juan José Campanella, the 2009 crime drama The Secret in their Eyes won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film at the 82nd Academy Awards—and for good reason. The film also features several long takes, including a visually stunning five-minute one which begins with an aerial shot of a packed fútbol stadium before closing in on the main characters in the crowd and following them Steadicam-style as they pursue a suspect through its underbelly and finally out on the field itself. The shot marked the first time extensive CGI technology had been used in an Argentinian film production; lead visual effects designer Rodrigo Tommaso provided a great video breakdown of how they created many elements of the long take, which you can watch here.

Casualty (2017)

While the long-running British hospital serial drama Casualty is undoubtedly popular, you wouldn't normally associate it with pioneering filmmaking methods. In 2017, director Jon Sen attempted something unprecedented: shooting an entire episode of the show with a single take. At 48 minutes, the long take used for the series 31 finale "One" is the lengthiest to ever appear on British television, including "full cast, multiple locations, explosions."

The shot required coordinating hundreds of cast and crew members as well as practical effects like the house explosion before the title credits. Due to the heavy equipment, it also required two cameramen—who had to seamlessly hand off the camera about halfway through the episode. Some viewers—no doubt used to the more traditional methods normally used on Casualtycomplained about getting "motion sickness" from the fast-moving camera work, but most hailed "One" as a landmark episode that really captures the energy and controlled chaos of a hospital emergency department.

Weekend (1967)

In his 1967 black comedy Weekend, French director Jean-Luc Godard presents the audience with a thoroughly unlikeable couple—so uncaring that they each plan to murder the other in order to escape the relationship. Before they can do that, however, they need to take a cross-country trip to secure a pending inheritance. As the embittered pair embark on their journey, they—and the film itself—are interrupted by a massive traffic jam along a country road. Orchestrated masterfully by Godard, the crowd of cars seems to stretch for almost a mile and takes the bickering couple nearly eight minutes of screen time to navigate, as they illegally pass and essentially road-rage their way through.

Godard inserts some wonderful attention-grabbing and expectation-defying sights along the way—people tossing a ball between their cars, a traveling menagerie, or the woman who's found herself trapped and facing down a Shell Oil gasoline tanker. When we finally reach the cause of the holdup—a horrifyingly bloody car accident—the ruthlessness of the couple becomes evident as they (and the camera) speed past without a pause.

Soy Cuba (1964)

Originally conceptualized as a propaganda piece for Russia following the rise of Castro-era socialism in Cuba, Mikhail Kalatozov's Soy Cuba ("I am Cuba") features some of the most gorgeous filmmaking techniques of its time. Long takes feature prominently throughout, along with other interesting methods, including the use of infrared film to increase the contrast. Although the film gained little notice upon its release, it included two particularly groundbreaking long takes: the one embedded above follows a funeral procession through the streets, then travels four stories up before moving laterally into the top floor of a cigar factory, moving through it before continuing to follow the procession by literally floating out of the factory window and above the street. The shot involved a complex system of pulleys and cables to hoist the cameraman, along with an army of helpers to move him along the way.

Another famous long take from the beginning of Soy Cuba takes place at a decadent rooftop hotel party, following the revelers through multiple levels of action and even underwater into the pool. This scene would later be heavily referenced in the pool party tracking shot filmed for 1997's Boogie Nights.

Touch of Evil (1958)

Director Orson Welles was an early pioneer of the long take, first using it in his celebrated 1941 film Citizen Kane—and his Touch of Evil, released in 1958, contains one of the most famous and frequently referenced long takes in film history. The complex tracking crane shot which opens the film shows someone placing a bomb inside of a mayor's vehicle, then follows the car and its occupants as they drive through the streets of a small Mexican town to the U.S. border. The shot clocks in at three minutes, 20 seconds, and was famously lampshaded in Robert Altman's 1992 film The Player, where two characters discuss the Touch of Evil shot while the camera performs a similar (but longer) take, giving viewers a tour around a film studio lot.

Believe it or not, the Touch of Evil opening wasn't even the longest take in the film. Later, Welles orchestrated a 12-minute-long take set within an apartment, which is all the more impressive because it's an "invisible" shot—most viewers don't realize it's a long take until it's pointed out to them.