Designing Impressive Long Takes and Oners

The mark of a good director and cinematographer duo is telling a story clearly through the images that appear on a screen. The great ones find a way to go above and beyond.

One particular shot that separates the women from the girls is the “oner” or “one shot” take. The camera follows the action for a long period of time. Often this can be on a Steadicam, but you might find a fantastic oner accomplished handheld, on a dolly, or on a camera crane. Usually these are dynamic moving shots that change framing and action before your eyes, whereas a normal setup would be to edit a series of shots together.

It’s harder to do things this way, and so the oner must be deliberate and planned to perfection. It’s something you might want to try in your next film.

The best way to design something complicated is to study those that came before you. Here I’ve given four examples of incredible oners that I admire and I know you will too.

The Haunting of Hill House Season 1 Episode 6 “Two Storms

A large chunk of Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House Episode 6 is a 17 minute long oner that spans huge passes of time, flashbacks, special effects and more. It’s an incredibly complicated task that helped tell this unique story.

Part of what makes this scene so surreal is the fact that it doesn’t break away, doesn’t give a respite from following each character around during this pivotal storm. This genius choreography couldn’t have been pulled off without careful timing and a large well-rehearsed crew and cast.

You can watch the whole episode on Netflix, but you also can get the idea from this clip:

Also worthy of watching is this Making Of Featurette, which shows some of the ways this complicated long shot was choreographed:

Children of Men (2006)

The car scene. Not only is this a long take, it’s fraught with anxiety, showing different views out the windows of the car, placing the viewer in with the passengers of the vehicle. The drama unfolds in real-time, starting off with an innocuous car ride and conversation, escalating into a mad dash away from a hoard of crazy people attacking the car’s occupants.

The way they filmed this scene is actually pretty incredible and technical. At about 1 minute into this featurette, they discuss this particular scene. They used the Sparrowhead Doggie cam, a camera suspended inside the car on a track. The car was also specially designed for this scene. The driver is not actually driving it — there’s a man in front of the car low to the ground who is actually doing the driving. They don’t show it here, but they actually had seats that folded out of the way so the camera could get past the actors. 

Birdman

Now this one gets an honorable mention because the whole movie is structured like it takes place in one long take. There are a number of hidden cuts that make this possible, but there are certainly a number of true long takes. You experience in real time Riggan getting stuck outside the playhouse during the performance and having to navigate a busy Times Square in his tighty whities.

At about 45 seconds into this video, you see a grip positioning a silk in order to adjust the lighting on the actors faces on the fly. The whole movie had to be choreographed with the actors and crew in this way in order to avoid setting up classic lighting scenarios and keep things on the move.

Baby Driver (2017)

It’s Bank Robbery: The Musical but oh so much more. I recently re-watched this movie and I’m telling you — if you haven’t seen it yet, there’s no time like the present.

Baby Driver‘s premise is genius — Baby has tinnitus from a car accident, so he’s constantly playing music through his headphones to drown out the ringing in his ears. That sets the soundtrack to which all the action happens throughout the movie. The car chases, bank robbery, shootouts — everything has been meticulously choreographed and timed to fit the music of the scene.

Check out the “coffee run” scene from early in the movie to see the level of choreography that went into the scene. Not only do the Steadicam operator and Ansel Elgort walk perfectly timed, the action also lines up with key bits of set design — watch for the trumpet and certain bits of graffiti and poster designs that link up with lyrics in the music.

Look at the graffiti that says “Right” at 0:32 and 2:31 you’ll see they added in the lyrics “Shake, shake, shake” and several new lyrics on that wall during the shot. Excellent details.

Kidding Season 1 Episode 3 (2018)

Check out this incredible scene from the Showtime series Kidding.

This scene shows how the character Shaina is inspired by a show and how her life dramatically changes in a shifting scene that transcends time.

This is some incredible behind the scenes here because you can see just how the crew choreographed and shifted the scene from the drab, dreary beginning to a lavish apartment by the end of the scene. Watch and listen to the careful choreography dictated by either the 1st AD or coordinator.

6 Types of One-Take Shots

For some more examples, and descriptions of specific oners (the establishing long take, the exposition, the tracking long take, the fake long take) check out Aputure’s video with Ted Sim and cinematographer Emma Kragen.

 

Grab the Audience’s Attention: Opening Shots

When my DP Tery Wilson told me a particular Steadicam shot she wanted in the feature film we worked on, it struck me as important. And important it was. “This,” she said, “Is the beginning shot of the whole movie.” No pressure!

It struck me how big and weighty the first scene — and really the first shot — in a movie is. It sets up story, character and tone. It has to hold your attention from one moment to the next. The first minutes of a film are prime real estate. If you’re not hooked, you might bail. Next movie on Netflix. Next attempt at entertainment.

We are far too impatient as a modern audience to sit around for setup that takes too long.

Pace is influential here as well. Although It Follows is similar in structure to an old school horror movie — slow mounting dread throughout the story — it gets to the meat of the matter right away. That’s something I always thought the old horror movies back in the day had trouble with.

The screenwriter has to catch the attention of the first reader through to the first audience who see the film and can recommend it to their friends.

Having a bombastic beginning also relates to my earlier post about title sequences. You don’t always see flashy title sequences in movies but when you do, you better believe they are doing an important job. You can see that post on title sequences here.

It Follows

That first shot in It Follows is not just a great beginning, but also an example of fabulous shot design. The shot doesn’t break away into any edits as the girl runs from the house, is chased by an unseen follower, and eventually rushes away from the home.

What’s genius about this shot is how it follows the first person you see, establishing the horror element of an unrelenting terror. We first see the girl run out of the house, track alongside her as she runs down the sidewalk, then we become the mysterious follower, never taking our eyes off her until she flees the scene. This shot never stops moving, perfectly simulating the monster of the story.

The Dark Knight

You can see a fantastically simple yet effective opening shot in for The Dark Knight. It’s truly brilliant in its simplicity, as the very first shot doesn’t show any people, but succeeds in building tension and expectations of sudden violence to come.

An extreme zoom into a building as a window suddenly explodes outward tells us everything we need to know about the upcoming scene: stuff is going down, and it’s going to be shocking. The whole film is a slow boil to an epic, explosive showdown. It’s only fitting that we see that echoed in the very first, seemingly innocent cityscape shot.

And that whole bank robbery scene is so engaging that you can’t help but be hooked — ready for the ride.

Make it your goal to master creating a beginning – and especially opening shot – to your film that not only captures your audience’s attention but says something about plot and tone. You’ll be more likely to get an opportunity to make another film and then we’ll be studying your film making choices.

What’s in a Camera Assistant’s kit?

When you start out in the world of camera assisting, you soon find out that just showing up to set with yourself is only half the story. If you’re really serious, you bring a kit.

What’s in this kit? a voice from nowhere asks.

Glad you asked, hypothetical listener.

In this post, I’ll cover the basics in your typical kit for a 1st or 2nd AC.

Tools

If you’ve been in this business for longer than five minutes, you should already be aware that tools are necessary to make equipment fit together as intended. At the very least, you need a flathead screwdriver to secure a camera to a tripod baseplate.

Part of the AC’s job is to troubleshoot the gear you’re using. You might find you need to take a bracket apart and fit it together in a new configuration. A screw that’s too tight to loosen by hand that needs pliers. You find you need to add new attachments to the camera. Or perhaps you’re working with old gear that’s had a rough life.

The AC doesn’t need the same tools as an electrician or gaffer or production designer. They will, however, get a lot of use with the following:

  • Screwdrivers – Flat and Phillips in a variety of sizes
  • pliers
  • Multi-tool (fulfills several requirements on the list but I wouldn’t trust their screwdriver attachment often).
  • sharp pocket knife and/or razor knife
  • allen wrenches – metric and standard

Tape

On-set production requires a lot of tape. This is especially true for the camera assistant, who needs several varieties of tape in various sizes, types and colors.

  • Gaffer’s Tape (Black: 1 inch wide and 2″ wide; White: 1″ wide – also dubbed “camera tape”).
  • Painter’s tape – might come in handy, especially for times when you don’t want to use up your expensive gaff tape.
  • Spike Tape – essentially a thin line painter’s tape but not quite. You should have 3+ colors of this as you use it to mark locations of actors and camera. Each lead actor gets their own color.

 

Cleaning Supplies

Cleaning and maintaining the gear in top condition is so important. You don’t want a take ruined by a dirty lens.

  • Kimtech wipes – use these dry cloths to clean lenses, monitors, etc.
  • wet lens wipes – use when needed, often the dry wipes do the trick.
  • microfiber cloths
  • Rocket Blower
  • Canned Air
  • Pancro or similar lens cleaner

Other Camera Expendables and Tools

  • Markers – Black sharpie, dry erase markers in black and other colors
  • Pen – for taking camera notes
  • Camera Reports
  • bongo ties – very useful to secure loose wires around the camera.
  • Measuring tape – to measure focal distance.
  • Slate and insert slate
  • Color checker card – an ideal thing to capture for your editor to use later on.
  • penlight or headlamp – very useful if you’re in a dark location.
  • scissors – you don’t even know how many times I’ve needed scissors on set.
  • T-marks – easier than tape marks, just throw ’em down and remember to pick them up later.

 

 

Carrying Gear

So you’ve got all this stuff, right? Where exactly are you going to put it?

If you’ve got a lot of gear, you might want to invest in a good sized, sturdy bag. I’ve got a common bag for a lot of camera assistants — the Cinebag. When I first started out, I just toted a cheap tool bag from Harbor Freight. I eventually upgraded to a nice Husky toolbag which I still sometimes use.

cinebagYou also should keep common tools, such as your multitool, some cleaning stuff and writing utensils close by. Many camera assistants will have some sort of utility belt – a la Batman – to accomplish this. I went Cinebag on this too and got their AC pouch, but there’s plenty of great brands out there to check out, such as Setwear and Portabrace. Get one that works best for you.

 

 

Ready to gear up?

That covers the basics (and that’s a lot of basics). Your kit will likely grow and expand and change from job to job, as you realize what you really need and what might be provided already on set.

You’ll find this gear and other useful supplies at places like Filmtools, B&H, Amazon, eBay and home improvement stores such as Home Depot, Lowes and Harbor Freight.

Oh! And one more thing. When you start buying this stuff, you’ll notice the cost adds up. Especially when buying $20 rolls of gaffer’s tape. So price shop amongst as many sources as you can and most of all – label your gear. I, for one, put my name on tape especially, as it can easily be lost and picked up by another department on set.

The Cinematography of A Quiet Place

This blog references this podcast interview from The Kodakery with Charlotte Bruus Christensen, cinematographer of A Quiet Place.

Charlotte-Bruus-Christensen

 

In the interview, cinematographer Charlotte Bruus described how the story dictated what type of shots they could get. Since the characters conversed mostly in American sign language with subtitles for the layman, most shots had to leave enough room for the sign language to take place. Even when they might want a close up on a face, they had to make that conscious choice that the hands had to be seen. It was done for practicality but very much dictated the look and feel of the film.

Christensen also described how she uses elements from the script and the director to add the character to her camera operating in each scene.

“I constantly work towards a word or a scene or something that the director has given me…to give that to the audience,” Charlotte Bruus Christensen said.

How do you do that? Well, you accomplish that with the lighting design, the camera movement, handheld vs. tripod… each choice adds another layer to what Christensen is saying with the camera.

“That’s the work that doesn’t really come out in the dialogue or in the set design,” she said. “That’s something that I can add. These words, I get very set what I’m aiming for with the light and with the movement. That will guide me to whether this [tracking shot] should be going fast or slow or if you zoom.”

Not all Directors of Photography will operate the camera themselves, but Christensen did. She adds an intuitive element to it, very much responding to the actors in the moment.

“When you operate yourself, you really can feel that, when a character moves his head or these little details… to me that’s very, very important to catch those moments and try and convey emotion… to move an audience. Show that emotion. To move an audience. But that’s another amazing thing about cinematography. It’s such a powerful tool.”

It’s interesting to note that part of the personality lent to the image by the cinematographer herself was also her choice to shoot in film. People balked at her choice, assuming the film would not be able to handle the dark scenes. Christensen, however, knew better.

A QUIET PLACE

Being knowledgeable with film stocks, she chose the right tools for the job. The funny thing is, shooting in film means you don’t see exactly what you’re getting through the viewfinder. Using her experience, intuition and a light meter, Christensen captured amazing visuals for an incredible film.