In the age of computer generated special effects, tracking shots are one of the few ways directors can still get an audience to wonder, ‘How’d they do that?’ Technically defined as any shot in which the camera moves, a tracking shot generally makes its bones based on duration and complexity, and it doesn’t hurt if it advances the plot as well. Occasionally, a director will cheat, and throw in an obstacle to make you think you’re watching a continuous take, but as with most things in film the point isn’t ‘Was it real?’ but ‘Did you buy it?’
1. Touch of Evil – Opening Shot: 3 minutes, 20 seconds
The granddaddy of all tracking shots begins ingeniously enough with a close-up of a timer, as if the scene were timing its own continuous take. In a way, it is. The timer is attached to a bomb which is placed in a car we follow as it travels alongside our heroes, who are just being introduced as we wait to see if they’ll get incinerated. Without the benefit of a Steadicam, which wouldn’t be invented for another 15 years, Orson Welles lays out the scene with graceful camera moves before ending it with a bang.
2. The Player – Opening Shot: 8 minutes, 5 seconds
Probably the funniest tracking shot on our list, the opening sequence of this Robert Altman classic takes us on a tour of a studio lot with crazy pitches and insider gossip around every corner. It’s also the most post-modern sequence on our list, opening with a clapper and name checking other tracking shots from Rope, Absolute Beginners, The Sheltering Sky, and, of course, Touch of Evil. Keep an eye out for a prescient cameo from Entourage‘s Jeremy Piven.
3. Snake Eyes – Opening Shot: 13 minutes, 2 seconds
Brian De Palma never met a tracking shot he didn’t like. His oeuvre is lousy with extended takes, including particularly effective scenes in Carrie and Carlito’s Way. But his opening to Snake Eyes bests them on sheer scale. He introduces a host of characters and establishes multiple plot lines moving seamlessly (with a couple of cheats) through a hotel on fight night. That the film itself ultimately degenerates into abject suckitude is not the fault of the tracking shot.
4. Children of Men – Car Attack: 4 minutes, 8 seconds
Putting a tracking shot and an action sequence into one package may seem like an ambitious goal, but Alfonso Cuaron is up for it in almost every scene of this thriller. Using a revolutionary camera rig that rides both atop and within a speeding car, Cuaron captures an attack on our heroes, only cutting (without looking like it) once they exit the car. The elaborate camerawork, rather than diluting the shocking violence of the sequence, augments it because the real-time nature of the scene and the proximity of the camera to the characters only makes it more intimate.
5. GoodFellas – Entering the Copacabana: 3 minutes, 3 seconds
In praising Scorsese’s uncompromising storylines and rich characterizations, it can be easy to overlook his virtuoso camerawork, but this shot will remind you. As Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) takes his wife-to-be Karen (Lorraine Bracco) the back way into the Copa, Scorsese shows us what this world is all about: money and influence. It begins with Hill paying a guy to watch his car and ends with Karen asking what Hill does for a living. Be sure to check out Doug Liman’s homage to this shot in Swingers.
6. Serenity – Title Sequence: 4 minutes, 23 seconds
In a tracking shot that introduces us to the ship, the characters, the world and the tone of his woefully underseen adaptation of his woefully underseen sci-fi series Firefly, Joss Whedon pulls off a stunner. It’s technically two shots joined at the middle with some trickery, so we’ll say that each of them tied for number six.
7. Much Ado About Nothing – Final Shot: 2 minutes, 38 seconds
From a technical standpoint, this may be the most impressive scene on the list. Plotwise, it contributes nothing, merely a celebration at the end of the film, akin to a bunch of Shakespearean Ewoks singing the ‘Yub Yub’ song. But in terms of masterful camerawork, choreographed with the dancers and culminating in sumptuous aerial work, it’s hard to beat.
8. Notorious – Key Reveal: 35 seconds
Although his Rope beats this scene for length, composed as it is of numerous, connected tracking shots, Hitchcock packs more tension and ambition into this one shot than all of those others. We begin atop the stairs at a lavish party being held by Alexander Sebastien (Claude Rains), a wealthy German businessman married to Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman), who married him on behalf of T.R. Devlin (Cary Grant), a U.S. agent who suspects Sebastien of working with Nazis. We move from the top of the stairs all the way down to Huberman’s hand, which holds a key to a wine cellar that hides Sebastien’s secret. It’s one of the coolest shots from a director who’s not exactly hurting for cool shots.
9. Contact – Opening ‘Shot’: 2 minutes, 41 seconds
Technically, this sequence is not a tracking shot since it’s all computer generated, but it’s still brilliant nonetheless. It’s sound that sells this one, taking us back in time as we zoom out from the Earth and hear the radio and television broadcasts that would be at the point we’re passing as we go further out in
to the black. And yes, that was Robert Zemeckis who just blew your mind.
10. Confessions of a Dangerous Mind – Pitching The Dating Game: 1 minute, 6 seconds
Sometimes the best tracking shot is the one you don’t realize is a tracking shot. In this sequence, Chuck Barris (Sam Rockwell), comes up with the idea for The Dating Game. The camera moves in on his eyes as he fleshes out the idea with his girlfriend in his apartment. The camera pulls out as he continues the pitch, except now he’s in a television executive’s office. They cut while focused in on his eyes, right? Wrong. Rockwell and the cameraman were on a turntable. Once Rockwell’s eyes filled the frame, the turntable rotated, moving them from one set to another before the camera pulled back out. George Clooney’s directorial debut is full of in-camera tricks, but this sleight-of-lens is one of the cleverest.