The Tracking Shot: The Moby Dick of Cinematography

The tracking shot can be defined as, “…a camera shot in which the cameraman follows a specific person or event in the action“. This shot can be taken as a cameraman follows the action and/or person on a dolly, or on a steady-cam, a handheld camera which creates a smooth aperture ratio during filming to prevent Paranormal Activity/home video-esque quality. A tracking shot can often be seen as a rarity, since they are so hard to get just right for the scene. A cinematographer and director must have complete trust in each other to get the full effect of what they are trying to capture in one scene without stopping the camera for several minutes.

While tracking shots are noted for their appearance on film, a tracking shot on a cable television show is almost unheard of. The most recent televised tracking shot was so impressive that it became one of the most talked about entertainment moments of the year, repeatedly acclaimed by critics, and shared all over social media. This tracking shot was done by Cinematographer Adam Arkapaw, and director Cary Joji Fukunaga for Episode Four of True Detective Season One on HBO.

Matthew McConaughey’s character, Rust is an undercover detective, doing a shady drug deal with a biker gang…disguised as cops. Once the drug deal goes bad and guns start going out, McConaughey is forced to take gang member as hostage, and still get out alive. So confusing, I know. But, it’s good. The SIX MINUTE tracking shot can be seen below.

 

The beauty of a continuous shot as this, is that it creates such a life-like fluidity that the viewer feels as if they’re in the movie or TV show. I often notice that directors who perform tracking shots are often displaying them at a pivotal scene in a film or show, to really capture the audience and have them connect with whatever the director needs them to connect with. Sometimes the emotion they’re trying to evoke is suspense, such as the True Detective shot, other times it’s excitement and awareness for the characters of the film. A classic example of this is portrayed in Goodfellas. Martin Scorsese’s phenomenally-well executed tracking shot is dubbed as one of the greatest, and for good reason. The continuous shot follows Henry Hill and his eventual wife on a big date at a fancy restaurant/nightclub. The line is long and the list is strict, but the shot follows Henry and his girlfriend through the entrance, through the kitchen, while stopping to say hello to everyone, then arriving at the heart of the restaurant with a new table, lamp, and chairs already being set up for Henry, in front row. Scorsese proved to the audience, with just one long shot, how important and respected Henry Hill was in the mafia.

goodfellas05
Cinematography by: Michael Bellhaus Image Provided by: BestClassicBands

 

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