The 10 best long tracking shots ever filmed
Mikhail Kalatozov, I Am Cuba, 1964.
This is one of the most strikingly beautiful films ever made. Don’t mind the propaganda (Russian-born Kalatozov also made the stunning The Cranes Are Flying, an equally propagandist movie about the virtues of Communism), it’s the filmmaking that matters. The intricacy of this shot is just breathtaking.
John Woo, Hard Boiled, 1992.
A warning: this one’s buh-luddy. Before John Woo came to Hollywood, people had a word for his camera work: balletic. I’m surprised that no one called it ‘bulletic.’ Maybe I just made that up (though probably not). Woo had knocked socks off with The Killer three years prior (and for video geeks, had been knocking them off for almost a decade before that), and I don’t think his violent, explosive choreography has gotten any better since Hard Boiled. It’s an incarnadine classic.
Orson Welles, Touch of Evil, 1958.
This is the one that everybody talks about, and for good reason. Even though others had done it before him, Welles pretty much set the standard for choreography and storytelling with this elaborate shot. This should come as no surprise, really, since Welles had been setting standards for things since he was, like, 10.
Martin Scorsese, Goodfellas, 1990.
In a recent post I took this shot apart, detailing the difficulty of taking a shot from the street to inside a nightclub (just in terms of timing alone), and the many radically different lighting scenarios that Scorsese and his fantabulous DP, Michael Ballhaus, mastered over the course of this shot. It’s a great one.
Jean-Luc Godard, Weekend, 1967.
This long, brutal shot from Godard’s seminal masterpiece is at once one of the simplest, and one of the most shocking. By the shot’s end, Godard’s existentialism, and notorious sense of humor, are both on full display.
Quentin Tarantino, Kill Bill Vol. 1, 2003.
Tarantino had done longish tracking shots before, in both Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, where he followed Bruce Willis from his car to his pad, past an apartment building (where someone’s radio mentions Jack Rabbit Slim’s), and through an empty lot, but this one’s the best of the bunch. There’s more choreography involved, more beats that have to be hit, and the whole thing is orchestrated to audio: first the song, then the phone. Plus, there’s that cool “I can see through walls” effect. Start training kung-fu and before you know it: super human powers. Groovy. It’s pretty virtuoso stuff and just a part of the long, amazing ‘House of Blue Leaves’ sequence from Kill Bill Vol. 1. To me, it’s almost this sequence alone makes KB QT’s third best film.
Johnny To, Breaking News, 2004.
Johnny To is to Hong Kong now-a-days what John Woo was to Hong Kong twenty years ago. He’s making exciting, vibrant, and extremely violent flicks in which thousands of bullets (and an almost equal amount of bodies) pile up on the city’s sidewalks. And, with his Triad Election films, he took Hong Kong cinema to new heights, coming close (ish) to the sort of scope that Coppola delivered with his Godfather saga. Next up, To is remaking the French noir Le Cercle Rouge, with two-thirds of a good cast (Liam Neeson, Chow Yun-Fat) and one-third ridiculousness (Orlando Bloom).
Robert Altman, The Player, 1992.
Altman was a pretty playful director, and with this, the opening shot of his biting Hollywood satire, the playfulness was the reason for the shot. In terms of camera movement, it’s not that complicated; the Steadycam operator moves in a series of circles, basically. But the choreography and timing are pretty great. Altman shifts focus between three major threads and pauses briefly to catch a few stragglers. But the best thing about this shot is the conversation that Fred Ward and Buck Henry are having. Henry’s pitching a movie (of course), but also talking about great tracking shots. It’s the perfect opener for this movie.
Chan-wook Park, Old Boy, 2003.
This too is getting the remake treatment, unnecessarily I might add, by none other than Mr. Big, Stevie Spielberg, who’s “everything turns out all right in the end” sensibility is 180 degrees from the darkness of this movie. But don’t let that get in the way! There are some cuts on either end of this scene, but the middle is one long graceful (the camera, at least) lateral tracking shot lasting a few minutes. By keeping it simple, Park set a new standard for fight scenes.
Alfonso Cuarón, Children of Men, 2006.
A warning: this one’s bloody too. Cuarón actually filled this movie with some amazing, and deceptively simple, sequences. It could be argued that this shot may not really fit into the “tracking shot” category, because the camera is in the car and the car is the thing in motion, for the most part. But the complexity of this shot is just amazing (and the complexity of the rig they built to shoot it is insane). The camera was on a track running down the middle of the vehicle; sometimes it’s in the front seat, sometimes the back. It films in 360 degrees, and sometimes when an actor wasn’t on camera, they had to lean out of the way. Now, that’s acting! It’s a hellishly gripping sequence (as are many other sequences in the film), with some of the trickiest choreography yet (and visual effects; the motorcycle was added in post). It also has the best ending of probably any of these shots. The master himself, Mr. Welles, always said, “Have a reason for the cut,” and Cuarón gives us a great and, again, simple one. It’s flawless.
Addendum: Thanks to some incredible feedback, I’ve expanded the ‘10 best long tracking shots ever filmed’ to include these 4 others that have to be seen. Thank you, everyone.
Bela Tarr, Werckmeister Harmonies
Theo Angeopolous, Ulysses’ Gaze
Andre Tarkovsky, The Mirror
P.T. Anderson, Boogie Nights
(For copyright reasons, it seems that the audio has been disabled)
Michelangelo Antonioni, The Passenger (a brilliant end to the film!)