How Long Is Yours?

February 20, 2014

On Monday The A.V. Club ran a piece called Beyond True Detective: 17 Long Takes Worth Your Attention, to which I contributed two capsules.  They aren’t bylined individually, but I wrote the bit on the John Frankenheimer Climax episode and the one on Peyton Place, in which I managed to work in yet another plug for the amazing imagery of episodic director Walter Doniger.

This article was inspired by a single, climactic shot in the fourth episode of the HBO drama True Detective.  That shot garnered a lot of attention: it staged a complex, six-minute action sequence without a single cut, and it went “viral” in a way that was a little surprising.  For most of the year television critics usually can’t be bothered to focus on television as a visual medium: it’s all plot, plot, plot, and occasionally some notes on the acting.  All of a sudden, we spent a week thinking about television formally.

As encouraging as that is, it has a down side.  For one thing, we’re not even used to talking about the form of television.  The A.V. Club piece is a case in point: even after some useful dickering on Twitter over the distinctions between a long take and a tracking shot and a handheld or Steadicam shot and a sequence shot (the most accurate term for what was being listed there, although it’s not used much outside of film school), someone made an editorial decision to use “long shot” as an umbrella term for all of the above.  But “long shot” actually means something different: it describes an unrelated type of composition in which the camera is a certain distance from the subject of the shot.

As the tentativeness of the first paragraph suggests, it’s hard to pin down just what kind of long take we’re interested in discussing.  A long take can also be completely static, and as such it’s likely to convey a very different (even diametrically opposite) meaning than the frenetic True Detective shot.  In Frankenheimer’s Playhouse 90 “Days of Wine and Roses,” the scene in which the two principal characters fall in love runs for seven minutes and five seconds, with only a handful of subtle camera moves.  The emphasis is on the actors; the purpose of the duration is let them perform without interruptions, and to prevent cuts from distracting viewers from the subtlety of their work.  The True Detective-style long take poses a wholly different set of challenges for the actors, more technical than emotional: the priorities are timing and hitting marks with precision.  On Peyton Place, where Doniger tried on a regular basis to execute scenes in a single takes, the actors were sharply split in their preference for his method versus the more traditional approach of carving the action into smaller pieces.

When the subject of long takes in television first came up, I grew frustrated at how ill-equipped I was to write about them on short notice.  I do have a personal roster of favorite early TV directors who regularly mounted this kind of ambitious, exuberant filmmaking within the tight time and money constraints of episodic television: not just Frankenheimer and Doniger, about whom I’ve written at length, but also sixties action masters Walter Grauman, Sutton Roley, and John Peyser.  If I’d had better notes or more time, I would have loved to get in one of a handheld shot from one of Peyser’s (or Vic Morrow’s) Combat episodes, or a tracking shot from a Mannix or a QM show signed by Roley.  And I didn’t recall until the eleventh hour the fondness that Elliot Silverstein expressed for long takes when I interviewed him.  Silverstein described a long, complicated master that he did for Dr. Kildare – and his fury when he discovered that the editors inserted freeze-frames into it, in keeping with the show’s house style for its opening act credits.

Long takes were rare in early filmed television, because of the kind of obstacle Rosenberg encountered.  Producers often competed with their directors for control over how a show looked.  Even if a director staged scenes in a single master, the producer and the editors could cut away from it in post production.  To ensure that a long take (or any other kind of adventurous set-up) was the only take that could be used, a director had to be forceful enough to resist a producer’s or a studio’s demands for more coverage (that is, more shots of the same action from different angles).  Silverstein made a concerted effort to insert himself into the editing process (the DGA guaranteed a TV director’s right to supervise the initial cut of his episodes), but he was an exception.  Apart from the question of whether or not the director was welcome in the editing room, many directors simply couldn’t afford to pass up an assignment on another episode just to hang around the editing room on the previous one.

Originally, I opened that blurb on Climax with this quote from Frankenheimer: “What can I do that’s going to be startling, that’s going to call attention to this show as opposed to every other piece of crap they’ve done on this thing?”  What’s significant about that line is Frankenheimer’s bluntness about using the long take purely as an attention-getting device – a stunt.  Confronted with material he didn’t like, Frankenheimer chose to overpower it with style.  When I polled a few colleagues about possible shots to use in this discussion, Jonah Horwitz (a PhD candidate specializing in film and early television at UW-Madison) took issue with the whole premise.  “I find the whole ‘my long take can beat your long take’ topic macho and boring,” he wrote.  Long takes can be a kind of dick-measuring contest between competitive, egocentric filmmakers (a description that certainly applies to the live TV anthology group).  The more complex the shot, the more it invites a spectator to disengage from the art and marvel at the technique – which is exactly what happened with that True Detective shot.  As with many of Breaking Bad’s stylistic choices, the goal seems to be awesomeness rather than rigor or seriousness.

But I don’t share Horwitz’s exasperation with long take mania, and not just because I enjoy the most gonzo shots as their own spectacle.  Another contributor to the A.V. Club piece mentioned “The Stingiest Man in Town,” the Alcoa Hour Christmas story directed by Daniel Petrie, and wrote this: “Many programs in the Golden Age Of Television were filmed in long takes for one simple reason: Filmed live as they were, editing had to be kept at a minimum, and anything too complicated (such as a massive musical number that also wanted to give close-ups of the singers) had to be carefully choreographed, the actors and cameramen moving in tandem with each other to achieve the maximum effect.”  The problem with that is the part about editing.  While there were some limitations (like studio space) that made long takes appealing to live television directors, editing wasn’t one of them.  Directors understood quickly how much of their power to guide the viewer’s eye across a small, monochrome screen came out of those cuts from one perspective to another.  And cutting stroked the ego as much as any showy long take: no director ever felt more directorial than when he was standing in the control room, snapping out the show’s rhythm with his fingers as he called out each cut from one camera to another: “Take one, take two, take one, take three….”  The conditions of live television were more hospitable toward long takes than they were on film, and they are common on Danger and Climax and to a lesser extent Playhouse 90.  But the long take was never a default mode in anthology drama – it was always one of an array of stylistic choices.

The popularization of the Steadicam in the eighties meant something of a resurgence in long takes on television (as it did in the cinema, where Scorsese and DePalma fetishized them).  If handheld photography had originally been a consistent stylistic component mainly in series like Combat and The Senator, which cultivated a documentary-style realism, the Steadicam made it possible for handheld work to be more smoothly integrated with fixed-camera shots.  Steadicam photography was faster and more versatile than tracking shots could be; most television shows’ sets weren’t built to accommodate the laying of track or the passage of the camera through every nook and cranny.  (If you study the Walter Doniger sequence that’s embedded in the A.V. Club piece, you’ll notice that the camera doesn’t actually have the mobility to follow the actors very far into the set.  Doniger covers for that limitation ably with a lot of lateral movement, and by pushing in and out repeatedly.)  Director Thomas Schlamme’s fabled “walk and talk” aesthetic, tailored to put Aaron Sorkin’s verbose dialogue on its feet, defined The West Wing and has carried over somewhat into Sorkin’s current endeavor, The Newsroom, via Greg Mottola and other directors.  And John Wells, the perennially underrated auteur who succeeded Sorkin as The West Wing’s showrunner, has made even more extensive use of the long-take Steadicam look, which became ER’s signature technique for conveying the bustle of a busy hospital.  Wells’s Third Watch did an episode in which each act was a single take.  The A.V. Club piece, and some of the readers’ comments, cover these recent works in detail.  One of the unstated takeaways from that list is, perhaps, that that one True Detective isn’t such a big deal after all.


9 Responses to “How Long Is Yours?”

  1. Griff Says:

    While Jonah Horwitz makes an interesting point about the long take — and, ironically, one that can readily applied to the probably too showy climactic shot in episode four of TRUE DETECTIVE — it’s hardly a maxim. Directors are always looking for the best and most dramatic way to put something across. [I really get Frankenheimer’s frustration — how do I wake up or excite the audience?] It isn’t always a stunt, and doesn’t always scream, “look at my impressiveness.” You’ve cited plenty of examples here (and in your past writing) of how these enliven and deepen shows. Though his technique seldom called attention to them, Preminger was fond of long masters, and there are many very good scenes in his features performed without cuts.

    I share your apparent bewilderment with the contributor who asserted that in live television, “editing had to be kept at a minimum.” Go back and look at the shows, kid.

    You briefly cited THE SENATOR. I have been looking in on Cozi-TV’s airings of this of late. I recall admiring the show back in the early ’70s, but I haven’t seen it since it was broadcast on NBC. Watching it now, I realize that my favorable response to the show (which was well acted and fairly well written) came as much from the way the show was shot and directed as anything else. It very intelligently used hand-held camerawork in a way that made the entire program intimate and immediate. This lent the show a kind of air of credibility and actuality to it — in the same way that Hal Holbrook’s liberal politician character seemed realistic.

    These stylistic choices really mattered — and continue to matter. Keep writing about this stuff, Stephen.

    • Stephen Bowie Says:

      I love the use of ceilings and natural (i.e., fluorescent) lighting in THE SENATOR. Really anticipates the look of ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN.

      As I wrote, I come down in favor of these long shots — although when I look at Walter Doniger’s or Sutton Roley’s work, there are times when it seems at odds with the material. As much as I admire them, I think it’s also important not to completely let them off the hook in terms of how their work meshes with that of their collaborators.

    • Jonah Says:

      To defend my honor (?) here a bit, it’s not that I object to discussing and admiring long takes per se, it’s that too often these things become celebrations of sheer duration or technical difficulty, lacking much discussion of the expressive functions of the device. I mentioned to Stephen that the occasional extended mobile Steadicam take is a cliché of contemporary feature filmmaking (I suppose I fully realized this when I noticed that the wholly unremarkable Mandy Moore vehicle “A Walk to Remember” opens with one) and isn’t so much opposed to now-standard-issue quick cutting as complementary in its screen-refreshing ostentation. In that—as Stephen notes, post-“movie brat”—context focusing on the bravura long take can actually be a way of forestalling a real discussion of the formal possibilities of television. This is just one of the ways that discussions of television style repeat the “mistakes” of film criticism and analysis. Maybe I’m just a glass-half-empty sort of person.

      That said, kudos are due to Stephen and other of the AV Club writers for calling attention to the fact that the putatively “cinematic” long take has been a possibility in television for pretty much as long as the medium has been around. I wish the Frankenheimer episode he mentions was actually available to see, but as Stephen has noted it’s either lost or buried in CBS’s essentially inaccessible archives.

      As for the long take’s use in American live TV drama, I think it’s fair to say that the format, in general, leaned much more on the long take than contemporaneous feature films—even though the late 1940s and 1950s was a heyday of long-take style in Hollywood (Minnelli, Preminger, etc.). But it depends on what network, what show, what director, and of course what episode you are talking about. (Shameless plug ahead:) I get into this in a recent article, “Visual Style in the ‘Golden Age’ Television Drama: The Case of CBS.” CiNéMAS, Vol. 23, nos. 2/3 (special issue “Fictions télévisuelles: approches esthétiques,” Spring 2013). The article is behind a paywall (sorry), but you can read the abstract at least:

      There’s also a good article about Hitchcock and TV in that issue, mais c’est en français.

      • Stephen Bowie Says:

        I think that most of the discussions of the True Detective scene went straight to oohing and aahing without much contemplation of context or meaning …. although I do recall a few reviews that were skeptical of such a huge departure from the series’ usual style. Apart from the six minutes, I haven’t seen it yet, so I can’t weigh in. The AV Club article wasn’t conceived as a corrective to singling out the True Detective shot (more the opposite), but now I think it might be most usefully read that way.

        As for the Climax episode, I’ve been wondering how Frankenheimer dealt with the commercial that had to have fallen somewhere into those 24 or 28 pages/minutes. It’s conceivable that he contrived to delay it but probably likelier that some hyperbole has crept into the storytelling. But without a kine available for corroboration, I felt that oral history defaulted to the most accurate account available, and some printing the legend was permissible.

        No need to apologize for plugging relevant work — if anything, I should apologize for quoting your Facebook remarks without asking first; I tend to see it as at least a quasi-public space but I realize others might not.

  2. Marty McKee Says:

    ” I wrote the bit on the John Frankenheimer Climax episode and the one on Peyton Place”

    Oh, like we couldn’t have guessed! :)

  3. Adam Says:

    I’m going to first of all confess that I’m totally guilty of focusing on TV episodes strictly for the plot and writing, but thanks to your posts I’m slowly becoming more aware of the stylistic use of cinematography and editing in TV shows as well as making note of the technicians themselves.

    A while back, I watched a Run for your Life episode entitled “The Rape of Lucrece,” which was an interesting and engrossing episode. I don’t know if it was strictly a long shot or not, but at least half, if not more of the episode took place in Lucrece’s living room. The cinematic minimalism helped to create tension between series star Ben Gazzara and guest Julie Harris. It greatly contrasted with the more frenetic court-room scenes.

  4. Larry Granberry Says:

    Another story of Elliott Silverstein’s frustrating battles with the networks over long takes is the excellent piece Marc Scott Zicree wrote about in his book on “The Twilight Zone,” specifically the episode “The Obsolete Man,” which Silverstein also helmed, and which also suffered due to network interference during a long take in the episode’s climax.

    • Stephen Bowie Says:

      Yeah. If I’d had sense enough to think of Elliot a day earlier than I did, very good chance that something of his would’ve made it into the AVC list. And I’d be, I dunno, $9 or so wealthier! Ah, well.

  5. I’m a huge fan of the long take and the sequence shot (Welles and Frankenheimer rate very highly in my personal video pantheon) – thanks very much for this terrific article and the link too. There is a wonderful backwards tracking shot on an episode on JOHNNY STACCATO that Cassavettes directed, ‘Evil’, that has always stuck in my mind – I think it’s about 2 minutes long.

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