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What Is a Tracking Shot?
In cinematography, a tracking shot is any shot in which the camera physically moves sideways, forward, or backward through the scene. Tracking shots usually last longer than other shots, follow one or more moving subjects, and immerse the audience in a particular setting. The term tracking shot traditionally referred to a shot achieved with a camera dolly mounted on a dolly track, but modern filmmakers shoot tracking shots using stabilized gimbal mounts, Steadicam mounts, motorized vehicles, and even drones. Panning and tilting are not considered tracking shots because they can be achieved while the camera stays in a fixed location—but a camera operator can pan and tilt within a tracking shot.
Dollying vs. Trucking: What’s the Difference?
Two common types of tracking shots are dollying and trucking. A dolly shot is when the camera is moved forward or backward along a track. A truck shot is when the camera is moved left or right.
Why Do Filmmakers Use Tracking Shots?
Filmmakers use tracking shots to immerse the audience in the film, allowing them to experience a real-time journey through a setting in the same manner as the onscreen characters. Tracking shots often consist of long takes without jumps or cuts to different angles, authentically imitating the way characters would move through space in real life. An effective tracking shot makes the viewer feel like they're a part of the action, helping them stay engaged in the film's narrative and emotional journey.
5 Examples of Tracking Shots in Movies
The best tracking shots often require complex choreography and precise camerawork from camera operators, but not all tracking shots need to be complicated. Let these shots inspire you, but know that you can achieve an effective tracking shot even with low-budget equipment and a small film crew.
- Goodfellas (1990): Martin Scorsese's iconic tracking shot of gangster Henry Hill and his date Karen Friedman entering the back of the Copacabana Club places the viewer in Karen's point of view, allowing the viewer to experience her astonishment as she witnesses the power and influence Henry holds at the club.
- Touch of Evil (1958): One of the earliest examples of a long take and a crane shot, the opening scene of Orson Welles's 1958 film noir begins on a close-up of a bomb's ticking clock. A man places the bomb in the trunk of a car, and the camera doesn't cut away until three minutes and 20 seconds later when the bomb explodes. Welles's decision to use a long tracking shot to follow the doomed car builds tension as the bomb ticks closer and closer to zero in real-time.
- The Shining (1980): Director Stanley Kubrick chose to use a long, eerie tracking shot to show a boy riding a plastic tricycle around the winding halls of the Overlook Hotel. This tracking shot takes the viewer for a ride along with the boy as he experiences a normal day at the hotel while simultaneously showing off the strange, inconsistent geography of the building. As the shot goes on, the suspense is heightened as the boy's tricycle turns every corner.
- Children of Men (2006): Director Alfonso Cuarón's dystopian sci-fi film is famous for a long take inside a car during an ambush, but the film contains multiple long tracking shots that follow characters through the mayhem of urban warfare in a frightening future world.
- Birdman (2014): Director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Best Picture winner about an over-the-hill Hollywood actor attempting to produce a Broadway play is made of long tracking shots stitched together to resemble one continuous take. The long takes are designed to make the experience of time feel constraining and claustrophobic.
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