The Academy’s Obsession With Long Takes Is Still Holding It Back

The Oscar for Best Cinematography is now the Oscar for the longest takes.

A collage of scenes from 1917, La La Land, Birdman, Gravity, Roma, and The Revenant
1917, La La Land, Birdman, Gravity, Roma, and The Revenant all featured elaborate “oners.” All won Best Cinematography. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Summit Entertainment, Fox Searchlight, Twenty Century Fox, Warner Bros., Dreamworks, and Netflix.

“The one-shot movie,” the Los Angeles Times wrote earlier this month, “is to cinema roughly what the triple axel or quadruple jump is to figure skating: It carries a high degree of difficulty, but if you manage to nail it, you’re sure to wow the crowd.” With 1917’s three wins at the Academy Awards on Sunday night, it joins Birdman, 12 Years a Slave, Roma, The Revenant, La La Land, and Gravity as the latest movie whose road to Oscar glory was traveled in a single, elaborately choreographed tracking shot.

Looking solely at Best Picture, you might get the idea that the Academy can take or leave the long take. Sure, Birdman and 12 Years a Slave both took home the night’s biggest prize, but last year’s winner, Green Book, rarely attempted anything more complicated than shot–reverse shot, and Spotlight, which won three years before that, was deliberately self-effacing in its procedural-driven style.

Still, cast your eye down the ballot to the awards for director and cinematographer and beyond, and a more decisive pattern emerges. In five of the past seven years, the movie that has won both Best Director and Best Cinematography has been the one with the most elaborate long take, if not several of them: Gravity in 2014, Birdman in 2015, The Revenant in 2016, La La Land in 2017, and Roma in 2019. Director and cinematographer split in 2018, when the latter went to Roger Deakins, who won again this year for … the elaborately choreographed tracking shots of 1917. Parasite pulled out an astonishing, unprecedented win for Best Picture, the renamed Best International Film, Director, and Screenplay. But it was shut out of the technical categories, including production design and editing, for which it was at least nominated, and didn’t get a single acting nomination, at least some of which usually accompany a Best Picture win.

It’s a running joke, often delivered with a world-weary sigh, that where the craft categories are concerned, the Oscars might as well replace “best” with “most.” The director Louis Malle once wrote that he didn’t want his editors winning awards, the idea being that if editing is noticeable enough to draw your attention, it’s taking you out of the film. But you don’t win an Oscar for making it look easy. The people who work behind the camera don’t get to spend months giving interviews about how much weight they lost for the part or how long they spent in the makeup chair each day, which means that their effort needs to be not only present but visible on screen. And nothing makes that effort so easily legible as a long take, especially one in which the camera is constantly in motion.

Camera blocking—deciding where the camera should be, when and how it should move—is a huge part of both cinematography and directing, but it’s not all of either. Directors need to make sure all of the production’s elements are working in sync, not just the camera but the casting, locations, production design, costumes, makeup, acting, sound, scoring, visual effects, and more. Cinematographers are artists of light and color who nowadays often do as much work in the digital domain as on the set.

But wins for Avatar and Life of Pi notwithstanding, the Academy still seems uncertain how to navigate the complicated relationship between on-set photography and visual effects, and the long take is the easiest way to avoid that issue altogether. It’s no secret that, in modern movies, many of what appear to be long, unedited shots are actually digital quilts stitched together from numerous pieces. Roger Deakins has declined to say how many shots are actually involved in 1917, although he points out that the production shot for 65 days; you do the math. The movie is likely composed of dozens if not hundreds of takes, but the illusion is so effective that it’s regularly referred to as a “one-shot movie,” even though there’s a pronounced cut to black and an hours-long time jump right smack in the middle of it.

Long takes reassure, or at least persuade, the audience that what they’re watching really happened: Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone really learned that dance; Leonardo DiCaprio really ate that bison liver. (We usually think of long takes as a directorial flourish, but the acting branch, the Academy’s largest voting bloc, might also be partial to them because they give performers a chance to strut their stuff in real time.) Although they’re almost invariably abetted by digital technology at this point—if not to join together separate takes, at least to paint out stray cables or correct a wobble that might ruin an otherwise perfect shot—long takes serve as an implicit rebuttal to the CGI-heavy process of contemporary Hollywood filmmaking. At least at some points in 1917, you’re witnessing filmmaking techniques that date back to the year the movie is set. When the camera follows a British soldier as he makes his way through the crush of a World War I trench, you’re there alongside him, jostling up against hundreds of costumed extras as he muscles his way through the horde. And long takes feel epic, distinct from the language of TV, the kind of thing you’d (hopefully) pay to see in a movie theater. Watch Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver squabble on your iPad if you like, but you’d better see 1917 on the big screen.

1917 is a virtuosic technical achievement, and if the Academy is determined to judge by degree of difficulty, then Deakins at least arguably deserves his statuette, as do the visual effects artists who seamlessly joined its shots. But while a skating routine composed of nothing but triple axels might be an impressive feat, it’d be boring as hell to watch.

Read more in Slate about the Oscars.