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What is a Tracking Shot & How to Film One Like a Pro

No technique in cinematography is more talked about than the tracking shot. A movie that uses a tracking shot will often be overshadowed by its own use of its long take; it has gotten to the point where critics debate about the shot’s self-indulgence. It is impossible for even the most general movie fan to remain unaware of the tracking shot’s existence.

The 2019 war drama 1917 was shot to appear as if it were all one thrilling tracking shot. It’s difficult to deny the craftsmanship of a tracking shot, however, as it takes more than just shooting one to make it impressive. What also matters is a memorable filming location. Featuring thousands of production venues across the country, Peerspace allows filmmakers to create not only a successful tracking shot but find the best location to pull one off. That said, let’s dive into the fundamentals of the tracking shot.

What makes a successful tracking shot?

A “tracking shot” used to refer only to a lateral movement, in which the camera moved on a track to the right or left as it followed a subject. Now with the advancement of technology, the movement of a camera has expanded. The term “tracking” now encompasses moving through a space for an extended action, which means the camera is following a character, but it can also used to thoroughly show a setting. Regardless, a tracking shot can only be successful if it places us into the perspective of a character.

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As time has elapsed and technology evolved, the tracking shot has become an athletic feat — a marathon in which filmmakers have pushed the boundaries of what is possible with each serious attempt. Usually, this can mean longer and longer — as mentioned before, 1917 made an entire movie using this shot.

Meanwhile, the movie Children of Men (2006) attempted this by limiting the space to a single car with the action going on around it, inspiring the creation of a specialized rig and a modified car. Both movies use the tracking shot to place the audience directly in the action, thus creating a feeling of chaos and panic.

But the tracking shot takes more than technology and length. It’s also about the action within the frame. These shots require a heavy amount of choreography and blocking between the camera crew and the actors — whether it’s one actor or thousands, you’ve got to keep it interesting and make sure that everyone knows their mark for the sake of the whole team.

For the tracking shot in Atonement (2007), the filmmakers could not afford all the extras in the scene if they were to shoot the scene in the traditional shot-for-shot way. Instead, they choreographed one single take that clearly depicted all the people affected by a single battle during WWI. Everything is perfectly timed to give us one of the greatest tracking shots of all time.

How to shoot a tracking shot

First and foremost, like any other creative decision, you have to understand your story and what emotion or idea you are trying to communicate to the audience. This way, you can make the best use of whatever technique you choose. When you have a clear reason to use the tracking shot, the shot should fit seamlessly into your story.

The aim of filmmaking is always to convince the audience to forget that a camera is shooting. Full immersion is key. People should not notice the tracking right away, but rather find themselves lost in the story because of the lack of cuts. Decide what kind of look you want for the shot to help enhance the tone of the scene. For example, if a character is desperately searching for his wallet, panicking during every second, then that’s going to have a very specific feeling with a handheld operation than with a Steadicam or a gimbal.

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In contrast, a date with a character’s dream girl that is going really well, to the point where the character even has trouble believing it’s real, might be shot smoothly with no kinks. A remote-operated gimbal might be better to showcase the dream like quality.

Blocking, or the choreographed movements of the actors in character during the scene, is perhaps most important during a tracking shot than in any other shots. Simply because the camera has its own movements to pinpoint, so the space for improvisation is either dismissed or narrowed down.

The setting of the scene goes hand in hand with the blocking as well. Often, the movements will not be able to be rehearsed without the exact location of the shooting space. Blocking and setting add the biggest elements of interest to the simplest and longest of tracking shots. As such, it is important to make sure they all add to your story in the most engaging and enhancing ways. With blocking, as well as a setting to work with ahead of time, the camera operator and actors can take note of their speed and the duration of the scene once played out.

To keep everyone on the same page, it is smart to create a shot list of your tracking shot, whatever length it may be, into separate shots. Break down your tracking shot into individual compositions, which can serve as checkpoints for everyone, making the process of creating this complex movement a lot simpler.

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Another long take that is often considered one of the best of all time, if not the best, is this scene from 1990’s Goodfellas.

It is considered a brilliant shot in cinema because it hits all the themes of the movie in one seamless and naturalistic shot, all while introducing us to how far Henry Hill, the protagonist, has gotten. He’s wanted the privilege that accompanies a life of crime, as well as the respect and command of a room along with the wealth and luxury.

As Henry Hill attempts to win over his date, he simultaneously woos the audience. And as he enters the back of the club, believing he can skip the queue much as he’s skipped the everyday work to gain that life of privilege, we as an audience understand who we are dealing with.

In the end, don’t get bogged down by trying to create the craziest shot in cinematic history — at least not yet. It’s important to plan what you want to say with each shot. If the tracking shot is the most effective way to do it, then by all means do it. Just remember to do it with purpose and, most of all, have fun.

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