Long Takes and Short Lenses: CARLITO’S WAY & SCARFACE
The most famous long steadicam shot is arguably in Scorsese’s GOODFELLAS. He gets a lot of credit for bringing attention to the technique, but I think a much more effective example is in Brian DePalma’s CARLITO’S WAY. Notice the unbroken shot from :45 – 3:06. That’s over two minutes!
This is an expertly choreographed sequence of blocking and reveals, all timed with impressive specificity. The long take works wonders here to establish the geography of the space, which is crucial when building a suspense setpiece.
You'll also notice that DePalma sticks to a wide lens, creating large shot sizes with lots of spatial information (I'd guess that the long steadicam shot was somewhere between 16mm and 21mm). This makes it easier to use the physical aspects of the location as key blocking points. I'd also guess that they exposed at F4 or F5.6 to keep more of the background in focus.
Here's another long take example, this time from DePalma's SCARFACE. As you can see, this technique can work for dialogue scenes too –– assuming the script and performances call for it. Having the camera slowly circle around Montana works to visually introduce his character in a compelling way:
Geography isn't as important here, so the depth of field is shallower. This keeps the focus on Montana's face. This was likely shot with a slightly longer lens –– I'd guess somewhere between a 35mm and 50mm at around F2.8 –– with circular dolly track instead of a steadicam. You'll notice that DePalma keeps the shot interesting by moving around police in the foreground and background, as well as speeding up the dolly move when it crosses the back of Montana's head.
DePalma intuitively knows that the scene becomes less interesting when we don't see Pacino's face.