Like special effects, the best tracking shots should never be noticed. Your audience should be drawn in by the story, not marvelling at your filmmaking technique.
Of course, fans and critics talking about the incredible logistics behind a long tracking shot can generates a lot of buzz, but it can easily turn gimmicky. The happy medium of tracking shots is definitely somewhere between ”Natural Born Killers” (almost 3,000 cuts) and ”Russian Ark” (one – yes, the entire 99 minute movie is one single shot), but here’s a few that go one better. They do something for the story.
Snake Eyes (1998)
Charismatic and slightly kooky cop Rick Santoro (Nicolas Cage in one of his most off-the-wall performances) comes in out of the near-hurricane battering the Atlantic City casino stadium, all fired up to watch the boxing match main event.
While he does, the plot moves busily along around him. His good friend, military officer Kevin Dunne (Gary Sinise) greets him as he approaches. A mystery blonde in the crowd speaks angrily to the US defence secretary, who’s in town for the fight. Santoro gets a call on his cell phone, telling him to watch out for his lucky number. A ringside fan shouts ‘here comes the pain!’ A shot rings out…
And we see it all in one take, a brilliant device to show us how many critical story turns are happening all at once as Brian De Palma’s camera wheels around the ring and stadium in a monumental piece of choreography.
2. Children of Men (2002)
The shaky war-cam footage taken straight off the nightly news seems the obvious choice in Alfonso Cuaron’s grounded, cerebral sci-fi as he follows hero Theo (Clive Owen) stumbling through the ruins of Bexhill, mortar fire blowing buildings to pieces around him.
But you’ve already seen better. Old flame Julian (Julianne Moore), who leads the resistance movement to deliver the last pregnant woman alive to a sea-going safe haven, is in a car with Theo, her cohort Luke (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the mother-to-be and her hippie midwife. The group are talking and laughing (the former lovers doing their old party trick of spitting a ping pong ball back and forth between them) when rebels attack from the roadside woods. A desperate chase in reverse ensues.
And the whole time, we sit in the middle of the car, spinning this way and that following the action. It wasn’t strictly a single take and several elements like the attacking motorcycle and exploding windscreen were added in post production, but Cuaron achieved what he intended. You’re not a detached observer watching a cool highway chase from overhead, you’re a participant amid the screaming, bullets and blood.
3. Goodfellas (1995)
Scorsese’s love letter to the mobster era turns up in best of lists more than any other, and in this case it’s the club entrance. Henry (Ray Liotta) and Karen (Lorraine Bracco) get out of their car and go in through the side door that leads them through the bowels of the clubs storage rooms and kitchens. Henry coolly peels off bills to grease palms and the pair end up right in front of the stage, a table made up especially for them.
Subtext? If you like – Hill and his kind don’t go the same way as the rest of us. They move through the shadows, the underground …and they still end up out in front.
4. Irreversible (2002)
The walkouts at Cannes and subsequent screenings of Gaspar Noe’s shocking, Memento-inspired rape revenge drama weren’t just because of the visuals. The director laid a low, continuous tone into the soundtrack that’s intended to induce nausea.
Not that you wouldn’t feel it anyway. Long before the notorious, almost unwatchable nine minute scene of the rape and beating of Alex (Monica Belluci), her boyfriend Marcus (Vincent Cassel) goes in search of the man who did it. Yes, before – because it’s all in reverse chronological order.
He and friend Pierre have tracked the man to a gay S&M club called Rectum (don’t laugh, it was a real place, albeit ‘roughed up’ for filming), and we follow them through dark, dank rooms that look and sound like a medieval torture chamber. Indistinct voices, glimpses of confronting sexual behaviour and ugly naked bulbs flit in and out of the frame as Noe’s camera turns in jerky circles, upside down and inside out so roughly you don’t know which way is up. Think Saving Private Ryan: The Queer as Folk Diaries.
The Protector/Ong Bak 2 (2005)
You can be pretty sure realism wasn’t a big concern in any movie where someone steals an elephant (not exactly easy to stuff in your luggage like a wallet now, is it?).
Still, when mild-mannered Thai boy Kham (Muay Thai martial arts legend Tony Jaa) travels to Australia to retrieve his stolen elephant, you’ll be glad for such a ridiculous premise. In the film’s blistering centrepiece, Kham infiltrates the villain’s headquarters and rushes through several floors of a stately hotel, knocking minions aside left and right.
We follow Jaa up the stairs and along the corridors as he uses bodies to destroy more furniture than the 1923 Tokyo earthquake, all in a single four minute long shot that took five takes to get right. Why do it that way? Jaa is simply an inexhaustible fighting machine.
6. Touch of Evil (1958)
Welles’ third masterpiece, a hard-boiled noir thriller set in a town along the US/Mexico border, pits a slightly ill-cast Charlton Heston as a Mexican official against Welles’ grizzled, rotund, borderline-corrupt cop.
We start with a close-up of a bomb, a hand turning the timer dial and sealing someone’s fate. The anonymous assassin puts it in a nearby trunk, a couple of partygoers get in and drive off and we follow their leisurely progress all the way down the street and around the corner, crossing paths with narc Vargas (Heston) at the border patrol.
It’s a tense, single take sequence as we wait for the inevitable. As the clueless woman in the car tells the border patrolman, ‘I can hear ticking’. The car moves out of the frame, Vargas realises he hasn’t kissed his new bride in an hour, and the street is suddenly rocked by the explosion off camera.
7. Knowing (2009)
Proof that a good shot can’t save an overblown, turgid film. Nicolas Cage (after a post-”Snake Eyes” personality bypass) is John Koestler, stuck in traffic because of an accident up ahead one rainy day when he realises the next item on his coded doomsday list is due to happen not just right then, but on the very coordinates he reads on his GPS.
When he walks up to the cops at the barricades it’s nothing too serious – except that a Plymouth Air flight is coming down a few dozen metres away from where he’s just walked. The plane carves a path through the stalled traffic, sending cars flying and exploding in the muddy field nearby. John stands transfixed with horror for just a moment before running down the hill into the bedlam of burning fuel, screaming people and strewn wreckage. A combination of in-camera effects and sets and digital backdrops including the rain and explosions create a seamless and harrowing two-minute shot.
8. Elephant (2003)
If Michael Bay had done a movie about a school shooting the kids would’ve been suited up like commandos after stealing a car, ram raiding a gun shop and bringing the heavy artillery while screaming ‘fuck yeah!’, no shot longer than a second.
But in Gus van Sant’s hands it’s a very different animal. We follow the kids through school in single shots, up and down the wide stairwells, through the cafeteria and library, even outside and through the sports fields and car park. We all know what banal places schools are and the camera strolling leisurely through it – even while following teenaged killers gunning down their peers and teachers – never even breaks a sweat. Horror indeed wears a mask of normality.
9. 11’9’01 (2002)
Among this short story collection inspired by the events and political aftermath of September 11 2001 is a segment by Israeli writer/director Amos Gitai. A Palestinian suicide bomb has just gone off near a checkpoint and police, media, onlookers and emergency services crowd the scene to do their job or see what’s going on, surging in and out of the frame in a chaotic jumble of movement, shouting and panic.
But something changes in the entire, single-shot segment with shouts, questions across noisy crowds and a few seconds of a tuned-in radio broadcast. Something terrible has happened in New York that may overshadow even the carnage and confusion we’re seeing now. Gitai positions the snippets of information coming into the scene via the news crews, cops and bystanders perfectly to drip-feed a mounting sense of menace.
10. The Shining (1980)
Kubrick obviously wasn’t the first, but he may just have done it the best. Quiet, shy, paranormally sensitive Danny (Danny Lloyd) had every kids’ dream this year – a whole hotel to play in while his parents look after it during the snowed-in winter.
Danny suspects the Torrances aren’t the only ones inhabiting the Overlook but that doesn’t stop him playing his favourite game – hooning around the white walled, Escher-esque carpeted halls on his racing trike. Kubrick’s camera rolls along just behind him in silence and we’re just certain he’s going to see something nasty around one of the many corners. never mind the kid – audiences themselves nearly wet themselves faced with the ghosts of the twin Grady girls, one minute asking Danny to ‘come play with us’, the next strewn all over the bloodied hallway in pieces after their father’s axe attack.
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