Long Tracking Shots - Great Complex Scenes

Tracking shots are when the camera moves on a dolly (those tracks on the floor where a camera is mounted over a little cart) or someone with a steadycam vest follows the action. Sometimes the action goes on for a while WITHOUT CUTTING, which means that everyone involved (director, actors, camera operators, extras, etc.) has to bring their A-game to the scene. I think a large segment of the moviegoing public sometimes doesn't appreciate the incredible choreography that goes into putting a long scene like that together while having everything fall into place like a Rube Goldberg machine. Here are a couple of pictures of myself wearing a steadycam with a digital camera, which due to the high inertial mass of the rig, allows the operator to move without translating that movement to the camera, keeping the images steady. Let's start with one of the coolest tracking shots, which most people actually noticed. In "Goodfellas" the now legendary scene where Ray Liotta and Loraine Bracco enter the Copacabana club through a back door followed by a steadycam. What you might not know about this scene is that the reason they shot it that way is because director Martin Scorsese didn't get permission to go in through the main entrance of the club during the shooting of the film, thus forcing them to shoot it this way:


Paul Thomas Anderson always includes some complex tracking shot in his films. I could discuss his films for hours, but to keep it short my favorite scenes are the ones he put together for "Boogie Nights." The first scene of the film is a staggering 165 seconds - the longest shot in his career. However, there are two other scenes that are even better. The first one is the pool party scene, where the camera even follows the action into the water (a tribute to another tracking shot in the soviet masterpiece "I am Cuba" which has some even more ridiculous tracking shots). This scene is incredible once you realize all the effort it took to keep everyone's timing right:


The second one is even better. At a New Year's Eve party, William H. Macy goes into the house while someone mentions that they have 2 minutes left for the new year countdown (the shot is about 2 minutes long). He finds his wife cheating on him again, he walks back to a car, gets a gun, and goes back in the house, and as the countdown begins... (WARNING: VERY VIOLENT)


Tarantino has used some great tracking shots in "Kill Bill" (this publication considers it one film). One of them is the 'Massacre at Two Pines' scene, which has some symbolism as it feels like God is exiting the church while the assassins are revealed when Tarantino pulls the camera outside in reverse and up to the steeple when the shots are fired. Below is another one where Uma Thurman walks into the lair of Japanese mobster Lucy Liu:


Alfonso Cuaron is also a master of the long take. I will let the featurette on the DVD of the Oscar-nominated "Children of Men" speak for itself and explain how they achieved those unbelievable 360 degree long shots inside the car, as well as the explosion in London at the beginning of the film:


Among all of the things we inherited from our rich old uncle Alfred Hitchcock, two relatable examples are of note. The first one is the movie "Rope" itself. Now, legend has it that the film was shot in one take, which is impossible due to the time restrictions of film cameras which can only shoot 10 minutes at a time. However the entire film was done in only ten segments. Out of the 9 cuts, only 4 are unmasked, which means that you can see where the cut was made, and this was for when the projectionist would change the reel after 20 minutes. The remaining cuts are seamlessly put together by blocking the master shot with someone's back and continuing the next shot from there:

Length Time-Code Start Finish
1 9:34 0:02:30 CU (Close-Up), strangulation Blackout on Brandon's back
2 7:51 0:11:59 Black, pan off Brandon's back CU Kenneth: "What do you mean?"
3 7:18 0:19:45 Unmasked cut, men crossing to Janet Blackout on Kenneth's back
4 7:08 0:27:15 Black, pan off Kenneth's back CU Phillip: "That's a lie."
5 9:57 0:34:34 Unmasked cut, CU Rupert Blackout on Brandon's back
6 7:33 0:44:21 Black, pan off Brandon's back Three shot
7 7:46 0:51:56 Unmasked cut "Excuse me, sir." Blackout on Brandon
8 10:06 0:59:44 Black, pan off Brandon CU Brandon's hand in gun pocket
9 4:37 1:09:51 Unmasked cut, CU Rupert Blackout on lid of chest
10 5:38 1:14:35 Black, pan up from lid of chest End of film

Another innovation is the Hitchcock zoom or the "Vertigo" shot, which is just a tracking shot with the added dimension of zooming in or out. This confuses your brain's perception of depth, creating a sense of uneasiness. Here is a cool example that Spielberg used in "Jaws:"


If you're still hooked on this topic, click here for a great compilation of some amazing tracking shots from older films which are worth checking out.

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