Director Alfonso Cuarón likes long takes, preferring to cut his films as little as he can. His 2006 movie Children of Men features three relatively long single takes: the scene where Kee gives birth (3:19); the roadside ambush (4:07); and the final battle (7:34). (Here’s a video that features all of them, as well as every other take in the film that runs at least 45 seconds.) Now he’s preparing to release a new film, Gravity, which supposedly opens with a 17-minute-long take. (The first trailer was recently released, and can be viewed here.) What’s more, the rest of the film apparently contains only 155 other shots. Assuming that the movie runs 2 hours long (the actual run time hasn’t been announced yet), that would mean that each shot is, on average, slightly longer than 46 seconds apiece.
That’s extremely long for contemporary Hollywood, where shots typically don’t last longer than a few seconds each. For instance, Michael Bay’s Transformers movies are pretty rapidly cut, with Average Shot Lengths (ASLs) between 3 and 3.4 seconds.) But that’s not altogether unusual. For instance, Inception (2010) has an ASL of 3.1. (I made a video about that, here.) Scholars such as David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson have documented how, over the past thirty years, cutting in Hollywood films has gotten faster, resulting in ASLs of under 5 seconds. Foreign films have remained slower by comparison, and European filmmakers often bring those habits to Hollywood. Drive, for instance, which was directed by the Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn, features pretty long takes, and an ASL of 7 seconds/shot). But that’s still much faster than what Cuarón has just accomplished.
Advance word about Gravity got some friends and me wondering: what other contemporary Hollywood films have ASLs higher than 46? Or is Gravity going to set some new record?
To answer that question, I turned to the Cinemetrics Database, an online database for ASLs and other measurements for films. It’s important to note that the data there is submitted by volunteers, and very prone to errors. Furthermore, the database is also far from complete. Still, it’s a very useful tool. (The site also provides free software that anyone can download to use and to participate.)
Here’s what I did. First, I clicked “Show all,” so I could sort the films by ASL—simple enough. I saw right away that Russian Ark was #1, which makes sense. That 2002 film consists of only a single shot, and thereby yields an ASL of 5496.3). So far, the database appeared correct.
The next step was harder. I imported the sorted data into Excel, and began distinguishing the Hollywood films from the rest. This is important because, as already noted, lots of foreign films contain longer takes than their US counterparts. But we want to know how remarkable Gravity is going to appear in US cineplexes this summer. I took out a lot of works by familiar European names here: Béla Tarr & Ágnes Hranitzky, Theodoros Angelopoulos, Chantal Akerman, Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Kim Ki-duk, Pedro Costa, Jean-Marie Straub & Daniele Huillet, the Dardenne Brothers, Jafar Panahi, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Tsai Ming-liang … (If you’re unfamiliar with their films, you’re missing out on some of the best movies being made today).
The next step was to weed out experimental/underground directors like Andy Warhol and George Kuchar, and older Hollywood directors like G.W. Bitzer and D.W. Griffith. Again, we want to compare Gravity to recent Hollywood films. Shot length slowed down a lot when sound was introduced, and has been speeding up over the past eighty-something years. For instance, Howard Hawks’s His Girl Friday (1940) has an ASL of about 15 seconds. (That said, an ASL of 46 would be remarkable even in Classic Hollywood.)
And here’s what I found (although keep in mind I wasn’t able to independently confirm any of this, and I had to weed out a lot of anomalies—the database really needs some cleaning up!)
1. Rope (1948, Alfred Hitchcock), ASL = 433.9
OK, this isn’t a recent recent film, but it has to be noted, as it’s most likely the highest ASL in Hollywood. Hitchcock used only 10 shots in making it (the film’s Wikipedia page lists them). (As you probably know, Hitchcock designed those shots, then edited them such that the finished film appeared to be a single take.)
After that, editing speeds up considerably:
3. Down by Law (1986, Jim Jarmusch), ASL = 51.1
4. Elephant (2003, Gus Van Sant), ASL = 49.4
5. Bullets Over Broadway (1994, Woody Allen), ASL = 48.2
6. Last Days (2005, Gus Van Sant), ASL = 46.5
So, given the data so far, Gravity looks ready to clock in at #7 in the list of Hollywood movies with the highest ASLs.
However, like I said, the Cinemetrics Database contains a lot of anomalous data. One entry that stood out was Blizzard, a 2003 children’s film about a magic reindeer, directed by Star Trek‘s own LeVar Burton (who played the blind engineer Geordi LaForge). There are two records for this film: 46.5 and 76.9. One entry I could overlook, but two raised my suspicions (even if their claims wildly differ). So I obtained a copy of the film and gave it a look. And I didn’t watch the whole thing, but I can report that, unless there’s some 15-minute-long shot lurking in there somewhere, its ASL is entirely typical—about 3–4 seconds per shot.
After that, Woody Allen has a lot of the list locked up:
8. Alice (1990, Woody Allen), ASL = 40.5
9. Sweetgrass (2009, Ilisa Barbash & Lucien Castaing-Taylor), ASL = 39.5
10. Mighty Aphrodite (1995, Woody Allen), ASL = 34.6
11. Redacted (2007, Brian De Palma), ASL = 34.4
12. Don’t Drink the Water (1994, Woody Allen), ASL = 33.1
13. Everyone Says I Love You (1996, Woody Allen), ASL = 32.9 (another entry lists 31.9)
14. Shadows and Fog (1991, Woody Allen), ASL = 32.7
15. Celebrity (1998, Woody Allen), ASL = 32.1
16. September (1987, Woody Allen), ASL = 31.3
17. Slacker (1991, Richard Linklater), ASL = 31.1
18. Vernon, Florida (1982, Errol Morris), ASL = 30.5
19. Cloverfield (2008, Matt Reeves), ASL = 28.9
20. Husbands & Wives (1992, Woody Allen), ASL = 27.8
21. Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993, Woody Allen), ASL = 27.7
22. Another Woman (1988, Woody Allen), ASL = 26.9
23. My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done (2009, Werner Herzog), ASL = 26.9
24. Gates of Heaven (1980, Errol Morris), ASL = 26
25. Mystery Train (1989, Jim Jarmusch), ASL = 25
26. Rules of Attraction (2001, Roger Avary), ASL = 24.9
27. Hannah and Her Sisters (1986, Woody Allen), ASL = 24.5
28. Grizzly Man (2005, Werner Herzog), ASL = 24.4
This isn’t surprising. Woody Allen has long been noted for his reluctance to cut, and his preference for shooting whole scenes in single takes. This makes shooting the film more complicated, but it does allow actors more flexibility in their performances (since they can move about the set more freely), and greatly speeds up the editing process.
That said, it is odd that the sorted data didn’t include any Woody Allen film made after 1996. Their absence would indicate one of two things: that the man has changed his way of working (which I don’t think is the case), or that his later films have yet to be analyzed and included. I find the latter possibility more likely. (Also, note that the most recent film here is four years old, so it’s possible some recent titles are missing.)
I’ve seen every film on this list except for Sweetwater, Redacted, Cloverfield, and My Son, My Son, so I can’t vouch for them, but the rest looks correct. (Mystery Train also has two other entries that claim 24.1 and 23.9, respectively; either way, it probably ranks somewhere around 24.)
That said, Rules of Attraction has to be a mistake. It is a remarkable film for many reasons, featuring an extraordinarily wide variety of cinematic techniques: splitscreen, reversed footage, extensive slow motion, and more. And it does contain many wonderful long takes—but it also contains a sequence comprised of hundreds, if not thousands, of rapid cuts. My guess is that whoever was measuring the film chose not to count all the shots in that section, which is of course incorrect. (To get the ASL, you have to average the length of every shot in the film.)
I stopped analyzing the data at this point because after this the field starts getting increasingly cluttered, meaning the inaccuracies in the database render the results less meaningful.
So with Gravity‘s release, Cuarón looks ready to not only make his most languorous film to date, but also to take his place alongside long-take masters like Allen, Van Sant, Jarmusch, Herzog, and Morris.
Seventh place, to be exact.
A.D Jameson is the author of the prose collection Amazing Adult Fantasy (Mutable Sound, 2011), in which he tries to come to terms with having been raised on '80s pop culture, and the novel Giant Slugs (Lawrence and Gibson, 2011), an absurdist retelling of the Epic of Gilgamesh. He's taught classes at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Lake Forest College, DePaul University, Facets Multimedia, and StoryStudio Chicago. He's also the nonfiction / reviews editor of the online journal Requited. He recently started the PhD program in Creative Writing at the University of Illinois at Chicago. In his spare time, he contributes to the group blogs Big Other and HTMLGIANT. Follow him on Twitter at @adjameson.