Incredibly difficult to get right, the long take is both visually mesmerizing and technically impressive. Though often reduced to mere “showiness”, continuous shots are much more than formal ostentation and are used by filmmakers to achieve very specific effects.

Similar to Welles-ian deep focus, presenting action in a single unbroken take provides the viewer with a sense of voyeuristic freedom largely absent in montage. The greater field of view is democratic in that it allows one to observe any portion of the frame at any point in time rather than the director limiting what the viewer can focus on by cutting from wide shots to medium shots to close-ups.

The lack of editing can also create a sensation of being a truer representation of reality—more in line with how we view the world day-to-day. Andrei Tarkovsky’s long takes are especially effective at making the viewer feel more intimately involved with the action seen on screen—action that appears to be more authentic and nature because of the way it was filmed. This is the reasoning behind Alfonso Cuarón’s use of long takes in Children of Men—the viewer is brought closer to unrelenting action and suspense because the film never cuts away and thereby hides much of its artifice in these sequences.

Sometimes directors desire such elaborate, complex, and grandiose action that it is simply not possible to capture their vision of a long take with today’s technology. Such is the case in Gravity, but also films like Birdman, Rope, Snake Eyes, Children of Men, and others. These films may implicitly purport that their long takes are genuine, but these one-shots are actually made possible by meticulously hiding cuts at perfectly timed moments. Filmmakers have developed a variety of clever techniques for concealing editing and creating the illusion of continuous long takes, starting with the master, Alfred Hitchcock in the late 1940s. Check out the video to find out how he and others were able to hide their editing to create artificial yet spectacular long takes. While demystifying these techniques illuminates filmmakers’ technical prowess, the fact remains that regardless of knowing that a long take might be fake, it still remains enormously satisfying.