What is a Tracking Shot? Definition & Examples
- What is a tracking shot in filmmaking?
- Best cinematography examples of tracking shots in movies
- How to shoot a tracking shot
A tracking shot in cinematography describes any shot in which the camera moves through the scene, often for an extended period. The moving camera can track the action as it unfolds, or stay with one character or moving object and follow them. In the history of Hollywood, the shot originally received its name from the camera moving on tracks. Today, tracking shot refers to any shot with extended camera movement.
What defines a tracking shot, how is it different from a dolly shot, what are great examples in cinematography, and which equipment can you use to film your own tracking shots? Let’s look at the answers!
What is a tracking shot in filmmaking?
A tracking shot is a type of shot that is not static: the camera moves through space, to follow one or more characters, explore the action, highlight the scenery, or convey a general sense of movement. You’ll find tracking shot cinematography in most film and TV productions, as camera movement can capture cinematic scenes, record fast-paced sporting events, and immerse viewers in a setting.
A tracking shot gives the camera a full range of movement and differs from panning and tilting, in which the camera rotates around a vertical or horizontal axis, respectively (see our guide to types of shots and angles for a full visualization). The moving camera requires stabilization for steady footage, though cinematographers can sometimes use jarring for effect, for example, to deliver the impression of the ground shaking or the point of view of a running character.
These shots run longer and are often filled with action or rich visual elements. With increasing length and complexity, the director and cinematographer will invest considerable planning and coordination in tracking shots. Some challenges include: the choreography of all elements of the scene, keeping the desired action in the frame, moving around obstacles, avoiding recording crew, equipment, or their reflections, as well as lighting, sound, and continuity.
Because of their length, a tracking shot is typically a long take, a single shot that stands out from a more conventional editing pace with short cuts. A long tracking shot can cross the ten-minute mark, though filmmakers can use tricks to string several individual tracking shots together to appear as a single take. The (seemingly) uninterrupted long tracking shot is a stylistic storytelling device to create a flowing, moving visual narrative and a sense of journey—we’ll have more on these in the examples below!
Great tracking shots reward viewers with their immersive nature. They can bring the audience along with one or more on-screen characters, provide a point of view amid all the action, build up to a climax or arrival, convey emotion, or develop the story in real-time.
Brief history of the tracking shot
Only the evolution of camera equipment made the tracking shot possible, because it requires sufficient stabilization so the camera doesn’t wobble, resulting in unsteady footage. Early films limited camera movement to panning and tilting with a tripod-mounted camera. The 1914 film Cabiria by director Giovanni Pastrone is one of the earliest known examples of a slow tracking shot.
Hollywood coined specific terms for shots depending on the direction of the camera movement. Today, a dolly shot is a type of tracking shot. A camera dolly is a wheeled tool that allows the cinematographer to move a mounted camera or sit on the dolly, operating the camera. It requires dolly tracks, and the tracking shot gets its name from these. A tracking shot signified lateral movement and the camera would "track right" or "track left." A dolly shot would "push in" or "pull out", which was also called "dolly in" and "dolly out."
In filmmaking today, the term dolly shot applies to shots with an actual dolly. To distinguish between the dolly in and out, lateral camera movement is called a trucking shot, with “truck right” and “truck left”. Cinematographers record tracking shots in a variety of ways with different camera equipment, using steadicam, cranes, gimbals, vest stabilizers, drones, or handheld cameras. Director Jean-Luc Godard operated a handheld camera while sitting in a wheelchair for his 1959 French New Wave film Breathless.
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Best cinematography examples of tracking shots in movies
Let’s look at how Hollywood hits from various decades have used tracking shots for on-screen storytelling: these are 10 examples of the best tracking shots in movies.
Martin Scorsese's GoodFellas (1990) tells the story of mob gangster Henry Hill and his relationship with his wife Karen Hill and his partners in crime. The film contains what many cinephiles consider one of the greatest examples of a tracking shot when the couple arrives at the Copacabana Club. Their unusual entrance begins with a close-up of the car keys, then changing shot size and following them inside. The camera remains mostly behind the two characters, but the camera movement gives us Karen's point of view and her sense of wonder in one long take leading up to her question, "What do you do?"
Touch of Evil
Orson Welles uses a crane shot in the opening scene of Touch of Evil (1958) to rise above the action and follow the car with a ticking bomb in its trunk. Switching focus, again and again, the car leaves the frame momentarily, but the audience always expects where it will turn up next, and which of the bystanders might be blown up once the time is up. Ultimately, the explosion happens out of the frame as well, and we only see the burning wreck. The build-up of tension is as important here as the culminating moment.
In Atonement (2007) by Joe Wright, Robbie Turner wants to return home from war to his love, Cecilia. But when he arrives at the beach in Dunkirk for evacuation, he is met with overwhelming chaos and devastation. Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey uses the art of eye tracing in this five-minute tracking shot as the moving camera loses the main character in the mayhem and finds him again, during a well-timed choreography of live animals, gunshots and pyrotechnics, brawls, vehicles, and special effects, all in a difficult terrain of mostly sand.
The entire movie 1917 is a ticking clock as two soldiers assigned to race against time carry a message that can save the lives of 1,600 other soldiers into enemy territory. Director Sam Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins chose to tell the story in near real-time — in one shot. The continuous take comprises a series of tracking shots, the longest of which spanned over nine minutes. All takes required meticulous planning and artful choreography in front of and behind the camera to ensure seamless transitions and to create the illusion of a true "oner,” making it a masterclass in single-take cinematography.
Victoria (2015) by German writer and director Sebastian Schipper gives its gimmick away in the tagline, "One City. One Night. One Take." The film was shot by cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen in a true single take — all 138 minutes of it. The cast and team went through the motions three times, recording an endless take on 22 locations in Berlin in the hours of 4.30 am to 7 am. The third of these recordings became the final release.
Early in Alejandro Iñárritu's epic The Revenant (2015), there is a fight scene when the trappers are under attack by Arikara Indians. Though the tracking shot largely follows Hugh Glass, the fast-paced action conveys the confusion and mayhem of the battle where death seems to come from all sides, near and far. Although the scene employs techniques like digital stitching and CGI, they take nothing away from the work of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki.
Children of Men
Children of Men (2006) by director Alfonso Cuarón features many tracking shots by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, which are skillfully stitched together to create long takes that are logistically impossible.
The duo of director Alejandro González Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki make a great team with their innovative style and approach. For the 2014 Birdman, that was a single take, or rather, the illusion of a long continuous take. They stitched tracking shots of ten to fifteen minutes together. Other attempts at this, apart from the above Victoria, are Hitchcock's Rope (1948) and Russian Ark (2002) by Alexander Sokurov.
Long tracking shots are a signature of director Stanley Kubrick. When Danny rides his tricycle through the hotel in The Shining (1980), the audience loses themselves quickly in the repetitive hallways (the hotel's layout as seen in the film is an example of impossible architecture). The shot leads up to the sequence when Danny meets the twins, by which point the viewers are used to the dizzying effect of the corridors and the perspective.
The Vertigo effect is named after Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958), which uses a perspective trick more than once: the camera appears still and focused on a subject in the foreground, while the background changes size and either looms large or shrinks away. The trick comprises a wide-angle zoom lens, a steady zoom, and a dolly. The camera pushes in or pulls away, zooming out or in, thus keeping the subject of the same size and appearing to remain in place while the background changes in size. Technically a tracking shot, the camera effect has many names, such as dolly zoom, push-pull, reverse-tracking shot, or simply Vertigo effect.
How to shoot a tracking shot
To conclude, let’s look at the how-to: we’ll go over types of equipment for tracking shots and leave you with a few tips for your project.
Tracking shots by type of equipment
Below, we'll summarize types of shots according to the equipment cinematographers use for recording:
- Dolly Shot: Any shot using a camera dolly for camera movement. Original tracking shot or trucking shot: Lateral camera movement parallel to the action, therefore moving horizontally to the left or the right.
- Steadicam: A handheld shot using a camera stabilizer for a smooth tracking shot.
- Camera gimbal: A gimbal is a handheld device which allows the cinematographer to operate the camera with one or two hands to deliver steady footage. The pivot support of a 3-axis gimbal camera stabilizer makes the camera independent of the operator's movements. The three axes are called pitch, yaw, and roll, for tilt, pan, and off-center, out-of-level angles.
- Crane shot: The camera is mounted on a crane or boom to move through the scene and record the action. For the ending of Twelve Monkeys, director Terry Gilliam famously even used a crane upon a crane to record the long tracking shot in the parking lot.
- Drone shot: Before drones, aerial shots had to rely on helicopters, rails, or high vantage points. But camera-mounted drones deliver steady and affordable aerial shots with nearly full freedom of movement.
- Rail shot: A camera mounted on rails or cables can move above the action on a fixed-line. For example, you'll often see an X of crisscrossed rails above a stadium, sporting event, or concert.
- Pure handheld: Camera operators can choose to record a tracking shot by hand with no camera stabilization at all, which can deliver raw and immersive footage, either following a character closely or showing their point of view directly.
- Car mount: A camera mounted on a car or other vehicle can record a scene inside or surrounding the moving object.
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Tips for recording tracking shots
Tracking shots can be among the more challenging parts of any production, but they don’t have to be an insurmountable hurdle—planning is half the work! Here are some valuable insights for successful tracking shots:
- Craft a shot list: Filmmakers don't decide on a tracking shot at random. It's an effective storytelling device when inserted at the right moment with an obvious purpose. Which character do you want to follow? Whose perspective do you want to show? What happens before and after? Plan the entire shot list for your project and figure out where a tracking shot is a fitting choice.
- Equipment: A tracking shot doesn't always require a dolly and tracks. Often a Steadicam or camera stabilizer will be enough, with less impact on your overall budget. Also, make sure you or your camera operator know how to handle the equipment, and choose the right camera lens and focus distance for your tracking shot.
- Scout and research: Scope out the environment for your scene and figure out placements for light and sound equipment, as well as marks for actors and extras so they don't hinder the path of the camera.
- Rehearse: When you have planned the camera movement and choreography of actors and teams, rehearse the tracking shot so you can minimize the number of necessary takes until you get it right. Block out your scene, consider background action against foreground focus, and keep the surrounding imagery in mind.
- Post-production: You can fix a few soft wobbles and shakes in post-production if your take isn't entirely smooth. Plan your transitions ahead of editing and make sure you have all the footage required so you don't lack material in post-production.