Long takes at the beginning of films are used to establish locations and characters, while showing off the technical skills of the director and cinematographer. They usually have that ‘grab factor’ or a slight of hand that really pulls in an audience. The most memorable ones are ones that also serve the story. They can be several shots in reality, cleverly stitched together using practical means or through post-production magic to give the illusion of a single fluid shot.
Here are three of my favourites.
Boogie Nights (1997)
The first three minutes of P.T. Anderson’s Boogie Nights is drenched in neon and primary colours, as a crane shot transitions seamlessly to a steadicam shot, ending on a wide-eyed busboy played my Mark Wahlberg, who you know is going to be a key character in the film. The shot establishes the dazzling nightlife in “San Fernando Valley, 1997” and makes the audience feel as if they are right there. Shout-out to steadicam operator Andy Shuttleworth.
Here’s one example of how the modern-era James Bond films have completely changed the game. The opening shot of Spectre in the hands of director Sam Mendes and director of photography Hoyte Van Hoytema stands out as a cinematic marvel. The scene begins on a wide shot of the Day of the Dead parade in Mexico City (Aside: I haven’t been to Mexico, but this colour palette is a favourite in films to denote the area and I’m not sure if it’s this way in reality). The camera then zooms in to reveal a couple, follows them into Gran Hodel Ciudad de México, where one of them turns out to Bond. There is some effects wizardry going on to achieve the long shot in this case, but the seemly fluid camera moves mirror the ease with which Bond navigates the area to achieve his goal.
Some of the practical and logistic considerations related to the making of this opening sequence are documented in this Behind the Scenes on Spectre video.
La La Land (2016)
Director Damien Chazelle uses the electrifying opening number “Another Day of Sun” (shot to look like one long take) to immediately set an audience’s expectations that what they are entering into is a musical. In the spirit of the scene from Boogie Nights above, it is a really elaborate way establish that the story takes place in LA and to introduce the two main characters Sebastian and Mia, who are both stuck in rush hour (or any hour) traffic. Unfortunately, the clip above cuts out before the camera pans down in the same shot, to Sebastian’s car.
This sequence was filmed over two days on the 105 Century Freeway / 110 Harbour Freeway overpass. Cinematographer: Linus Sandgren, “A” camera op / steadicam op: Ari Robbins.
Trivia: This is the same section of highway used for the bus jump sequence in 1994’s Speed.
Choreographer Mandy Moore’s break-down of the opening sequence makes gives us insight into the additional complications and considerations involved in the planning of such a sequence. This split-screen showing director Damien Chazelle blocking the scene in a parking lot with a cellphone, shown against the final theatrical shot shows how remarkably close the film got to his initial vision.
These are three of my favourites, in no particular order, from the headspace I am in today. There are so many more!
Web Designer, Editor, Film Reviewer
Jith Paul is an independent filmmaker based in Ottawa. While pursuing a career as a software engineer, he decided to take a detour to follow his passion for film and filmmaking, establishing Treepot Media in 2010.
He is a co-founder of the Ottawa Canadian Film Festival, and editor of the film613 blog.
When he is not busy fighting crime, he coordinates the efforts of an international team of software developers and service providers as the Team Lead for Digital Development at CPAC, the Cable Public Affairs Channel.