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Emmanuel Lubezki:

How the Long Take Frames the Narrative

Willis Maritz

University of Houston


From its birth, the art of cinema has been composed of two essential components; the

narrative and the cinematic elements. The cinematic elements, or the mise en scène,found in the

film are a largely a result of the work of the director of photography. Certain cinematographers

have achieved notoriety and recognition for their work on a certain cinematic technique. For

Director of Photography Emmanuel Lubezki, this fame has come as a result of his use of long

take. The most prominent uses of this technique within his filmography, possibly within all of

cinema, are that of his work on Children of Menand Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of

Ignorance). The two films feature a large number of long takes that help to frame the narrative

elements of the film. Though the two use the method of the long take, the two films do so in

different ways. In Children of Men, it is used to highlight what the background contains such as

the cultural references as well as the action of the plot and realities of the world and creates the

contrast of narrative within the foreground and background. In Birdman or (The Unexpected

Virtue of Ignorance), the apparently seamless single long take of the film mimics the atmosphere

of a play through the limiting of a forced perspective and portraying the character’s world

through the perspective of his reality.

Throughout the creation and evolution of cinema, two trains of thought have persisted

leading to debate between which provides the most realistic and fully cinematic style; montage

and the long take. The idea of the montage being the superior technique largely stems from the

arguments made by Sergei Eisenstein in his essay Film Formand the Kuleshov Effect. The

Kuleshov Effect exists as an example to the idea that when shows two contrasting images, the

viewer will find a tie between the two. This is shown numerous times throughout cinema,

perhaps most famously by Alfred Hitchcock in his film North by Northwestin which a couple is


shown in bed which is followed by a train entering through a tunnel which causes the viewer to

make the connection that the train is resembling the act of sex. There is opposition to this method

being the prevailing and most cinematic however. Famous film critic André Bazin is possibly the

most associated with the counter argument as he believes that the long take is superior. He finds

issue within the Kuleshov Effect as he states that it can only lead to one idea within the viewer;

there’s no openness to the interpretations of what is being shown. However, many find that there

is no one way to make a film. Even cinematographers such as Lubezki, known for the long take,

feature the utilization of montage as well. However, there is argument for the opinion that long

take creates a more immersive environment and Lubezki’s cinematography in Children of Men

and Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)stand as evidence for that argument.

Alfonso Cuarón’s 2006 masterpiece, Children of Men, tells the story of the dystopian

world of England in 2027 following the epidemic of humanity not being able to procreate. The

film revolves around the conscious decision of Alfonso Cuarón to feature such a large amount of

the film within the background. He uses references to pieces of cultural value such as the use of

Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, Sandro Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, and Michelangelo’s Davidand

La Pieta. Similarly, with the film’s 2006 release, it mimics the Middle Eastern conflict occurring

at the time as Cuarón uses visual references as well to some of the photography of the reality of

what was going on at the time. Children of Menshows a similar war torn reality with the

explosions and violence occurring in the background of the scenes. This is accomplishable due to

the use of long take in Lubezki’s cinematography. In Julia Echeverría Domingo’s essay Liquid

In Julia Echeverría Domingo’s essay ​ Liquid Cinematography ​ and the Representation of Viral Threats

Cinematography and the Representation of Viral Threats in Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men,


she states that “Children of Men’s background has more relevance than the protagonist’s journey

itself” (144). With the use of the long take, the viewer is given the time and the desire to search

within the background of the scenes to find important narrative elements as well as these

references which create an understanding within the viewer. The heavy utilization of the

background creates a juxtaposition between the foreground and the background; the story of

Theo and the story of the world. This contrast parallels our own life within both 2006 and current

times with the prevalence of xenophobia in a hyper consumerist society. This is shown within the

first scene with the contrast of the montage in the video dedicated to the death of baby diego

followed by the long take of the bomb going off. Through this juxtaposition, Cuarón is able to

achieve a film revolving around the larger picture of the crisis in the world.

Though Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)is far smaller in the scale of

crises, the long take is similarly able to achieve the depiction of a crisis though this time in a

more singular environment. Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s Best Picture winner from 2014 tells the story

of Riggan Thomson, a formerly famous superhero actor as he tries to regain his fame. The film

similarly features the long take mise en scène of Emmanuel Lubezki. Though to a lesser extent, it

shares one of the goals with that of Children of Menof the long take within this film is to create

a focus on the background in which thematic elements are revealed. More important to the film,

however, is the use of the long take to portray the magical realism and the inability to decipher

the hallucinations of Riggan Thomson from the reality of life. In his essay What We Talk About

When We Talk About Cinema, Ji Young Hong states that Iñárritu “uses images of supernatural

powers and auditory hallucinations as a method of representing Riggan’s subconscious” (43).

This is accomplishable through the long take’s ability to immerse the viewer into the world; such


as the drums heard as the soundtrack which later in the film we see the drummer on the streets

and later within the building which makes the viewer question if the drummer has ever been

there at all. Similarly, the use of the long take mirrors the theatrical atmosphere which is

paralleled in the film. By using the long take, Iñárritu is able to limit the forcing of a perspective,

prevalent in film as pointing a camera at a subject or object means not pointing it at another. In

theater, you are free to see the whole stage and you may focus your eyes where you wish to. The

use of the long take, in relation to Bazin’s argument, allows the viewers these new perspectives

and therefore new opportunities to interpret the film.

The argument as to whether montage or long take is the superior film form is one that has

been around for the majority of the history of the art of cinema. Both have their importances

however. The cinematography of Emmanuel Lubezki in both Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men

and Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)are a testament to

the importance and capabilities of the long take in mise en scène.Though a lesser cinephile may

see the two films and see nothing but comparisons, these two films differ largely on the goals

and accomplishments of the use of Emmanuel Lubezki’s long take. Within Children of Men, the

use of long take highlights the juxtaposition between the narrative happening within the

foreground and the narrative happening in the background as well as to create the attention to the

cultural references that help guide the viewer. In opposition, the cinematography Birdman or

(The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)is used to portray the character’s subconscious and the

resulting inability to decipher between the delusions and reality.


Works Cited

Domingo, J. E. (2015). Liquid Cinematography and the Representation of Viral Threats in Alfonso

Cuarón’s Children of Men. Atlantis. Journal of the Spanish Association for

Anglo-American Studies, 37(2), 139-155.

Hong, J. Y. (2015). What We Talk About When We Talk About Cinema. TECHART: Journal of

Arts and Imaging Science, 2(4), 41-45.