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My Favourite Long/Tracking Shots

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I’ve always been fascinated by extended shots, and why and how they're done. Tracking shots are where the camera rolls alongside the action it’s filming, keeping up with the characters without cutting. It’s a technique that can be used for extended shots that seem to go on forever. If you can look past the organisation and precision involved behind the scenes in putting such a sequence together, you’re often left with a scene so immersive it feels like you have stepped straight in to the story’s world yourself.

Some films have pushed it further and use trickery to make it appear that the entire movie has been done in one single shot. There are some hilarious stories of the cast and crew of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948) going through extensive rehearsals of juggling lines, positioning, and moving of furniture when out of shot to allow the camera to follow it’s cast round a single room for the entire run time. Hitchcock was always keen to push boundaries and but even he admitted that the technique didn’t work as well as he envisaged. More recently, Birdman (2014) made use of improvements in technology to seemlessly blend one shot to the next as if the whole film was done in one take. The choice to have an apparently uncut, single shot across much of the run time is a bold choice for what is a bold film. Taking it one step further, Victoria (2015) skipped the need to trick the audience, and did in fact shoot the whole 2 hour film in one continuous take. It’s an incredible achievement, and while Hitchcock’s one shot technique choice in Rope clashed and intruded in on the story it was telling, Victoria received critical acclaim for how the two complimented each other.

On a smaller but no less impressive scale, films make use of the extended tracking shot in single scenes. Sometimes these can be a bit distracting, as you find yourself waiting for the cut to happen. When it’s done correctly though it a genuinely impressive thing. The planning required to put together some of my favourites that I have listed below is jaw-dropping.

Kill Bill: Vol 1 (2003)

Great soundtrack, and a great way of setting up the geography of a location for your audience before Uma Thurman cuts up a whole yakuza army with a Hanzo sword in the middle of it.

True Detective - 'Who Goes There' (2014)
Okay okay, bit of a cheat here. This is a TV show, and not a film. But True Detective did feel like a stretched out film right? Right? Okay whatever, just watch it.


The Shining (1980)

As Danny spins his tricycle round the empty Overlook Hotel, we're left disorientated, and nervously waiting for what is about to come round the next corner. I get sweaty palms just watching this.
Atonement (2007)
A mate at work claims to be an extra in the background of this. When you consider the vast scale of this scene and the number of people involved, I might start saying that I'm one of those specks on the horizon too.

Touch of Evil (1958)
The classic. This works so well as the long take forces the audience to concentrate on the car we now know is carrying a ticking bomb. The lack of any cuts away from what's unfolding builds the tension. And then builds it more. And more.
Goodfellas (1990)
How to highlight the power Ray Liotta's Henry and his mob holds over people in Brooklyn? How about watch him walk by the plebs in the queue to the club, past those in the kitchens preparing his food, past the waiters carrying a table to be put pride of place just for him until he receives a drink from the man singing for his entertainment? How about doing it one take? Yeah... well done Martin.

Spectre (2015)
Sam Mendes may use a couple of cleverly placed cuts, but they're still difficult to spot. It's a shame the rest of the film didn't live up what is one of the best openings to any Bond film.


12 Years a Slave (2013)

Again, a bit of a cheat here as there are no tracking shots at all. But that's pretty much the point. Steve McQueen forces you to watch the horror unfold as Solomon is lynched, struggling to keep his footing in the mud. It's a really powerful scene, with the horrors of the foreground clashing with the everyday life going on in the background. The treatment of the plantation's slaves is normalised.

Comments

  1. Children Of Men has a great one! Just under six and a half minutes following Clive Owen through a cool, practical FX battle field.

    Atonement had 3 or 4 cameramen alternating the camera work because the shot knackered them out. There may even be a point during it where the camera changes hands.

    One of my favourites is in Skyfall, when you first meet Silva. It's so subtle you hardly know what you've just seen until it's over.

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