Long takes are imperfect filmmaking. The choreography of cinematography over a scene or an entire film is a dance between the camera, actors, and the audience. Even though it can be viewed as a gimmick, it is a storytelling choice that dramatically alters the final product. When done well, the technique injects unique perspective into a story. In contrast, obvious interruptions stand out to even the most passive viewer. Extended shots are becoming more common due to advancements in camera technology, allowing for three recent films to present stories in dynamic fashion.
Three prominent contemporary instances of long take filmmaking are Children of Men, 1917, and Creed. All achieve varying levels of success in their storytelling goals. In each instance, the long take is the final talking point of stories that depict anarchy, war, and boxing.
Beginning with Creed, Philadelphia-area cinematographer Nathan Vitale discuses the cinematography of these movies over a three-part series. Vitale is a cinematographer and camera operator whose work has been used by VICE, Nike, and Budweiser. For more about Vitale, you can visit his website or follow him on Instagram (@nathanvitale).
Rocky is the ultimate long shot movie franchise. The Italian Stallion’s journey from being just another bum in the neighborhood to heavyweight champ added to its legacy in 2015 with the film Creed. The modern boxing classic told the story of Adonis Creed, the son of Rocky’s former compatriot and Balboa’s journey for the former’s respect.
The Ryan Coogler film features fantastic cinematography that continues an unlikely tradition of excellence in the franchise dating back to 1976. The original Rocky was one of the first prominent uses of the revolutionary Steadicam and won the Oscar for Best Film Editing.
Coogler and Cinematographer Maryse Alberti constructed multiple long take scenes to bring the intimacy of the boxing ring to the big screen. The most prominent sequence pits Adonis Creed against Leo “The Lion” Sporino at a small venue in Philadelphia. In the scene, the camera captures more than just fisticuffs. The incredible sequence shows Creed’s girlfriend cheering him on, Rocky’s coaching, and celebrations in one sweeping motion. The scene’s camera operator, Ben Semanoff, discusses the scene at length in Filmmaker Magazine.
Creed: Long Take Boxing Scene Breakdown
Flat Circle: The original Rocky movie has one of the first significant scenes involving the Steadicam. 39 years later, Creed used long take fight scenes for a different hero in the Rocky franchise, making Rocky movies an unlikely barometer for changes in filmmaking. Are there any other long running franchises that are good barometers for the evolution of cinematography?
Nathan Vitale: I think the James Bond franchise makes a great barometer for the evolution in trends in cinematography, especially if you look at the latest round of films starring Daniel Craig. After Pierce Brosnan’s stint as 007 was over it’s clear the studio was looking to shake things up a bit and update the look of the franchise.
How does this scene compare with fights in other classic boxing films?
Fight scenes typically lean on editing quite a bit to increase the tension; Raging Bull (1980) is known for its editing and montage in its pinnacle fight. While long takes have also been used to great effect for many action sequences, Creed shows us something new by taking us literally into the ring for an unbroken shot as the two fighters duke it out. The wide lens and floating camera makes us feel as if we are right there with them giving us one of the most intimate looks at a boxing match put to the big screen.
How does a single shot scene like this change the audience’s relationship with the story?
A long take can do many things to an audience and their relationship to the story, in Creed, it’s used to give us a glimpse of what it’s like to go toe-to-toe in the ring. Without any interruptions from cutaways or closeups the audience is experiencing the fight along with our hero; as he falls back to the ropes we feel trapped in there with him. After he is hit and stunned we reel back with him; everything rushing around disorienting both Adonis and the audience.
The scene is more than just action in the ring. In addition to the fight, the camera gives brief glimpses of secondary characters and follows both fighters in and out of their corners. What are some of the technical challenges of setting up a long take scene in an intimate space?
Long takes pose a lot of technical challenges on set; lights and mics have to be hidden or disguised to blend into the environment and everyone has to hit their marks at the right moment. By containing the camera most of the action within the ring the blocking and choreography are critical in order to achieve a shot that ultimately looks effortless.
The camera operator, Ben Semanoff, took boxing lessons to rehearse for the shot. How vital is the choreography between the actors and the operator for a scene like this?
For scenes like this camera blocking is everything! The camera jukes and jives with Adonis and his opponent as if reacting to the fight along with them, at such a close proximity everyone needs to be on their marks for it all to be captured without a hitch.
What stands out to you as you watch this scene?
What I love about this scene is how it builds the tension throughout the fight without falling back on quick cuts of shaky camera motion. Instead the tension is built with choreography and camera blocking, pushing in close to Adonis throughout the fight forcing us to witness every blow without any cuts or distractions.