Written by: Brian Lowe, Videographer
Who doesn’t love a good tracking shot? It’s smooth. It’s fluid. The tracking shot is the perfect example of why cinema, motion video, film, movies, whatever you prefer to call it, is superior to photography. The movement of the camera and the images it’s capturing encapsulates so much information as opposed to one single image.
The tracking shot, if done well, can be so immersive that it forces the viewer to step into the world of the film. Don’t get me wrong, I love me some beautiful photography. But techniques like the tracking shot are what makes cinema better than photography in my opinion.
Also known as the dolly shot or the long take, the tracking shot can mean a lot of different things. But, the name originally comes from classic Hollywood cinema (classic Hollywood cinema is roughly defined as movies coming out of Hollywood between the 1920’s and early 1960’s) where the entire camera rig was set on a track similar to a railroad.
Examples of Terrific Tracking Shots in Hollywood Film
Perhaps the most famous tracking shot from classic Hollywood is in Orsen Welles’ A Touch of Evil. It lasts for an impressive three and a half minutes!
The shot opens with a close up of a hand and a timer hinting at the idea that you are beginning to view a long take or that time should be considered. Music, natural ambient sound, wide shots showing scale, and great choreography are just a few of the pieces that make this cinematic opening shot impressive and memorable.
Cinema’s top auteurs (film geek’s word for “film author” or the director) have used the tracking shot for some of their most memorable scenes. Stanley Kubrick was a master of the tracking shot and also one of the first to use the steady cam. Kubrick’s’ shot in Space Odyssey 2001, seen in the gif below, explores the lack of gravitation pull in space along with his usual symmetrical framing. Even if you haven’t seen any other part of the film, you know from this one shot who the protagonist is:
Perhaps the most memorable shots from Kubrick’s The Shining were the long tracking shots of little Danny pedaling his big wheel tricycle through the long and empty hallways of the Overlook Hotel. This shot took an incredible amount of ingenuity as both the videographer and sound man were being pushed on a wheelchair directly behind Danny. The rig had to be modified several times before the shots were deemed usable by Kubrick but the end result was worth it as this shot is an iconic part of cinema history.
My Experiences with Tracking Shots
I love movement when I’m filming. I grew up filming on rollerblades capturing friends skating on rails, ramps, and over stairs. In fact, I was always filming on my skates and it was typical to be moving, just like a tracking shot, when I was filming. This gif wasn’t me but it does a terrific job of capturing what the tracking shot can be (and how awesome it can be to film on skates!).
Today I’m lucky enough to have some fun toys that I get to work with every day which makes tracking shots fun to execute. One of my favorite pieces of equipment that I use almost daily is our gimbal steady cam. With this rig, I’m able to mount my Panasonic GH5 and produce smooth and steady camera movements with ease. Here is a back-tracking shot of Ben going around corners and moving the height of the camera up and down.
Using a Drone to Capture Tracking Shots
Another amazing tool that I use and has become incredibly popular in the video production industry is the drone. It’s relatively inexpensive, easy to fly, and offers high-quality video. Below is a piece of video I filmed while in Colorado:
A filmmaking hobbyist can purchase a drone from anywhere between $100 to $20,000 dollars but if you plan on using any of your drone footage commercially you must register the drone and get a Remote Pilot Certificate from the FAA (which includes a pretty detailed exam at your local airport). The drone offers up an endless amount of new possibilities. Before, filmmakers would rely on helicopters to achieve the shots that now can be done quickly and inexpensively.
The drone can also double as your jib or crane shot. I’ve set up and used several jibs before and while they are great once you’re using them, they are a major pain to set up and tear down. Instead of two or three people taking a long time to set up the jib, I can get the drone up and flying within a couple of minutes. Here is an example of a drone shot acting as a jib shot:
I realize the drone shot is not like the traditional tracking shot but I felt like it should be included in this post because it allows the filmmaker to track a subject in a similar fashion.
Give it a Shot
Filmmaking includes countless different techniques to achieve results and I think the tracking shot is one of the best. Next time you’re watching a movie, take a closer look at how the shots are constructed and ask yourself how they affect your response to the film. Last but certainly not least– if you’re out there making videos, films, or the next viral Youtube hit, make sure you’re having fun! I know that’s what I was doing when I was rolling around town filming my friends, and that’s why most filmmakers began in the first place.