Alfonso Cuarón’s Long Takes: Why do they work?

Updated: Sep 10, 2020

In itself, the medium of cinema is an exciting and innovating way to present something to an audience. Cinema is the ammunition for individuals to offer their views, their experiences and their ideas. Whilst historically functioning as a source of entertainment, the cinematic medium has evolved significantly; visual language is now a powerful way to inform, critique and show sentiment through images.

It is the amalgamation of several elements that contribute to a finalised motion picture. The subtle weaving of these components into one completed piece is the art of filmmaking. I have always been intrigued by different artistic styles. I wholeheartedly believe that every decision that goes into the final product of a film would have been meticulously thought out and discussed by a great number of people. Nothing is there by chance. And of all the elements that merge into a final piece, the long take has always captivated me.

The long take is a shot that strays away from conventional length and involves the camera recording the action for an extended period of time. Along with others, I have questioned the purpose over these shots. If constructed incorrectly or in a manner that strays away from the meaning of the shot, long takes can be pretentious and stylistically self-indulgent. However, when conceived carefully, executed precisely and only used with the sole purpose of adding meaning to the moment, they are an ingenious artistic tool to highlight a scene. In my opinion, no one does it better than Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón.

Since his early filmography, Cuarón has incorporated numerous long takes into his work. His intentions for these shots have altered and defined from film to film. But, whenever he chooses to employ a long take, they work seamlessly within the context of the film. What measures does Cuarón undergo to ensure continuous success in this field? Well, he definitely distances himself from the pretentious side of long takes. In his films, a shot of this length would only be considered if offering a clearer or more defined meaning. He understands cinematography as a tool that aids the story and helps progress the narrative. Cuarón and regular collaborator Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki have produced some of the finest camera work of the century and their numerous accolades only solidify this.

For me, Cuarón employs the long take in 3 different moments:

1. To establish plot points

2. To build tension

3. To convey reality

Whilst there are others, these moments resonate with me especially. Cuarón’s fantastic creation of these singular moments is an impressive feat and his use of the long take only adds to their overall effect. His work on Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Askaban showed a wider audience what he was capable of. In this film, Cuarón allotted to establish sections of the film with a long take, allowing the longer time frame of this shot to structure the scene. Early on in the 3rd Harry Potter, Mr Weasley informs Harry of a supposed threat he will face in his year at Hogwarts, evoking the main plot line of the film. Sitting in the director’s chair after Chris Columbus’ two films, Cuarón successfully showed off his skills with the long take. In this case, the shot acted as a framing device for the scene as a whole; the camera lingering on Harry and Mr Weasley’s conversation for an extended period of time, without cutting away, highlighted its importance within the story.

Furthermore, the moving camera allowed for numerous shot compositions. By framing Harry and Mr Weasley in different places - in regard to their surroundings – throughout the shot, Cuarón could visually back up the points Mr Weasley was making to Harry. Fundamentally, the shot of Harry and Mr Weasley on either side of a Sirius Black poster – showing the apparent danger of the man hunting Harry – is an apt way for Cuarón to add another layer to Mr Weasley’s story.

Indeed, this is only exaggerated with the final camera move of the shot, framing Harry alone. This once again is a clever way for Cuarón to establish a plot point; throughout the whole film Harry is gradually isolated from his friends.

Cuarón also used this technique for his highly acclaimed science fiction film Gravity. The first 13 minutes of the whole film are made to look like one long take. The scene setting and introduction of the characters, their surroundings and their status. And I stress the latter because it is the setup for the climactic moment of the scene – and the shot – as a whole. Cuarón and Lubezki used the long take for two reasons in the opening scene of Gravity: firstly, as I mentioned, to set the scene and introduce the characters and their situation; but secondly, to build tension.

The long take shows a moment in its full extent, meaning nothing is concealed from the audience. Moments are stretched out to their maximum. In the case of Gravity, the long take is not the overarching focus of the shot – but instead a tool that allows Cuarón to aptly build danger, whilst not cutting away from the action. And it’s the constant view time that the audience has of the action which is so impressive.

The shot begins with a quiet opening and then the characters are introduced. Casual conversation underlines the moment and, finally, the sudden intrusion of the crisis brings the momentum to a maximum – all in the space of one continuous shot. A visual and aural spectacle, Gravity’s opening 13 minutes contain tension building at its finest and a fantastic climatic moment – all of which is complemented by the amazing shot.

By never cutting away and allowing the audience to be fully immersed in the scene, Cuarón ensures a level of focus is sustained throughout the entirety of the scene. So, although perhaps appearing unnecessary initially, the opening shot of Gravity is some of Lubezki’s best ever camera work and builds tension in a way that no other shot could replicate.

Whilst both Prisoner of Askaban and Gravity contain brilliant instances of the long take, no film does it better than Cuarón’s 2018 memoir, Roma. In a film that pays homage to his upbringing, it would be expected that it is very personal to Cuarón. And it is, for sure. After all, he not only directed and wrote it, but also was the cinematographer and editor. With only a little guidance from Chivo Lubezki, Cuarón immaculately crafted beautiful camera work for his film, albeit he did train as a cinematographer originally.

For me, Roma is the pinnacle of Cuarón’s long takes. It is definitely set out in a different way here, and that it not a bad thing. In Roma, he manipulates time to express a reality. Granted, the crew used the same surroundings where Cuarón lived for much of his childhood to shoot the film; but, the essence of the film’s realism stemmed from the camera work.