Tracking shots are similar to the long take because they both keep the audience engaged with the actions occurring on screen. However, instead of just keeping a certain shot in frame, the tracking shot is specifically meant to follow someone or something along as they move through the scene. When done well, the tracking shot should be invigorating, taking the audience down the same roads our characters follow.
StudioBinder’s latest video essay (in conjunction with one of their production tip articles) teaches us how to better understand the different elements of tracking shots. It explains how there are three tracking shot aspects to keep in mind: location, production design, and blocking, along with three camera movement components: speed, stability, and duration. Using these tracking shot elements, filmmakers can draw audiences deeper into the stories of their characters, allowing us to walk with them and experience their lives.
Check out the video below.
Understanding your location is important to establishing a tracking shot. Where will the shot lead the viewer? Different locations mean different things to our characters, so walking with them in new, nostalgic, or emotionally profound locations can teach the audience a lot about them. The video explains the best tracking shots “have a symbiotic relationship with the location” and uses an example from 2008’s The Wrestler. In this film, there’s a shot that tracks Mickey Rourke’s character through a kitchen’s narrow walkway, resembling the walkway of an arena. This tracking shot perfectly complements the film, teaching the audience more about our main character’s true desires.
Baby Driver’s opening scene follows Ansel Elgort’s Baby through downtown Atlanta as he makes a morning coffee run. This location teaches us a lot about Baby, moving with him, reflecting his personality and character. As he’s listening to music, he pretends to play the trumpet lined in a window showcase, he dances mimicking the graffiti laced walls, and he lip-syncs the words written on the surrounding trees. In the opening scene alone, we move through Atlanta with Baby, experiencing the city and learning how energetic, light-hearted, and imaginative he is.
Using production design to your advantage allows the filmmaking process to go by seamlessly. StudioBinder’s video essay brings up a scene in 1994’s Pulp Fiction where the camera tracks Bruce Willis’ Butch through a fence. The video describes how this wouldn’t be possible without placing a strategic hole in the fence, as the cameraman wouldn’t be able to follow Butch through it without it. This is one of the little things filmmakers do in order to enhance their narrative through the tracking shot.
Blocking is also an important element to understand when tracking a character. Blocking is simply the staging of actors in a scene, and through creative blocking, we can follow our main character as they interact with the other characters surrounding them. StudioBinder brings up 2007’s Atonement, in which director Joe Wright uses “actor movement to motivate character movement,” allowing the viewer to engage with more important information from the scene.
Another great example of blocking in tracking shots comes from Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). In particular, there’s a moment where Michael Keaton’s Riggan Thomson is forced to walk through Times Square in his underwear. In the film, Keaton plays a washed-up actor known mostly for his early work in dated superhero films. As he walks around half-naked, the camera tracks him as fans and hecklers recognize him, exuberantly following him and asking for his autograph. With this tracking shot, we walk with Riggan through his embarrassment, experiencing the same shame and trouble he faces before his big theater preview.
The video essay also explains how important camera movement is to tracking shots. Speed, in particular, can add certain excitement or depth to a scene. Following someone quickly can bring more energy to the scene, while following someone slowly can display the direness or seriousness of the situation. Moving quickly works well with action because we can track with the fast-paced movement on screen and moving slowly works well with drama or horror because the slow movements can engulf the audience in anticipation or anxiety.
This scene from the “Who Goes There” episode of True Detective’s first season uses both quick and slow tracking shots. As Matthew McConaughey’s Rust clears the different rooms of the house he’s raiding, the camera whips around quickly as his head turns, allowing the audience to clear the rooms with him. Then, the tracking slows down so that we’re able to understand everything going on in the scene. It’s a long, fantastic scene that allows audience engagement in different ways as we experience everything that Rust does.
Similarly, stability is another important movement element to consider. If our camera tracks a character shakily, it can present a troubled or an excited feeling, but if it tracks a character steadily, it can present a striking, dramatic moment.
In David Leitch’s 2017 action film Atomic Blonde, there’s an incredible fight scene where Charlize Theron’s Lorraine fights two men in a hallway. This scene follows her, presenting a nice balance of shaky and steady. The shot isn’t overly shaky to the point where you can’t see the action on screen, rather, it bobs and moves with action, allowing the viewer to feel the weight and pain of the fight. It’s a fantastic scene that uses tracking movement to relay physical feeling to the audience.
The last movement element is duration. How long a tracking shot lasts depends entirely on the situation. Audiences never want to be overwhelmed by tracking shots that are too long, so it’s important that tracking shots are intentional to serve the narrative of the story.
Take Stanley Kubrick’s classic thriller The Shining, for example. The iconic tracking scene where Jack Nicholson’s Jack Torrance follows Shelley Duvall’s Wendy up the staircase perfectly demonstrates how duration can benefit the narrative. In this scene, the film tracks both Jack and Wendy, immersing the audience into Wendy’s harrowing fright and Jack’s manic furiosity simultaneously. If this shot were too short, it may not encapsulate all the emotions presented here, and if it were too long, it may have felt too arduous and exhausting. This shot is the perfect length as it draws us in to engage with everything on the screen, allowing us to experience the same emotions the characters do.
Understanding how tracking shots work is important to understanding how we engage with film. Learning how filmmakers intentionally craft their films or shoot their scenes ultimately bears a greater appreciation for the tireless medium.