Sep 27, 2021
The tracking shot is an important shot type and a true building block for any film. Similar to how establishing shots set the scene, the tracking shot lets you capture movement, then use that motion to draw the viewer into the scene over time.
The “time” aspect is an important piece in a good tracking shot. These aren’t exact one-shot scenes, but they’re supposed to be a lingering shot, something that grabs and holds the viewer’s interest.
Otherwise, it’s just a shot with movement. It won’t fulfill the purpose of bringing life to a scene or putting the viewer into the shoes of a character living in that space.
Filmmaking is an art that (from the perspective of the audience) borders on magic. And understanding how to use a tracking shot is an important trick to help you tell better stories, craft better scenes, and build better emotional connections with viewers.
If you’re looking for a textbook definition, any shot with camera movement qualifies as a tracking shot. That used to be exclusive to a dolly shot, which limited it to a slow but steady side-to-side, forward, or backward motion.
Thankfully modern advances in gear have opened up new opportunities for capturing motion. Using a camera stabilizer, gimbal, or even a steadicam can provide the same sort of motion, giving filmmakers a chance to follow the action with complete freedom.
Because that’s what it’s all about, really. A tracking shot isn’t just an excuse for a long take that moves through a scene — it’s a way to explicitly pull the viewer into the scene by replicating the on-screen movement from the viewer’s perspective. It’s a clever but simple trick to boost the audience’s emotional involvement, which is the goal of any visual storyteller.
As a result, many great tracking shots are are also pulled from the opening scenes of films. A long tracking shot, dolly shot, or crane shot can pack a lot of worldbuilding and storytelling without scripted dialogue or directed action.
Think about framing and composition as film concepts. Where you position someone in a scene relays information — whether that is their relationship to other people, the environment, their emotional state, etc. And then your camera placement (in relation to your subject) frames that even further, helping you achieve a new level of audience engagement.
A character standing alone in a scene, aloof and uncomfortable, can make the audience feel on edge or lonely or sad. A close-up on that person builds on the introspective mood; a wide shot focuses on that isolation and quietly points attention to that state of being.
We’ve written before about how mixing and matching camera angles can create new power dynamics in a film. That idea applies to the tracking shot as well, especially now that you’re able to capture smooth movement without being stuck on a preset dolly track.
How a shot is framed isn’t limited to a static position or moment — a tracking shot allows the character, location, and overall scene to evolve, to interact and build layers of emotion and information. You can tease out more story moments in a 30-second tracking shot than in 10 minutes of dialogue.
No article on a type of camera shot would be complete without an extensive list of examples pulled straight from some of the greatest films ever made. And given the importance (and popularity) of tracking shots across cinema history, we’ve got a lot of awesome examples to pull from.
Here are five of the best. And for the purpose of illustrating the point, let’s also pretend we’re in film school and make some sense of how each shot establishes and contributes to the storytelling in each scene.
Orson Welles was some combination of genius auteur and mad scientist, and his success as a storyteller influenced generations of filmmakers around the world. While perhaps not his most popular movie, Touch of Evil is still regarded as one of Welles’ best works.
And for the purpose of our discussion here, the film begins with an incredible tracking shot that packs in as much world building and storytelling as some films manage in their entire runtimes. And that comes down to how the camera moves through the scene as much as the lighting or the action.
Welles loved using wide angle lenses, which let him pack tons of details into scenes while also creating some unnatural face shapes in close-ups.
Using a tracking shot (with an 18mm focal length) for the opening scene of Touch of Evil has an almost magnetic effect. And even 60+ years after the film was released, the film still sucks viewers into a different time and place. It’s a one-scene masterclass of how a tracking shot can set the tone and really enhance a film’s atmospheric storytelling. (And yes, it's a great example of how to use crane shots.)
Look up any list of long takes, one shots, or tracking shots, and this particular scene from Goodfellas will be at or near the top:
Unlike the shot from Touch of Evil, the particular shot doesn’t have a wide angle bringing life to a town. Instead, Scorsese kept things very intimate and used that to draw the audience in.
Watching the interactions between Henry Hill and the other characters (or even small things like him bumping his hip against a counter) makes everything feel organic and smooth.
We aren’t just navigating through a maze of hallways and people — instead, we’re part of the scene, as much a participant as Henry and his date.
To be clear, I’m not going to argue that 1917 has better tracking shots than legendary war films like Saving Private Ryan, Apocalypse Now, or Full Metal Jacket. But 1917 pitched itself as a single one shot for the entire film, and a lot of the directorial decisions make it a good addition to this list.
The best tracking shots don’t just convey movement and emotion — they help carry the story. And because 1917 is a story about two soldiers on a desperate (and often frenetic) mission, the use of camera movement and shot framing quite literally pull the audience along for the ride. Tracking shots were a requirement, and they do their job well:
Yes, this is at the end of the film, so there’s a climatic element already involved. But the tracking shot captures Schofield’s panicked, near-impossible mission and the chaos of war. The camera (and therefore the audience) becomes embedded in the action, making the emotion all the more earned. The “battlefield run” is the cathartic payoff for everything the film built up to this point.
In reality, you could watch the entire film or choose any scene and experience tracking camera movement that pulls the viewer into the story. The camera operator is in the middle of the action, and that perceived "closeness" transfers some of the on-screen action (and danger) onto the viewer.
If you’d prefer another celebrated war film that is recognized for excellent tracking shots, let’s look at one of the best scenes in Atonement:
This particular example ties in pieces from everything else on this list: camera movement, depth of field, activity in fore- and background, and a buffet of visual interest. The tracking movement of the camera is basically a cinematic journey, regardless of the rest of the film.
With a single take, Joe Wright captures the dejection and fear surrounding the Battle of Dunkirk. It provides a very different look at the chaos of war. 1917 takes a literal approach, but Atonement looks at the nervous energy and uncertainty that are less overt but just as prevalent.
This tracking shot seems to span an entire city, and the complexity involved is impressive. One more fantastic example of environmental storytelling in action.
John Woo is a master of fusing action films with the tension and anxious energy of Western films. And all of that is on full display in this incredible tracking shot from Hard Boiled:
While not as complex or awe-inspiring as the World War-era films we just looked at, this scene is no less impressive. The tracking camera movement (and the direction for the actors) creates a kind of rhythmic dance, an immersive action scene that is somehow both full of energy and tension while also building the relationship between characters.
We’ll end the list with what might be the best one-take fight scene you’d find in any film, regardless of its inclusion in our list of tracking shots. And while this film isn’t going to win any awards, the use of a tracking shot in this sprawling fight scene is a spiritual experience for stunt coordinators:
Fight scenes are exhausting — something that few films focus on, since it loses some of the “magic” of a Hollywood production. But The Protector’s tracking shot pulls the audience along, almost like a curious spectator who (both literally and figuratively) can’t look away as the protagonist clobbers his way up a few flights of stairs.
There’s not much storytelling hidden in this shot, to be fair. But the action and our perceived closeness to it sparks a lot of energy, making the protagonist both amazing and terrifying at once. It’s a fun dichotomy that only works because we (as the viewer) are part of the action via a tracking shot.
Also, it's worth noting that tracking shots aren't limited to traditional film sets. You can find examples of CGI tracking shots in any big movie, or even as a green screen trick. (Here's an example of what that looks like in After Effects.)
Technically speaking, a tracking shot or long take is just another sort of camera shot that every filmmaker will rely on at some point in their creative projects. But like a low angle shot or an establishing shot, this particular camera trick is about more than just adding some flair.
Filmmakers use tracking shots for emotional impact. A great long take is something that people will talk about and reference for years, and they’re usually considered mini masterpieces within a film. The reason for that is how they affect the audience.
We’re pulled into the film, almost like a silent observer. The scene becomes a situation we’re part of rather than a set or stage with actors and a crew. It is, in some regards, the highest form of movie magic — a way to recreate the escapism that made movies so popular in the era of silent films.
But if you don’t have a gimbal or dolly or even a drone, you may not be able to get a good tracking shot. And that’s okay — you can affect an audience’s emotions in a variety of ways. Maybe you want to use sound design to add depth to your project, or take advantage of the power of music.
Regardless of how you do it, you’ll be able to elevate your video while also creating a better emotional connection with anyone who watches it. And as a visual storyteller, there’s no better feeling than knowing something you made landed — and resonates — with your audience.
Of course, a tracking shot isn't the only way to use a camera for a storytelling or emotion-building purpose. For more on how camera movements and angles affect your story, here are some other articles you'll want to check out:
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