‘Outlaw King’ starts with an eight-minute “long take”, in the vein of such classics as ‘Goodfellas’, ‘Chilren of Men’ and ‘The Revenge of the Sith’.
I mean, it’s not a single take, and the sweeping camera movements and lighting transitions make it painfully obvious where CGI has been used to stitch multiple takes together, but that’s okay. Kind of.
This scene covers some fairly dull talk of land ownership and tax revenue, then transitions outside into a fairly dull, low-stakes practice duel between two characters we don’t yet know, then transitions briefly back into the dark tent for some more chat, followed by a CGI Trebuchet launching a CGI fireball hitting a CGI castle that we know nothing about and which we never see again. And every single character (and actor) is bored throughout all of this.
Which raises the question: what’s the point?
In the X-Files Season 6 episode ‘Triangle’, the 45-minute episode is shot in 4 long takes (with a few clever edits to allow for scene redresses), and this adds a wonderful tight energy to the ticking-clock story that makes an already interesting premise fun and compelling.
‘Children of Men’ uses several long, complex single takes to ramp up the tension to a palpable level, to the point that you realise it’s been twenty seconds since you last took a breath and your buttocks are clenched like a vice.
‘Serenity’ opens with a nice steady long single-take scene (actually split into two as it was filmed on two separate sets) which introduces us to all of the ship’s crew but also the ship itself, taking us on a journey through the titular vessel and letting the audience get to know intimately the principal setting of the movie.
The point is, all of these examples are impressive on a technical level and add significantly to the substance of the story being told, either by augmenting the atmosphere, adding to the tension or helping to convey important information.
The opening to ‘Outlaw King’ does none of that. Nothing is being decided, so there is little-to-no tension to speak of. The “duel” might feature an element of danger but it’s pretty obvious that it’s going nowhere. The muddy campsite location is never revisited, and the characters who are introduced could all have had introductions in conventionally-shot scenes.
And the damn thing is clearly stitched together from smaller chunks, meaning it isn’t even that technically impressive, especially given the lack of action beyond a slow and boring swordfight.
To see what I mean about lighting transitions, take a look at this transition from outside in a muddy campsite to inside a candle-lit tent. We start off outside, in the natural light of an overcast day:
See how the inside of the tent is nearly pitch black? You’d expect a degree of that – even on a cloudy day, daylight is much brighter than candles in a dark room.
Then we start moving closer:
Still pitch black, bar a little light seeping through the canvas at the back. But note how there’s now much less natural light in-shot? And also note that steely-eyed, rock-steady guard, standing completely motionless and emotionless?
There’s a bit more light internally now, but bear in mind that there’s no longer any natural daylight creeping into the shot, which means the bulk of the light is coming from the tent itself.
And BOOM! Suddenly everything’s fully illuminated. Note the shoulder in the far right, which belongs to that conveniently rigid guard whose tall figure also conveniently covers the entire height of the frame.
What this all means is that the interior scenes and the exterior scenes can both be filmed separately, or at the very least can be stitched together from multiple takes to account for errors. The editor can then make use of lighting changes combined with CGI and what are effectively “wipes” made by characters or objects which cover the whole screen in order to “seamlessly” stitch different segments together.
The same is true when going from inside to outside:
Here, the candelabra is illuminating the tent brightly despite the open doorway to the exterior. But just a few frames later:
Note that the doorway isn’t letting any more light into the tent than it was previously. Also note the glorious James Cosmo, moving from left to right:
Another convenient slab of a man taking up the full height of the frame, providing a “wipe” around which an edit can be stitched.
Even outside there are clever little edits hidden in rapid camera movements, such as this moment just after the 5:00 minute mark, which is hard to capture in a still image:
Notice how pretty much everything is blurred. That’s because at this point, the camera is tracking from right to left, following the guy with the bowl-cut – although even he is weirdly blurred
However, in this shot, a handful of frames earlier, and withing everything moving at roughly the same speed:
The blur is greatly reduced. For the full effect, go find ‘Outlaw King’ on Netflix and track to 4 minutes and 50 seconds in and just watch the next 20 seconds of footage, and you’ll see that at this exact moment, the camera takes on a weirdly stilted motion uncharacteristic of its smoother movement in the rest of the scene.
For a better explanation of this particular kind of motion-trickery, look no further than Captain Disillusion:
(One of these days, I’ll have to figure out how to actually make animated gifs.)
Now, I’m not a cinematographer, and neither do I want to criticise the hard work of carefully choreographing a scene such as this, which is still technically impressive in many ways.
However, as discussed earlier, the fact that this scene is a “single” long take adds nothing to the storytellng – it doesn’t enhance the narrative in any way.
And so the question is: “What was the point?”
And the best I can answer is that it was just for the sake of the director’s ego – or because the film needed some kind of hook beyond being a gritty reboot of ‘Braveheart’ with a few changed names.
Indeed, in the first couple minutes of the below interview, you can even bask in director David Mackenzie’s inability to coherently provide any narrative justification for the long take at all:
“Plus there’s a sword fight and a big Trebuchet thing and there’s something really interesting about doing that without the cut and so the audience have to kind of absorb it all in one thing.”
You’ll also notice that he admits to initially filming it in four separate sections as a “backup”, which I’m assuming are broken down into the initial indoor segment, the first outdoor segment, the second indoor segment, and then the second and final outdoor segment with the CGI Trebuchet – all of which are separated by those conveniently drastic lighting changes and a frame-spanning James Cosmo.
The whole purpose of this article is to say “Don’t be fooled!” Don’t let two-bit film makers with nothing to say trick you into thinking that their creation somehow possesses artistic merit with cheap gimmicks! Look for the seams, root out the true heart of the story and see if it measures up.
I’m not actually finished writing about ‘Outlaw King’ just yet, as there are plenty of other issues with the narrative which can be torn into – but they can wait, for now, until a later date.