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.