The sequence shot is a film nerd favorite. Basically amounting to one long shot, the technique essentially removes the editor from the process, only taking in information that the camera can gather directly. It certainly can be self-indulgent and abused, but when done correctly, a sequence shot is visual storytelling at its purest.
Director: Robert Altman
Length of Shot: 466 seconds
The Player is Robert Altman’s dig at new Hollywood, a sleazy system of fancy suits hung up on monetary success over artistic integrity. For its opening, Altman calls back to old Hollywood by mimicking the famous three-minute tracking shot shot in Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil, and then doubles length. The camera goes in and out of buildings and up on a crane, where it pans around the studio lot introducing most of the film’s main characters, one of whom just can’t stop talking about Touch of Evil. It’s meta like that.
Director: Martin Scorsese
Length of Shot: 148 seconds
In his Great Movies essay on Goodfellas, Roger Ebert talks about how the long Copacabana sequence illustrates how the world just kind of unfolds in front of young Henry Hill. In it, he takes his future wife past the block-long line around the club, through the service entrance and the kitchen and onto their table right by the stage. He tosses twenties out left and right, banters with sandwich-eating bouncers and busy chefs, and walks right out onto the floor like he owns the place. It’s a little brash to plop a shot like this in middle of the movie, but its showiness compliments Henry’s golden-boy swagger.
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Length of Shot: 120 seconds
Paul Thomas Anderson loves sequence shots. Looooves them. There’s one of them in pretty much all of his movies: the camera jumping into the pool in Boogie Nights; the oil disaster in There Will Be Blood; the walk through the casino in Hard Eight and the hospital in Magnolia. My favorite, though, is the most simple.
In The Master, charismatic cult leader Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) challenges troubled World War II vet Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) to a kind of test. Dodd asks Quell to answer a series of increasingly probing questions without blinking. There are a few cuts in the scene, typically after Freddie breaks eye contact and has to start over, but in the last shot, which lasts for two minutes, Quell lays it all out — his alcoholism, his hopelessness, how he slept with his aunt once (!)– without once resting his eyes. It’s an amazing piece of acting, really, but Anderson has the good sense to let the camera linger, because just like Freddie, we aren’t allowed to blink either.
Director: Michelangelo Antonioni
Length of Shot: 454 seconds
Most of your more famous sequence shots are a bit samey, and heavily reliant on a fluid camera dominating the geography. Many a sequence shot has the camera whooshing this way and that, jumping from point to point as if it were controlled by God himself. But for the penultimate shot of his film The Passenger, Michelangelo Antonioni lets his camera linger around a courtyard for over seven minutes, slowly zooming through a window and then back around again.
The shot chronicles a hotel-room assassination. The camera misses most of the action, but it catches the details around it: how the killer sneaks past witnesses, the opening and closing sound of a door, the arrival of the police and the discovery of the body.
How they got the camera past the barred hotel windows is impressive enough on its own. Movie magic!
Director: Gaspar Noe
Gaspar Noe’s brutal tale of rape and and feeble retribution, Irreversible, is certainly a tough pill. At its center is the famous 12-minute rape scene, where the Noe subjects the audience to a violent, dehumanizing assault on Monica Belluci; but the entire movie is littered with other long, difficult scenes as well.
My favorite, if you can call it that, is in the film’s opening/ending (the movie is told backwards), where two men barge deep into an S&M club called Rectum to search for the man who raped their friend. The camera swirls around them as they make their way through this kind of hell, catching glimpses of all kinds of bizarro sexual torture, eventually settling on our… hero, I guess, beating a man’s head in with a fire extinguisher.
It’s rough, but the craftsmanship is amazing. The camera swirls around the action like a drill as the pair makes their way through the maze-like club. The violence of the film sends the world out of order, so much so that even the camera loses touch with reality.
Director: Prachya Pinkaew
Length of Shot: 240 seconds
The magnificently choreographed fight scene from The Protector works like a flat-out rejection of the kind of cut-cut-cut-cut mentality that’s ruled fight scenes for close to twenty-years now. The camera follows star Tony Jaa as he ascends a massive staircase, taking goons out left-and-right the entire way. By keeping the camera running, the film captures the level of craft that goes into these stunts. Jaa tosses people down stairs, off the railing to the floor below and breaks… just about everything. The lack of cuts feels like a magician rolling up his sleeves — it takes away the possibility of editing room trickery. When the camera follows Jaa into a room, loses him for a second and then reveals that he’s now hiding above the door — you really start to think of him as being super-human.
Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005)
Director: George Lucas
Length of Shot: 77 seconds
The opening space battle of Revenge of the Sith is something of a marvel. It’s the only time in the new trilogy that Lucas finally delivered on the promise of new Star Wars, a scene that uses 21st century special effects to broaden the saga’s scope to a new level.
After the iconic opening crawl, the camera falls follows two spaceships travelling alongside a Star Destroyer — just specks next to the lumbering capital ship, really. As they round the corner of the ship, bam, the screen explodes with this utterly massive and chaotic space battle. Capital ships hurl lasers at one-another, massive explosions left and right, and all of it done without a real sense of what’s up and down because, hey, we’re in space after all.