The famous, the unconventional, and my personal favourites…
The early use of mounted dolly shots in popular film saw Italian director Giovanni Pastrone bring the tracking shot to the attention of a wide scale of filmmakers with his 1914 picture, Cabiria, while Alfred Hitchcock pioneered the elaborate long take in films such as Rope (1948) and Under Capricorn (1949). From the development of handheld camerawork to the introduction of the Steadicam in the mid-1970s, the tracking shot and the long take have always been classic, forever evolving cinematic techniques.
With the increasingly frequent use of such methods in hit television shows such as True Detective and the epic penultimate fourth season episode of Game of Thrones, I thought I’d take a look back at cinema’s take on the methods and how they’ve flourished over the years. Ranging from subtle and smooth to frantic and intense, such shots have produced numerous memorable moments from directors of all styles…
Halloween (1978) – John Carpenter
The opening shot of Carpenter’s cult classic horror flick is cinematically deceptive but technically genius. What appears to be a single tracking POV take are actually four separate shots split by three cuts. Thanks to flawless timing and the engrossing nature of the scene however, it comes across as one long, flowing take. Whilst with hindsight the first cut appears obvious (it comes after two and a half minutes when the mask goes on), the subsequent two are seamlessly embedded and difficult to spot, reflecting the quality of the editing. The POV angle, combined with the haunting keys of Carpenter’s synth-based score and the heavy breathing of the stalker, succeeds in perpetuating the intended misdirection that the killer is some sort of jealous, perverted associate of the couple being spied on, thus concealing the fact that the Michael Myers is only a child well enough to still get a rise out of first time viewers. It’s difficult to appreciate the intense nature of the scene on YouTube, but when seen for the first time in the context of settling down to watch a scary movie, Carpenter’s camerawork, which took two days to complete, produces the perfect introduction to one of cinema’s most legendary slashers.
Apocalypse Now (1979) – Francis Ford Coppola
A bit off the wall this one, but worthy of inclusion all the same. At first it doesn’t seem like there’s too much to get excited about from a technical standpoint. The camera tracking the napalm strike remains stationary until around a minute and twenty seconds, allowing the carnage to fill the frame before finally proceeding to drift in its wake. What gives the shot its impact is Coppola’s literal and metaphorical layering of Willard, simultaneously tracking him at the front of the frame with the destruction continuing in the background. His tortured eyes see nothing in his Saigon hotel room, but behind them we’re provided with a window into his hellish experiences in the jungles of Vietnam. Everything followed in frame juxtaposes the physical state of peace Willard’s in with the war going on inside his head. The smoke and fire of war are permanently at Willard’s side as he smokes, while the muffled thundering of chopper blades is brought to the forefront by the never-ending ceiling fan. The camerawork may be subtle but the impact is devastating. Rather than tracking solely in a conventional physical and visual sense, we also track Willard’s emotional torment, his nightmares and, ultimately and perhaps most frighteningly, his desires. Enhanced by The Doors’ eerie exploration of man’s journey in the unknown and, crucially, a lack of onscreen credits, Coppola produces one of the all time great cinematic openings.
The Shining (1980) – Stanley Kubrick
To make a genuinely terrifying horror film, a director must be able to develop and redevelop suspense throughout. No one does suspense like Kubrick, and The Shining is one of the finest examples of how to do it. Implementing Garrett Brown’s groundbreaking Steadicam, still in its infancy having only been used in a handful of films prior to this one (including during the running scenes featured in 1976’s Rocky), Kubrick tracks Danny Torrence as he tricycles around the deserted Outlook hotel. What are, in theory, very simple scenes consisting of Danny moving from A to B, are made to be so much more by the manner in which they’re shot. The single take implies there’s something travelling with Danny, going where he goes, gauging him, waiting for a moment to entice (Room 237) before finally confronting him (the Grady twins). Only when he resists does the camera cease to follow, watching him silently as he makes his escape. The low angle provides perspective – after all, the smaller you are the bigger and more mesmerising something truly frightening is. The use of sound and score are as unnerving as they are genius. During Danny’s first jolly around the lower levels of the Outlook there’s only the loud, hypnotic trundling of his tricycle wheels, silenced when he crosses a rug here and there but quickly re-established. The sound dominates the cavernous space, emphasising that Danny is all alone. Later, as he rides through the carpeted corridors with hints of horror now in the audience’s minds, the slow introduction of the score jacks up the tension to the point where each corner becomes a potential threat, culminating in the crescendo that accompanies Danny’s encounter with the very dead Grady twins. The final moment of this particular tracking shot, when Danny halts, is still as impactful today as it was in 1980. The use of depth perception in the narrow corridor gives an overwhelming and ever increasing sense of claustrophobia, forcing the twins to the forefront of the frame despite their position at the far end of the corridor. They don’t attack Danny, jump out at him or even approach him. They just stand there. The dread inspired in both Danny and the audience, by way of what could be described as reverse focus on two little girls, is one of Kubrick’s finest moments. Garrett Brown, who operated the Steadicam in innovative fashion throughout the production, deserves plenty of credit also.
Goodfellas (1990) – Martin Scorsese
Probably the most famous tracking shot of all time, Henry and Karen’s entrance to the Copacabana club is Scorsese’s way of making the very best of a bad situation. Denied permission to enter the club through the front entrance, he decided to make the most of the long trek via the back door; symbolising, in his own words, Henry’s seduction of Karen as well as the gangster lifestyle’s seduction of Henry. The use of The Crystal’s Then He Kissed Me is inspired, emphasising the romanticised temperament of the characters in their own unique ways. Whilst Kubrick’s early use of Steadicam was an exercise in tension-building camerawork, here it’s all about masterful choreography, precise timing and, most importantly, subtly crafted audience empathy. It’s one of those beautiful moments in cinema where the audience are completely engaged and intertwined with the characters’ positive emotions, making them ignore the fact that Henry is a violent criminal and instead wishing they were there alongside them. A shot you can watch over and over again without ever getting bored of it, it’s another feather in the hat in terms of masterful direction from Scorsese.
Hard Boiled (1992) – John Woo
Without a doubt my favourite tracking shot and the one that really made me aware of the technique – inspiring my willingness to study it over the last ten years – the hospital corridor shoot-out in Hard Boiled is action filmmaking of the highest order. John Woo, pioneer and king of the heroic bloodshed genre, produces a quite frankly astonishing shot, made all the more epic by the behind-the-scenes drama that accompanied it. Running behind schedule and with the cast and crew close to breaking point due to the manic nature of the shoot up until that time, Woo decided to incorporate a five to six minute single take into the finale in order to speed up the production. He only got around half that but it was worth it all the same. Steadicams proved to be unusable due to their weight so Woo ordered the sequence shot with a handheld camera. Like the Goodfellas Copacabana shot, it’s a classic case of art from adversity; with the final cut producing so much win that as a fifteen-year-old action geek I could barely contain myself when I first saw it. The raw power of the effects may be a tad over the top, but the audience is already used to the tempo and tone of the action thanks to the frantic, explosive nature of the teahouse and warehouse shoot-outs earlier in the picture, meaning Chow Yun-fat’s most-powerful-shotgun-ever only serves to enhance the impact still further with each shot fired. The stuntmen, whilst perhaps a little out of key here and there, do a remarkable job given the timing required for the majority of the shot, reacting superbly to the blanks and constant explosion of debris. Whilst destruction is certainly at the forefront of the take, there’s genuine emotion amongst the mayhem. Tony Leung’s character, an undercover cop for the majority of the film, accidentally shoots a fellow police officer and Chow Yun-fat drags him into the lift as Leung comes to terms with what he’s done. It adds depth to the proceedings, but also acted as a necessary break from the action as the crew worked at a lightening pace to redress the set in a mere twenty seconds. The phenomenal skill of Hong Kong stuntmen and set crews has never been more evident. The only minor complaint is that the use of slow motion comes across as pointless at times, although the few times it appears out of place is made up for by the perfect use of it after Leung kills the police officer exiting the lift. All in all however, Woo’s thrown together tracking shot for the sake of convenience is a watershed moment in action film history.
Boogie Nights (1997) – Paul Thomas Anderson
PTA loves a good tracking shot/long take using Steadicam and Boogie Nights contains plenty. The opening scene in the club is utterly masterful and has been analysed in depth by Kevin B. Lee. Another standout is William H. Macy’s slow, almost tired walk to and from his car before his double murder-suicide. The pool party shot however, is just ridiculously cool. Practically lifted wholesale from Mikhail Kalatozo’s Soy Cuba (I Am Cuba), a failed 1964 Soviet-Cuban picture later discovered and resurrected by American filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese, PTA applies it perfectly to his depiction of a high-speed, coke-fuelled porn star pool party. The shot starts from the back gate, gently gliding around the garden to eavesdrop on one conversation and then another, before following a (very) young girl as she sniffs out someone to do coke with. It ends with the glorious tracking of another girl, who gets up from the table, walks coolly to the pool and dives in, with the camera following her underwater as Eric Burdon & War’s funky Spill the Wine simultaneously kicks up a notch whilst the sounds of the real world become muffled. This last part of the shot was the main influence provided by Soy Cuba and is a marvelous moment; personifying the tempo and tone of the first half of the film and, like Scorsese’s Goodfellas shot, making you wish you were there. Like Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino before him, PTA’s ability to produce scenes of pure lusting engagement and outright filthy coolness is second to none, and he well and truly goes to town on his audience here, never giving you a moment to resist.
Jackie Brown (1997) – Quentin Tarantino
Technically speaking this one’s not even a conventional tracking shot due to the use of a crane, but it’s bloody marvellous and rarely mentioned so I’m going to discuss it anyway. Tarantino has dabbled in more traditional single takes on numerous occasions, including shadowing Bruce Willis as he sought to retrieve his gold watch in Pulp Fiction, gliding alongside Pam Grier at LAX in the wonderful opening take of Jackie Brown, and later tracking the faux panic of Jackie as she searches for the cops in the Del Amo mall. Kill Bill saw his greatest triumph in the field, following numerous characters back and forth and up and down during the House of Blue Leaves sequence. However, the simplicity of this particular scene, long in terms of both take and shot, is what makes it. It’s worth watching from a minute or so beforehand for context, as Sam Jackson’s calm and collected gunrunner Ordell manipulates Chris Tucker’s Beaumont into the trunk of his Oldsmobile. The shot itself is pretty straightforward; the camera holds back as Ordell drives off, the Brothers Johnson fading as he rounds the corner, before elevating to a point above the fence from which it tracks the Oldsmobile as it reappears in a vacant lot, the music gradually fading back in at a distance. Ordell gets out, opens the trunk and puts two bullets in Beaumont without thinking twice, before getting back in the car and driving off. The casual nature of the shot reflects the casual actions and relaxed attitude of Ordell. Despite a coldblooded execution taking place the whole thing has an almost comical feel to it, with Ordell’s minimalistic attempts to conceal his crime made all the more apparent and amusing by the fact that, although he’s gone to the effort to drive Beaumont away, he’s still right in the middle of his victim’s Compton neighbourhood. The slow tracking and wide aspect of the take, meaning his surroundings are included, puts Ordell’s attitude towards them into perspective, showing that, at this moment in time, he’s completely in his element. A smart shot that’s simple in its execution, but also well developed in terms of underlying depth to the extent that it’s far more than cool camerawork for the sake of cool camerawork, this is classic nineties Tarantino.
Oldboy (2003) – Park Chan-wook
The ultimate hipster tracking shot’s a tad divisive for me. Like the other action-based takes mentioned in this list, there’s no doubting that it’s a great achievement in terms of sheer mechanics – taking seventeen takes and three days to complete – but whilst it’s technically impressive and looks fantastic at times, director Park Chan-wook’s enthusiasm for spectacle causes the scene as a whole to suffer slightly due to the first thirty seconds or so. The issue is that the man at the centre of it all, Choi Min-sik’s vengeance-seeker Oh Dae-su, somehow manages to survive the first part of the encounter despite being vastly outnumbered from all sides. Sure he’s hard-as-nails, uses one of the dudes as a human shield and evidently instils fear in his attackers, but he isn’t a kung-fu superhero and this isn’t a tongue-in-cheek action/martial arts film, rather a darker than dark thriller with any brutality, up until this point, used as an effective means to drive the story instead of acting as the main focus of the picture (see Tom-Yum-Goong below for comparison). When shooting a scene in which a single character fights multiple opponents in a serious setting, the trick is to make sure, after the first punch has been thrown and the first few enemies disabled with everyone in frame, that the focus remains tight, usually with quick cuts and only a few opponents in frame at a time. The audience tend not to worry about why they’re not jumping on the man in the middle all at once, for the simple reason that the camerawork and frantic nature of the editing means they’re able to focus on the action at hand. Now obviously this doesn’t apply here as this sequence consists of one continuous shot. Having Dae-su face the amount of opposition he does therefore stands out to the point where it takes you out of the film for a moment, due to practically all of them being in frame during the opening segment of the fight with no option to cut away. Dae-su simply looks a little ridiculous being able to last a good twenty seconds longer than he should do before finally being subdued. It’s a shame as the second part of the battle, with Dae-su now taking on fewer opponents in multiple quick fire exchanges due to their being injured and holding back, works really well and is much more in keeping with the dark, down to earth tone of the picture. You could argue that the end justifies the means as the first part of the fight means the second contains the logic that allows it look as good as it does. In reality this is a safe, rather lazy opinion however, as the impact of the incredible timing of Choi and the stuntmen, as well as the originality and boldness of Park’s platform game-esque shot is lessened as a result of the lack of logic during the first thirty seconds. Having to question why the bad chaps aren’t just battering Dae-su due to their overwhelming numerical advantage, simply because of the nature of the shot, is frustrating. In my humble opinion, simply halving their amount would have made for a far better overall sequence. In the grand scheme of an otherwise flawless film it may seem controversial to go into a pretty small issue in such depth, but when a director of a picture so engrossing lets his guard down even for a moment, that moment is very noticeable and deserves it’s fair share of scrutiny.
Tom-Yum-Goong (2005) – Prachya Pinkaew
One of the most impressive action sequences ever committed to film, Tony Jaa’s multiple-floor rampage clocks in at just over four minutes. And what a four minutes. It’s not so much about emotional captivation or genuine tension, as in this sort of kung-fu flick set up, during which an established master take on multiple opponents, the master in question (good or bad) is rarely going to be troubled. Instead it’s purely about the timing, the stunt work and the overall spectacle. Taking five attempts and a month to complete, the finished article is well worth it. Jaa and his stunt team are at their peak here, as is director Prachya and action director/choreographer Panna Rittikrai. The amount of rehearsal time it would have taken to get each individual encounter exactly right in a usual action scene of this scale, let alone one that’s shot in one take, is a testament to the creative, technical and physical attributes of those involved with the production. Despite the length and lack of emotional intensity, the shot is never dull. Jaa and his team, known for their lack of wires and doubles, pull off some wonderful, and most likely very painful stunts. The chap landing hard after being thrown down the stairs by Jaa, the door smash, the multi-floor plunge through a wooden structure and the final water fountain decimation are just some of the action highlights. Equally impressive is Prachya and Panna’s direction. The Steadicam is exhausted to its full potential, drifting in front and behind, stopping and starting, panning around and experiencing no limitations as it tracks Jaa onward and upwards. The varying use of perspective allows similar stunts to be performed with the audience never seeing the same reaction or impact twice, such as the when the camera watches first from the floor below, then from eye-level and above, and finally with the use of a long shot as Jaa shows three cronies the fast way down from various floors. Not a single aspect of the set is wasted, with Jaa utilising props, doors and windows alike. Prachya takes advantage of the set also, shooting a nice sequence in which the Steadicam horizontally tracks the action as it takes place behind some wooden panels, the heads of the stuntmen comically poking out now and again as Jaa gets the better of them. I could analyse this scene all day, but for the purpose of finishing this article I’m going to leave it there. A phenomenal benchmark for both modern action filmmaking and tacking shots respectively, the three major players involved are unlikely to produce anything to this standard again.
Gravity (2013) – Alfonso Cuarón
It’s difficult to know where to begin with the utterly sublime nature of the numerous tracking shots and long takes produced by Alfonso Cuarón in Gravity, for which the director rightly won Best Director for his efforts at the 2014 Academy Awards. During a time in which CGI and 3D are still drastically inappropriate, of poor quality and generally overused in Hollywood blockbusters, Cuarón combines them to create an artistic venture previously unparalleled in the world of special effects. The opening thirteen-minute sequence is a truly awe-inspiring moment. Drifting from the silent, peaceful beauty of space and the concurrent ability of man to travel within the realm of the gods, to the harsh and unforgiving reality of mankind’s prone to folly and the subsequent destructive power of the titular force at play, it encapsulates both the subject matter and the magnitude of Cuarón’s team’s achievement before the picture is barely a quarter of an hour old. It’s just one of many exquisite extended takes throughout the ninety-minute runtime, my favourite of which comes after Ryan (Sandra Bullock) makes into the I.S.S. airlock just in the nick of time to avoid suffocating. Preceded by a well worked and emotionally exhausting POV take, as Ryan flaps and flies in desperation, the shot that tracks her once she’s inside is the real gem. Letting her slip out of sight for only a brief moment to zoom in on the gradually ascending giver of life, the remainder of the shot focuses on Ryan, allowing the technical mastery of Cuarón and his team, as well as Bullock’s own wonderful work in front of the camera to take centre stage. The behind-the-scenes footage reveals that Bullock performed the complicated choreography required for the scene whilst strapped in and sitting upright as the camera was slowly rotated to create the desired gravitational effects. The CGI added post-production, including the spacesuit itself, is nothing short of perfection in the field. As should be the case with CGI however, it’s merely a tool to enhance the proceedings. Cuarón’s direction and Bullock’s performance are what make the scene genuinely great. Having travelled with her, shot by shot through the perils of the hazardous environment outside the airlock, the utter relief exhibited by Ryan by way of Bullock’s physical conveyance alone (the scene contains no dialogue) is overwhelming moving. Her brief pause to relax after she sheds the top half of her suit is the precursor to the moment when the rest of the suit and cap finally come off, while the low-key score comes to the forefront in a simultaneous release, further enriching the emotion experienced by the audience. Ryan stretches out in an expression of raw freedom that, on a level of basic human survival instinct, is impossible not to empathise with. She rotates one hundred and eighty degrees into the fetal position to end the shot, one of the most poignant moments in the picture. It’s a seamless, mute journey through the themes of death, survival and resurrection, made all the more powerful by Cuarón’s decision to shoot it as a single take, enhancing the idea that while it’s always difficult to look away from death, life will always provide the best view. Truly epic filmmaking.