The Long Take in "This Is America" Underlines Why 'God of War' Needed a Cut


#1

When God of War released a few weeks ago, one of the ways it impressed critics and fans was with its use of “one shot” visual storytelling: Barring the occasional fade to white light or transition to or from menu screens, God of War’s camera never “cuts.” Instead, the full game is one long take.

In other games (and throughout film, television, and animation), cuts are used to make transitions of all sorts. Sometimes that’s to frame whoever the principal speaker in a conversation, to highlight some important onscreen object, to show off some arriving complication, or to introduce the viewer to the location of of a new scene. But God of War keeps the action rolling the whole time, using camera movement to change focus instead of hard cuts.

Dori Arazi, the game's director of cinematography, goes into their process here, and its worth a watch to get what the team was going for:

While I understand why this technique wowed some other folks, it never landed for me. On Waypoint Radio, I said that was partially because the game does have the occasional cuts in the action mentioned above. It was also, I said, because cuts can be very valuable, and sometimes God of War feels like it would be better with them.

After all, cuts are as varied (and potentially powerful) as any other visual storytelling technique. In some dialog scenes, cuts can feel almost invisible or they can emphasize one speaker over the other. Cuts can be rapid to create a sense of speed, or they can arrive slowly in order to make a moment feel like it's stretching dramatically (or in the case of a good comedy, awkwardly). A hard cut can draw attention to itself to create a sense of dramatic irony or transitional smoothness. Cuts can communicate the passing of time or simultaneous action elsewhere. By eschewing these sorts of tools, God of War was declining to use an entire toolbox filled with storytelling devices.

But even beyond that, there was something nagging at me about why the one shot device didn’t work for me. I just couldn’t put my finger on it until Saturday night, when--after his appearance on SNL--Donald Glover released the new Childish Gambino video, “This is America.”

The last thing the world needs is another shot-by-shot breakdown of the video, but for those who’ve missed it here’s the summary: Without cutting, the camera follows Glover through a series of sequences set across a warehouse space. He executes a seated guitarist, dances with school children, murders an entire choir, and finds himself caught up in riotous chaos. As each vignette piles on the one before it the tension rises. Everything feels like it’s on the precipice, like everything could fall apart at any second.

And the truth is, it probably could, and that’s part of why the video’s use of long take cinematography works.

In film, one shot sequences feel like feats of choreography and execution: performance, direction, camera work, lighting, everything needs to come together in a single take. Horses need to follow orders. Bad guys need to fall just down the stairs just so. Whether shot in a single go or pieced together by hiding cuts (as in Hitchcock’s Rope), these long takes can be exhilarating, exhausting, destabilizing, or surprising. More importantly, there is the feeling that it could all go wrong.

Take the seven minute long fight scene in last year’s Atomic Blonde, as Charlize Theron’s Lorraine Broughton, cold war spy, fights her way up (and down) an apartment building:

Sitting in theaters, watching her go from multi-floor gunfight to living room brawl, I felt fatigued. For all the excitement, it was also wearing me down. Even though I knew that there was no way the sequence I was watching would end in a botched stunt, the long take made me feel the desire in all of the performers to land their choreographed moves, and by extension their character’s desires to win that fight. I was desperate for the release of a cut, and the filmmakers refused to give me one.

All of which is to say that the long take or one shot in film feels like an accomplishment, especially since in real life, so many things can go wrong: books can fall off of shelves, a bird can land in the middle of your shot, an actor can forget a line. Long takes in film require the sculpting of possibility into a firm shape.


Listen to Waypoint's Austin Walker and Patrick Klepek talk all about God of War spoilers in this bonus episode of Waypoint Radio:


But in games, rigidity in visual storytelling is the thing developers have been trying to surpass for years. It’s why a four minute Mass Effect trailer turned so many heads in 2006. Instead of moving as if on wires, people swayed, blinked, and emoted with a realistic imprecision.

While I know that all of God of War's cutscenes were motion captured, it isn't the one shot structure that achieves that feeling of imprecision. Instead, God of War delivers on that effect elsewhere: through a lingering, disappointed look from Atreus; from Kratos’ conflicted brows easing as he resolves to be honest; in the the shaky cam that grounds boss fights in a sort of documentary aesthetic; even with the curving, half-predictable arc of the Leviathan axe as it returns to your hand with a snap. These all make the world feel loose, and if not “realistic,” at least human.

“This Is America,” like the classic Touch of Evil intro before it, does have a cut. But where Welles spliced in an explosion, “This Is America” director Hiro Murai adds an exhale that resets the emotional floor of the video, and allows the viewer’s mind a moment to rest and think.

It’s hard not to think about what great cuts could’ve been added to the game, what emotional re-alignments Arazi and the rest of the game's creative team could've performed if they had let themselves have just a handful of cuts.

Have thoughts? Swing by Waypoint’s forums to share them!


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://waypoint.vice.com/en_us/article/zm8em3/the-long-take-in-this-is-america-underlines-why-god-of-war-needed-a-cut

#2

I’ve been confused about people saying that God of War is one long take because everytime you fast travel it cuts and it also cuts (spoiler) when you enter the light in alfheim.

Likewise, this is America includes several cuts, many of them are just hidden by camera tricks. Like “birdman”. I actually think it’s better to think of “this is America” as several long segments instead of one long take.


#3

I’ve been thinking about this a lot because while god of wars commitment to a long shot does have some practical purposes, it feels mostly like a technical trick to feel more filmic for no real purpose.

In a film, a shot can communicate so much about a setting, the story, the relationship between characters. And as Austin mentioned edits and use of long shots in film are used to accomplish so many things, like keeping up tension. And it seems most games miss these sorts of things entirely when making cutscenes.

So far the only thing GoW’s long shot has really accomplished in my play through is somewhat keeping the pace up, and I guess making it seem filmic because this medium is still so concerned with that for some reason.


#4

I can’t wrap my head around the purpose of the long take in God of War. Long takes have come back into the spotlight with Inarritu’s work in Birdman and The Revenant, and Cuaron’s extended closing and opening sequences in Children of Men and Gravity, respectively. Oldboy’s hammer fight inspired many a drawn-out, grueling fight scene over the decade that followed it.

But, as Austin points out, much of the appreciation for these “no cuts” sequences in cinema comes from our underlying knowledge that there is a ton that can go wrong, but didn’t. Birdman wowed audiences with stage tricks like cast members removing wires from Keaton’s back mid-scene. We wonder, “how did they DO this?” But with God of War, we know how they did it. It’s a programmatic sequence, they can just do this. No one is truly holding the camera for the entire game, objects and characters can disappear or appear at-will, and their movements, assembled from separate parts, are set in stone before the ‘shot’ even begins. It’s neat, and in the scope of games, it’s unique, but - and this applies to many long takes in cinema, too! - the question is this: what purpose does this serve?

I haven’t yet played God of War, but after watching the video attached to the article from the creators about this technique, and having seen and read as much as I have about the game itself, the answer is what I feared it was. It’s the same answer that I think Inarritu had to this question in executing on Birdman, and The Revenant. The purpose it serves is being really really technically impressive. We as the audience know it’s hard, and other developers/directors know it’s hard, so we’re impressed by the fact that they pulled it off. It doesn’t add much to the story or tone, but it does make us think the director is talented. To put it bluntly, it’s the cinematic way of saying “hey look what I can do.” It comes off as egotistical.

There is a critique of Birdman that posits it is autobiographical; that Inarritu believes he’s long deserved accolades, but had unjustly been denied them. Birdman-as-cinematic-thesis on how good he is works, in large part because of the long-take format. I’m getting the same impression from Barlog and Co. with God of War. I’m still anxious to play the game (I don’t have a PS4), but I kind of wish I hadn’t read/listened to anything from the creative team about this game.


#5

lol wut. He may not have won but he’s had oscar nominations going back to Amores Perros. That’s hardly “unjustly denied accolades”.


#6

It’s such an unnecessary rule to put upon your work, especially in this case as the game is a game, with digital characters, the only reason a single cut is impressive is the lack of loading breaks between sequences, not a feat of cinematography and well executed long form acting.

It’s like whenever a game prides itself on using no cutscenes, or being entirely directed in first person, it’s an artistic choice, sure, but they’re arbitrary limitations that can limit the potential of your game’s story or pacing by refusing to use a tool in the box.

For what it’s worth, God of War’s “long take” worked for me in the sense that I never thought about it. I was just in that world, rowing from dock to dock, exploring, and eventually returning to the critical path in a seamless way.
I don’t think it enhanced the story or even impressed me much, but it was not impeding on my experience, which is all I can ultimately say about this supposedly remarkable feature.


#8

I’m not sure how I feel about this article comparing two wildly different pieces of media using a similar technique to accomplish completely different things. Kind of rubs me the wrong way to take 2 popular things and pit them against eachother. Also the idea that artists who dedicate themselves to a specific technique or discipline are “not using all the tools in their toolbox” as it’s put in the article is sort of dismissive of creators who have a very specific mission or intent with what they’re making. We wouldn’t say that a painter should have used a more diverse color palette in a work of theirs. GOW’s long take didn’t always work for me, but it was consistent and I still think went a long way towards keeping that a more intimate, grounded experience than huge epic sweeping aerial shots would have.


#9

apologies if I wasn’t clear: the lol was at Inarritu, not the critics.


#10

The thing that always trips me up in one-shots in video games is that there’s no risk to it. I forget which Brothers In Arms game it was, but I remember people making a big deal out of the intro being one long take. The thing that makes all those OK Go videos interesting is how tightly executed they are. It’s not like Kratos is gonna flub a line 15 hours in and they have to start again. Hell even Birdman’s one take aesthetic was because it was about theater, where you don’t get cuts (I hated that movie). I guess I just never really got God Of War’s point with its one-shot.


#11

I see what you’re saying, but I think in this context it is a valid comparison, specifically because Austin isn’t saying God of War should just do what This is America does. Instead he points to how TiA makes its choices feel like boons, as opposed to GoW, which feels like it’s limited by its ‘one long take,’ without getting as much of a positive effect out of it.

Also, I would take umbrage with the statement that colour palettes in art don’t get criticised. They do. All of the time. Using a limited palette is a valid artistic choice, but it’s certainly not beyond critique.


#12

God of War’s lack of cuts, and the way it’s often talked about, really really bugs me for reasons I can’t succinctly explain. I’ve been trying to write a blog post about this for a week or so, but it basically comes down to the fact that most video games have very few hard cuts, and that they would often like not to have any at all?

Action adventure games (and I’m including everything open world, most RPGs, most immersive sims - pretty much anything where you move around a large coherent world) tend to stick their camera in the vicinity of one character for the entire playtime. Whilst there are cuts to cutscenes, and between shots in those cutscenes, but there are very rarely hard cuts the way film uses them. It’s exceedingly rare for a game to cut away from the sole protagonist for any length of time, and even rarer for them to make another character('s vision) the focus of the camera for any length of time (including letting the player inhabit them).

So God of War’s decision to focus the camera so heavily on Kratos doesn’t seem special to me - it just seems like it’s doing what the genre has always done and aspired to do, but with the budget and quality of cinematography to actually pull it off. A logical conclusion of the “no cutscenes ever” mentality.


#13

The long shot in God of War is ultimately necessary because the game is so devoid of narrative tension that it needs that device to maintain our interest from scene to scene.

People don’t talk about it much but all of MGSV’s cutscenes are single-take and it’s the most obnoxious thing in the world. Single takes are sometimes cool but the degree to which one-ers are fetishised is dumb and bad in film crit and it annoys me that this is going to happen to games as well because of God of War. Well done you went out of your way to not use one of the most important tools in filmmaking: editing. If the thing you’re making is built around that, fine. God of War didn’t even manage that right.


#14

Honestly it’s hard for me to understand why the whole “one-take” thing is anything special in God of War? Like, half the reason people get all excited about long takes in cinema is because it’s a technically difficult process. But video games not only don’t require the same kind of execution, most games already are composed of long takes. Like, unless it’s a cutscene, most games take place behind or inside the head of the main character? I don’t know. Don’t get me wrong, I love me some tracking shots, I’m a sucker sometimes, but?

I haven’t played God of War, but if what Austin is saying is true, it’s kind of disappointing. It’s easily forgotten that tracking shots and long takes provide a very specific mood and tension, at least for me.


#15

Honestly I’m pretty much over “longtake” in action film, too, because they are almost never actually single takes. The fight sequence in Atomic Blonde has, IIRC, three cuts, maybe four. Children of Men’s big battle sequence has several hidden cuts, too. Gravity doesn’t count because doing a long take in something that’s 90% CGI is pointless, much like it is games. There’s no risk. It’s showy, but it just doesn’t impress me much any more, because once you know how to look for the cuts it’s really obvious.

I’ve never really bought the argument that a long take increases tension.


#16

I dunno, I can see how it would annoy you, seeing the hidden cuts and knowing that the long cut isn’t actually a single shot, but I don’t think that the artificiality reduces its value.

My grandfather was an architect. There was a point in his career when his firm was asked to design a fake brick factory. That is, to design a building that would produce layer-brick surfaces, placed upon other buildings in order to give the appearance that they were constructed with mason brickwork rather than their actual material. This practice is not uncommon, and it isn’t unusual for buildings to fake materials such as stone or wood paneling in order to pursue specific aesthetics without the design requirements of the actual material.

Still, the idea absolutely infuriated my grandfather. He was adamant with his partners that they refuse such a project, believing it unethical- a line that must not be crossed. He thought that to be an accomplice in designing something that would contribute to such a facade was to contribute to deceit. It stood against every artistic principle he held dear.

I’m not sure whether I agree or disagree with my grandfather’s view of building materials, but I can understand on some level the idea of not wanting something to be “faked.” However, isn’t all film making the effort to trick the audience, on some level, into believing the world is real? If a filmmaker can successfully fake a long shot, I’m not sure that it becomes any less dramatically effective. I understand how it must be frustrating for you, being able to see behind the curtain in a way other members of the audience (like myself) might not- to see that the material that holds the shot together is, on some level, deceiving the viewer, but when the entire concept of film- and storytelling in general- requires a suspension of disbelief in order to feel for anything on screen at all, is tricking the audience so wrong?

Completely agree with you though about the danger of doing a long shot for the sake of itself (as in God of War- even if I think it’s cool that they attempted it- the same way I think it’s cool that people undertake any difficulty for the fun of it).

Edit: This was a reply to dogsarecool btw- I’m kinda new to the forum, figuring out how this works (love your username and your avatar!)


#17

I feel like I am the only person who likes the long take. Also, I don’t really view it as a fake long take because all long takes are fake.


#18

I hadn’t thought about it before but it is cool how long cuts in film make you feel nervous even though you know you’re watching the one good take.

But on to GoW, I feel like that was ‘we’re doing this because we can!’ and I guess is was a good choice because most people loved it. I didn’t realise they’d also worked it into their marketing though, that explains why people wouldn’t stop talking about it.


#19

As all the God of War previews and reviews came out from established websites, I kept on hearing everyone talk up this ‘one long cut’ angle be parroted from site to site. I don’t know if it’s a case of one influential commentator saying it first on twitter and then everyone else copying because they needed a way to explain how the game progresses and how the perspective change is drastically different to the previous games. I don’t know whether it is something the PR/Marketing teams around the game stressed to emphasise with all media and press coverage, because it communicated the game being a more cinematic prestige PS4 exclusive seal of quality. I guess in the pre-release, it felt like a weird selling point that was being drilled into me, through loads of different outlets, it seemed to be posing the idea that this new perspective instantly communicated quality and greater artistic vision. More immersive! Better! Which I guess is true, especially when you compare it with the old games but at the same time Sony seem to be working very hard in conveying this mature cinematic experience. Cinema has been something they’ve been chasing for decades.

Of course the game can never be ‘one long cut’ because it is such a long game that requires multiple sessions to complete. At some point you’re gonna have to turn the console off. At times, in God of War it was hard to put the controller down, I admit, thanks to the story, the nature of the combat and the explorative elements. Also because it is a video game, I don’t thind you can get the same out of a long cut in the way you can through watching a video or movie. Whether it’s This Is America, a Spielberg long cut, or a long cut that lasts an entire movie (Russian Ark), that episode of It’s Always Sunny (Charlie Work), those long fight scenes from Daredevil that the internet was crazy about 2 years ago. At some point the video game is rendering everything out in front of you. Doubly so in linear games, or games that have scripted linear moments when you ‘pass x’ as you walk down a corridor.

I don’t know what everyone’s problem with loading screens is exactly. Does it hearken back to retro games, does a loading screen convey to you exactly that you are playing a video game? Is there still a stigma attached to it? It seems to have become a bigger thing in recent years. And whilst there were no visible loading screens in God of War, it was pretty clear, judging by the noise of my PS4 working and how the levels were perfectly staged for you to pass through this narrow crevice or walk around that space in the astral plain that served as your ‘fast travel’ until the door magically appeared, that a fair bit of loading and waiting around was happening. I think the Uncharted games did the same thing. You know whenever you have to push forward through a small crawlspace the game is loading. A cutscene, allows the game to load up in the background.

I guess the other dimension to it all is that the one long take, only really works with something you could pick up and complete within a single sitting. Something like Hellblade was more effective as ‘one long take’, because the game was short enough to complete within one sitting. Same with Journey, you start at one point, you journey towards the mountain everything feels organic, the landscapes rolling before you as you push through. I’m reminded of Edgar Allen Poe’s essay on the Philosophy of Composition, basically an author’s commentary of how he wrote The Raven. In it he talks about the Unity of Effect and the draw of short fiction in being consumed within a single sitting from start to finish, where the artist can give the audience a complete experience.


#20

This whole discussion feels strange. Like it’s definitely clear that people aren’t satisfied with something but I’m having a tough time understanding what that is.

It’s kinda interesting to hear the takes of how long cuts are hard and impressive, but making a game with a directed camera and no loading screens somehow isn’t. I mean, sure, it’s probably a lot easier now than it was in 1999, but when Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver came out and had no loading screens, it was a huge freaking deal. While some games are much better at hiding loads than others, it’s still not super common thing. Mass Effect’s epic elevator rides come to mind, as well as Metroid Prime’s doors that take 5-20 seconds to open. And while there are no real actors that have remember their blocking, if there are no cuts, the animators and programmers still have to figure out when characters will be off camera so they can be re-positioned or removed from memory.

It seems like this is more about how the cutscenes are directed? That makes sense, I suppose. I haven’t played the game yet so I can’t really comment on that. But talking about how there’s no risk or difficulty in making a game that never cuts seems like it’s focusing on the wrong thing.


#21

Thank you! I don’t think that should really be the focus. More than that I keep asking myself why?

If it’s to keep up momentum, than that only works in the first part of the game before the world opens up and you’re much more in control of what you do. If it’s to keep the player immersed than the consistent need to go through menus that don’t keep your perspective (mind you, some do, like the blacksmith shop menu stays in world) takes aways from this immersion. If it’s to hide loading times, that’s a reasonable purpose I guess, but instead of thinking about loading times now I’m thinking “wow I sure do have to lift a lot of pillars in the middle of paths for my son.” Or “it’s taking my son a lot of time to get over and let down that chain for me so I can climb up.” Hiding loading times the way they did creates other issues with needless interactions and weird lulls in pacing.

Is this all a bit nitpicky? Sure, but I wanted to find a reason to love it. The mention of it in reviews excited me. I liked the idea of the game constantly keeping you in the game and building on the fixed camera work of the previous games. But then it doesn’t persist through the menu screens so it deosn’t keep immersion, most of the time the camera is over your shoulder so it isn’t really in mind, and it doesn’t seem to direct any other mechanical aspect of the game in an interesting way. Ultimately, the execution seems more like a trick to seem more filmic than anything else.