Funk’s Top 10: Tracking Shots

Anyone who has attempting to complex tracking shot can tell you that it is one of the trickiest and rewarding feats in film-making. Balancing both technical, performance and logistical factors, a good tracking shot needs to be meticulously planned and rehearsed. The invention of the steady cam has made a substantial difference, allowing film-makers to do away with tracks and cranes. One the flip side of the coin, this innovation has pushed cinematographers and directors to mount more ambitious attempts. Out of the dozens of examples available, these are the ten that capture our attention every time…

10. Serenity (2005)

Dir: Joss Whedon      Cinematographer: Jack N. Green

In the opening scenes of both Firefly and it’s cinematic outing Serenity Whedon wanted to show the geography of the spaceship Serenity whilst expressing the cosiness and cobbled together nature of the craft. This scene also serves as an introduction the large cast and the key relationships that exist between them, specifically their relationship with Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillion). Nicely handled throughout.

9. Touch of Evil (1958)

Dir: Orson Welles      Cinematographer: Russell Metty

Welles made a name for himself pushes the boundries of possibility in the field of movie making. Citizen Kane is his most highly regarded film, going down in history as a movie than pioneered multiple techniques and skills. Touch of Evil made its own contribution in its opening scene and Welles drags out the tension after we see a bomb being placed in a car which begins a long single take as the viewer waits for the inevitable. The wide, sweeping movements followed by close-ups as the crowds flow around the main characters is all the more impressive for the time in which is was filmed.

8. Children of Men (2006)

Dir: Alfonso Cuaron     Cinematographer:Emmanuel Lubezki

Children of Men contains amazing examples of cinematography throughout the entire film, and many of them come in the form of brilliant tracking shots. Plenty of them are worthy of note, but this one makes the list for the added complexity of Cuaron and Lubezki having to cling to the roof of the moving vehicle until it eventually comes to a stop, where they clambered off and continued the shot.

7. Goodfellas (1990)

Dir: Martin Scorsese      Cinematography: Michael Balhaus

Best way to demonstrate the VIP lifestyle that Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) was established for himself is to drop the viewer directly into it. Viewers follow closely behind Hill and Karen as they head into the exclusive Copacabana nightclub via the staff entrance and through the busy kitchens and Hill interacts with various people before they reach the clubs main room and are shown to their table. Complexity reigns.

6. Russian Ark (2002)

Dir: Aleksandr Sokurov      Cinematographer: Tillman Büttner

Any examination of tracking shots in cinema would be remiss not to include this film. Not much in the way of story or character, it’s little more than a tour through 33 rooms of the Winter Palace with depictions of historic events. The tracking shot that’s worth noting is in fact the entire film – a 99 minute long shot (the clip above is just a small portion). Russians are very patient it seems.

5. The Player (1992)

Dir: Robert Altman     Cinematographer: Jean Lépine

Oh, Altman…you’re so witty. Beginning a long opening tracking shot with the clapper kicking off the scene and ending with a comment about good tracking shots never being used anymore. A clever and entertaining sequence which is packed with industry in-jokes and packed with detail. It’s the perfect introduction to a satirical look at Hollywood.

4. The Shining (1980)

Dir: Stanley Kubrick      Cinematographer: John Alcott

Kubrick had already established a skill with tracking shots in The Killing and Paths of Glory, so he was quick to get the steadicam technology involved in his work at the first opportunity. Rigging the large camera on a wheelchair allowed him to quickly follow behind Danny (Lloyd) as he pedaled around the haunted Overlook hotel creating an unnerving sense of dread. His later experiments with attaching the camera to a motorbike for Full Metal Jacket were eventually given up on.

3. Much Ado About Nothing (1993)

Dir: Kenneth Branagh      Cinematographer: Roger Lanser

Starting at the five minute mark in the above clip, Branagh employs wide sweeping shots and a continuous motion to express the unbridled joy of the characters at the conclusion of Shakespeare’s fun comedy as they dance and sing their way out through the well chosen setting. Easily some of the best cinematography seen in a tracking shot, Lanser makes it look like it’s not a big thing.

2. Kill Bill (2003)

Dir: Quentin Tarantino      Cinematographer: Robert Richardson

Clearly another workout for Tarantino’s planet sized ego, and one of the many occurrences in which it’s fully justified. Already dealing with a large group of extras, a live musical act, a large multilevel set which they circle around different sections of action, the continuous shot that follows different characters then ups the ante by sending the suffering steady-cam operator up and down steps and into the rafters to step over walls.

1. Atonement (2007)

Dir: Joe Wright         Cinematographer: Seamus McGarvey

A brilliant combination of logistics and technical prowess, the extensive five and a half minute shot involves period setting and costumes for 1000 extras, pyrotechnics, trained horses…all the while racing against time before the tide came in. Knowing that the extras were only available for the one day they had to get it right, co-ordinating all the actors and rigging to be in the right place at the right time. And by the time we hit 2:30 it just feels like they’re showing off.

by G-Funk


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