This past week marked the release of Steven Spielberg’s 29th feature film over 45 years, The BFG. The film is, if nothing else, a confluence of iconography: the most famous movie director of the last 50 years making his first film under the Walt Disney Pictures banner, an adaptation of a novel by one of the last century’s most beloved children’s authors, Roald Dahl. The BFG is able to come to life in live-action, unlike the animated 1989 adaptation, due in no small part to extensive digital effects. Mark Rylance’s performance as the Big Friendly Giant is largely aided by motion-capture technology, as are the performances of the men who play the other giants in the film, including Jemaine Clement and Bill Hader. Because the film is guided by digital effects, Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski are able to bring the world of Giant Country to life via various long takes, with the camera constantly moving and spinning around the film’s adolescent protagonist Sophie and the BFG as they traverse the fantastical land to capture and spread dreams to humankind.
The debate over the value of long takes has been revived of late, thanks to back-to-back Best Director Oscar winner Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s films Birdman and The Revenant being driven technically by a camera that never sits still and rarely cuts away. But Steven Spielberg has an appropriately long history with the long take, as video essayist Tony Zhou has pointed out in multiple examples. However, though Spielberg’s predilection for using the long take dates back to the 1970s, the key to understanding his 21st-century work lies in a scene from the sci-fi noir Minority Report. In a crucial moment, our hero John Anderton (Tom Cruise) is evading capture for a crime he will apparently commit soon despite being the captain of the D.C. Precrime Unit. He’s in a fairly sleazy hotel, attempting to recover from an eye-replacement operation so he can’t be recognized by the city’s advanced scanning technology. Then, the Precrime cops arrive, hoping to identify Anderton via spider-robot scanning devices. And so, we get the following scene. (Go to 3:08 in the video.)
Minority Report is in general one of Spielberg’s very best films, in a long line of candidates for “Spielberg’s very best films.” The aforementioned scene has been a standout of the picture for nearly 15 years, not just because the director ratchets up the tension in a moment that could’ve felt common for the majority of procedural thrillers, but how he and Kaminski use the camera. We can feel it pulling us into each of the hotel rooms from a bird’s-eye view, allowing us to be voyeurs in a deliberately more intrusive fashion than normal: watch a mother calm her children; look at a mid-coitus couple; and more. The long take is necessary to why this scene works, even though the scene itself doesn’t require an unbroken take to automatically suggest Anderton’s desperation as he attempts to hide in a moment of great physical pain and anguish.
Digitally aided long takes are fairly common for later Spielberg films, where their placement is as much about experimenting with modern technology as about communicating information to the audience. Think of this sequence in War of the Worlds (2005), wherein Cruise, playing the harried father Ray, drives a van down the freeway to get himself and his children to safety from an alien invasion. There’s no hiding the fact that this is an impossible long take; no camera or camera equipment could achieve quite what Spielberg, Kaminski, and the digital artists do here in a single take. It’s not that Spielberg only began using digital technology in his films with Minority Report–the use of long takes in his later films, though, is about showing off how untethered “camerawork” can be when it’s created on a computer as it is on a soundstage.
A perfect example, and one that feels very much an analogue to many moments in The BFG, is this scene from The Adventures of Tintin from 2011.
This is an exhilarating chase, one that gets more manic and nearly frantic as Tintin and the villains essentially race to the bottom of a city; the closer they get, the tenser the action becomes. But this moment also suggests that Spielberg and producer Peter Jackson ensured that the audience recognizes the lack of cuts as Tintin and his sozzled companion Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis) attempt to wrest control of a precious scroll away from the nefarious Ivan Ivanovich Sakharine (Daniel Craig). The blend of action and comedy in the 150-second long take is memorable, as is the knowledge that there’s no way this could be pulled off in live-action with the same capabilities. It’s interesting to note that the way the camera sometimes is positioned to follow the movement of Sakharine’s falcon and the scroll in its talons is equivalent to a long take from Robert Zemeckis’ adaptation of The Polar Express; in tracking the movement of an object, the director tries to show off this cutting-edge technology. Spielberg and Zemeckis being long-time cohorts makes you wonder if the Tintin moment is meant as much as one-upmanship as an homage.
Utilizing motion-capture technology frees up a filmmaker from the day-to-day frustrations of camera placement, in the same way that hand-drawn or computer animation does; if you’re not filming something in live-action, your camera can go anywhere you want it to. It’s not that there aren’t restrictions with motion-capture or other animation. The restrictions are vastly different, and the ability to keep the camera moving without cutting to or from an object or person is larger. The BFG doesn’t have a single shot as distinctly memorable, or noticeable, as the moments in War of the Worlds or Tintin, but when Sophie explores the BFG’s house or the duo dive into the world of brightly colored dreams, the camera is let loose in ways that aren’t present or possible in the sections set in and around England. Spielberg’s camera whirls around the BFG when Sophie tries and fails to escape, or even when he’s defining for her how the world of giants works as compared to the world of humans.
There’s no easy line to connect between the quality of Spielberg’s 21st-century films and the growing reliance on digitally aided long takes. Of the 12 films he’s made since 2001, the closest Spielberg has come to making a bad movie is Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and even that has its merits, though maybe not quite as many as some online cinephile circles may argue. Long takes in general are something that we may not associate as much with Spielberg. Iñárritu gets a bit more attention for it these days, because of exactly how long his long takes are, and how hard it is not to notice them when he’s all but shouting about how long the long takes are to the viewer. But that doesn’t mean Spielberg hasn’t proven to be exceptional at them. (Last year’s Bridge of Spies opens with a wonderful long take, as the camera follows Rylance through 50s-era New York City as he’s tailed by federal agents.) The BFG is the latest example of Spielberg using the long take to experiment with digital technology, pushing himself as a filmmaker as much he pushes his characters or the audience through emotional experience.