Advanced Cinematography Techniques

How to Shoot a Scene in One Long Take

Single takes with lots of movement, action and camera blocking might seem intimidating. Until now.

Article below written by Josephine Babirye. Edited by Sareesh Sudhakaran.

What is a “Oner”?

Have you ever heard of a oner? No? Let me tell you what it is.

A oner in filmmaking is when an entire scene is shot entirely in one take. It’s also called the long take.

It can either be achieved by moving the camera through the scene, or by locking off the camera and having the cast move through the scene, or a combination of both techniques.

You’ve probably seen it before, even if you didn’t realize it. In fact, the best oners are the ones that are so well executed that you don’t even recognize them the first time. The beauty of a well produced oner is that it has the amazing ability to really pull you into the scene as you watch it all unfold before your eyes.

Oners, however, are insanely technical and not the easiest shots to successfully pull off. That’s why movies like Children of Men, Goodfellas, and Birdman are commonly referenced when talking about oners.

The beauty of a oner is that it has the amazing ability to really pull you into the scene as you watch it all unfold before your eyes. It makes you feel like you’re a part of the story. It does this by showing you one or all three of the following aspects of the story:

  1. The setting. This is the location and time of the story, whether it be a medieval battle field or a futuristic computer hub. A oner has the capability to really give you a sense of when and where the story is taking place in the movie.
  2. The character. In this case the oner puts us the viewer in place of the character in the movie, allowing us to see what they see as they see it. This really puts us in the mindset of the character in that scene.
  3. The plot. In this case, the oner focuses on the action happening in the shot. Everything that happens on the screen serves to drive the story forward.

So, how do you shoot a oner? The overall concept you have to keep in mind is that planning is absolutely crucial. Here are some steps to help you get ready to shoot a oner.

How does the scene feel to you?

Is it an intense scene like the battle scene in The Revenant? Or is it an exciting scene like Henry and Karen’s date in Goodfellas? Deciding on the feeling of the scene will guide the rest of the decisions you make in the production of your long take.

This step is typically done during the pre-production stage of your production. Collaboration between the director, cinematographer, gaffer, and all above-the-line crew is absolutely crucial during this stage.

Are you really going to shoot it in one take?

While a oner is ideally shot all in one take in camera, sometimes that simply isn’t feasible. In these instances you need to create the oner by shooting different takes and them stitching them in post to where they seamlessly appear to have been shot in one take.

There are different techniques to achieve this such as using whip pans, well placed fade to color transitions, obscuring the frame, to mention but a few. Techniques like these were used in movies like Birdman and Rope.

Are you going to move the camera?

Oners are best achieved when there is movement happening within the scene. This can be achieved either by moving the camera through the scene, or by locking off the camera and having the cast move through the scene, or a combination of both techniques.

Any movement in the scene must be motivated so as to help drive the story forward.

Movement for the sake of movement will not help move the story along. It will result in a less than stellar viewing experience for your audience.

Will your location help you or hinder you?

When doing a long take your location will heavily influence the success of your shoot.

Ask yourself: Is the scene indoors or outdoors? How easily can you move your camera through the scene? What kind of lights can you rig into your scene? Will you have moving props or not? How big is your cast and crew?

Once you answer these and other questions, you can then select the right location for your scene, which will then make the next steps a lot easier to go through.

Camera angles and blocking

Perhaps the most important thing you need to figure out is the choreography of your scene.

Oners are often long and arduous shots to accomplish because everything has to be done at exactly the right time. If anyone screws up, everybody has to start the whole scene all over again.

Before you start shooting you need to choreograph the entire scene meticulously. A great tool to help with this is a storyboard. If you have the resources, you can take it a step further and do a full-on previz.

Do you have the right cast and crew?

To pull off a oner you need an experienced cast and crew. On-set chemistry is vital.

Everyone needs to be clear on what they need to do as well as what everyone else is going to do and when.

It’s an elaborate dance, and it takes practice and rehearsals to get right. Your cast and crew have to rehearse the scene over and over and over again in order to get it right before the cameras actually start rolling.

Positive attitudes are absolutely key for this to be a success, because oners can very quickly become monotonous to shoot and rehearse.

Do you have the right gear?

The gear you use to capture your scene can also affect whether or not your shot is successful.

If you need to shoot the scene going through multiple rooms and eventually going outside and into a swimming pool, it’s probably a good idea to have a wireless monitor so that you don’t have anyone tripping over cables. A wireless monitor is also great to keep members of the crew that aren’t actually shooting away from the scene when the cameras are rolling while still enabling them to see exactly what’s happening.

Another example is lighting; do you have grips holding lights above the main actor’s head as he searches for the burglar hiding in his house, or do you have lights rigged strategically throughout the set as he walks through the scene?

Did I mention rehearsals?

We touched on this but we’re going to have to again!

You have to factor in time to thoroughly rehearse your scene before you start shooting. It’s during rehearsal that you can see what works and what doesn’t.

You may find during rehearsal that maybe a full blown track just won’t fit through the door like you’d hoped, so you have to switch to filming with a steadycam. Or maybe you find that the two actors you chose for the scene stand at very different heights, so you have to completely adjust your lighting setup. All these are issues that you can only discover and fix during the rehearsal stage.

During the rehearsal stage is also when your cast and crew memorize where everyone else will be throughout the shoot so that things run as smoothly as possible. It’s where you nail down the signals and cues you’ll need to have people move through the scene.

Rehearsal is perhaps the most crucial part of filming a successful long take.

How to practice shooting long takes

Practice filming “fake” oners using techniques such as whip pans, obscuring the frame, visual effects, etc. Because these types of oners are stitched together in post, you don’t have the pressure of getting everything right the first time in camera.

Take the time to also study oners the next time you see them in a movie. Pay attention to the movement of the camera and the on-screen talent. Put yourself in the directors shoes and try and imagine why they made the choices they made. Reverse engineer the scene and then imagine doing it differently.

Then put that or a variation of that into simple shots in your own movies. You can just ask a friend or friends and film them with a mobile phone. Don’t let gear stop you!

That’s it!

With these tips you should be able to film your first oner. It will probably fail the first few times, but that’s okay; it’s part of the learning process. Keep studying great scenes and figure out what makes them so successful, and put what you learn into practice.

Remember this great advice from the great Sidney Lumet:

How to shoot a “Oner”

Now here’s a video showing you how to shoot a “Oner” from beginning to end:

The planning stage

For some reason I imagined this scene as a single take while writing the script.

We start with a close up of the surgeon, move to the nurse, then the hero. In a way we are introducing each character and their relationship to each other – both emotionally as well as their positions in physical space.

We change height and tilt up to reveal the surgeon’s face. He steps aside to reveal the nurse, and then we do a quick pan and track back to reveal the hero.

The equipment we used in this shot is a professional dolly, more specifically the Panther Classic. To know more about dollies, read this:

Our hero’s position is important. He is outside looking in – because he is tentative. He is also in a long shot because that physical distance translates into his emotional, tentative state.

The surgeon then tries to get the hero to enter, and that’s when we track in slowly, in a way we are bridging the distance. The surgeon is physically trying to coax the hero to give some blood, and since this is a conversation between the two of them we track in to just reveal their conversation.

Finally the hero enters and we track back to follow his reaction until he sits down. He has a decision to make.

To emphasize his dilemma we dolly in and also change heights slowly. After he makes his decision the camera pulls back slowly and the nurse ushers him into the next room. This is where the scene ends.

The room was tiny, maybe about 15 x 15 feet or less, and we had to have space for the actors and the dolly. We used a Red Monstro and Arri Master Anamorphics, specifically the 50mm lens, at a T-stop of either 5.6 or 8, I don’t remember. I don’t like shallow DOF.

To know more about the camera and lens, check out these videos:

The execution

The first thing I did was walk through the scene with my key grip, Ganesh, explaining all the important frames. If there are any issues, nows the time to figure it out. There are small bits and parts to a dolly that we need to decide on – low arm, U-bangi, jib, etc. The kind of support you need depends on the movement.

Obviously we are severely restricted by space here so I just sat on the dolly without any extensions. But I could have used a U-bangi for sure.

After we decide on the movement we bring in the dolly. We rehearse multiple times on the dolly, so Ganesh understands how he has to move it.

There’s only space for one dolly operator. Ganesh operates the height and movement, and I operate the pan and tilt. Focus was pulled by Raju Kamat using a C-motion system on an Atomos Shogun.

Then we completed the lighting, if you are interested to learn how to light please check out the beginner’s guide to lighting for film.

We brought in the actors and rehearsed with them so they understood the space they had to work with.

The other challenge was we had to do all this very quickly because we had only 3 hours. It was an actual operating theater in a real hospital, because I had no money to create a set or to buy props.

Once everyone is ready to go we go for the take. A single mistake can ruin a take and we would have to start again. We nailed the first take, but I noticed flicker on playback. So we decided to do one more after adjusting the shutter angle to eliminate flicker.

The flicker was caused by the ER LED light. It is a mild flicker, easily correctible in Resolve, which I’ll show how in my lighting guide when it’s done.

Then we did a second take, and I’m glad we did two because in the final edit I used parts from both. I also had inserts of actors talking to break up the “Oner”. I needed this option so I could control the pacing. Even though the shot was planned as a Oner we always kept the option open to add edits.

So that’s how I accomplished the OT scene from my short film Man May Love. If you’re interested in learning how to construct dialogue scenes from scratch, look no further than the ultimate guide to shooting dialogue scenes, which takes you into my rehearsal process, shot breakdown process and everything you need to properly shoot dialogue scenes.

I hope you learned something from this article and video.

If there’s anything you think I left out or would like me to go more in depth, let me know.