Done right, a tracking shot can be a genuinely terrific thing. Done badly and, well, there's always CGI…
So with audiences currently finding themselves entranced by the wonderful one-shot style of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman, we thought why not re-familiarise ourselves with the art of the tracking shot. It's a cinematic flourish which more often than not requires a lot of factors to run like clockwork.
Here are the 10 instances when filmmakers nailed it.
The action might have aged about as well as the first time you played Time Crisis, but that’s taking nothing away from this expansive, pulsating shoot-out sequence in a hospital, packing the sort of nifty camerawork that belies any hammily delivered heroics rife in Hard Boiled. The novelty shot even does its best to make up for those patchy bits of slow motion that John Woo always seems so fond of. Why, John? Why?
Quentin Tarantino wasted no time in heightening the tension for Pulp Fiction’s fateful meeting between Pulp Fiction’s Butch Coolidge and Vincent Vega. After realising he left his dad’s gold watch behind at his apartment, Butch makes an unorthodox trip back to the very place where Vega’s hit-man lays in wait. Lightly treading down a known shortcut, hopping through a hole in a wire fence and eyeing up the location with every yard gained, we’re with him for every step of the way.
Going one better than the rousing, swaggering tracking shot that opened Bonfire of the Vanities, Brian De Palma excelled with this first scene for Snake Eyes, starring Nicholas Cage in typically erratic form as the corrupt Atlantic City cop floundering behind the scenes of a boxing match where something is clearly amiss. Culminating with a flurry of ringside movement before one senator is mysteriously offed, the only swinging we see isn't in the ring but rather in the breakneck back-and-forth of camera shots between seats as the director hopes to introduce us to a suspect or two. A knockout piece of cinema.
No wonder Henry Hill always wanted to be a gangster. Mobsters don’t need to queue to get into a club – hell, they don’t even need to book a table as this intoxicating tracking shot from the mind of Martin Scorsese proves, drawing us into a world of goomah glitz for Goodfellas, where a snap of the fingers will have staff fixing you up the best seat in the house in no time. Crime cinema seldom gets cooler than this.
More genius from QT, here. Setting a scene to the bouncy sound of The 5 6 7 8s’s (yep, that song which went on to feature on seemingly every advert ever), took audiences on an access-all-areas tour of the Tokyo restaurant where the Bride hunts down her rival O-Ren, swooping between the banana-attired heroine, restaurant staff, the band and the stunning interior itself in one flawless take. Why the choreography is almost as sharp as a Hanzo sword.
All work and no play made Jack Torrance a dull boy. Not Danny though - no time was wasted in the creepy Overlook Hotel for this young scamp. Full of childhood vigour, he’d often take his tricycle out for a spin during the proceedings of The Shining, most famously for this long take of him speeding down the hotel’s iconic carpet which possibly ranks as one of the most iconic shots of Stanley Kubrick’s horror masterpiece. The way the camera lingers right behind Danny’s wheels is almost as haunting as the guests themselves.
Touch of Evil
Orson Welles’ 1958 classic contained one of cinema’s now archetypal long takes. It starts with a ticking bomb placed into a car on the fringes of the US-Mexican border. From there the camera doesn't so much break the fourth wall as soar over it, with the director using a crane to transport our sole viewpoint up, over and down into the border town where we cross paths with Janet Leigh and Charlton Heston’s newlyweds before the doomed vehicle makes its way past the pair and numerous extras. We dread to think how many takes the infamously perfectionist director put the cast through.
Reuniting Ong-Bak director Prachya Pinkaew and its star Tony Jaa, Thai actioner Warrior King had the unenviable task of toppling the pair’s previous box office smash. No sweat there – it did it in style, amassing the largest gross for any Thai film in the US and throwing up some of the most sprawling and ambitious martial arts fight scenes in mainstream film to date – including this breathless few minutes, where our hero single-handedly tears a restaurant apart. Scrapping his way level to level, he’s a living incarnation of an Amiga platformer character on the hunt for a final boss. Though if anything is king here, it’s the choreography.
Children of Men
The pinnacle of a film richly peppered in long takes and extensive action sequences, this dizzying car chase almost didn’t happen when production experts scoffed at Alfonso Cuarón’s proposal for one continuous take, advising he use CGI instead. However, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki felt they needed to keep the raw, documentary feel of the film, so the pair got to work on a specially created camera rig which allowed for full and 360 degree movement in the car – and the results speak for themselves. The pair would later expand on this camera rig brilliance for their Oscar-winning work on Gravity.
Paths Of Glory
The crackle of the shrapnel-scattered wind. That belly roar of rockets hitting the dirt. Screams of men terrified they’ll never return home. Stanley Kubrick’s ode to peace Paths Of Glory rarely let up in accurately portraying the constant horrors of WW1 battlefields. But if there was anything more menacing than enemy fire, it was the enemy within: during one of the film’s quieter moments, Kubrick takes us on a walk around the trenches to survey the men under the callous eye of General Paul Mireau, who holds even those with shellshock in contempt.
[Images: Allstar, YouTube]