The cinematic equivalent of the four-minute mile, the theory of relativity or the conquest of the Bellybuster at Moe's Big Steak City, the long tracking shot is the showiest of cinematic devices.
Though most scenes are separated into several shots, the long shot will keep the camera rolling, allowing the action to play. When successful, this can be graceful and glorious. When not, it usually comes off as gratuitous. Here are a few Reel Releases favorites:
GOODFELLAS (1990): Choreographed to illustrate the graft that comes with being a gangster, a single unbroken shot follows protagonist Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) through the back entrance at the famous Copa nightclub, meanders through the kitchen and back halls before stopping at a stage-side seat. It's an incredible piece of filmmaking that illustrates director Martin Scorsese's command of the medium and serves as an effective bit of visual storytelling.
2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968): Early in Stanley Kubrick's space epic, a shuttle approaches a slowly rotating space station. Rather than rush the docking procedure, as would become the standard in later science fiction films, the single-shot sequence happens slowly, with shuttle and wheel quietly coming together against a black sky and a Strauss waltz. A lovely and lyrical scene that has lost none of its impact.
TOUCH OF EVIL (1958): A fiend for the long tracking shot (they also show up in Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons), Orson Welles set up and executed one of the most famous tracking shots in cinema history over the course of a single evening. The shot travels through a Mexican border town (actually Venice Beach, Calif.) and observes as a bomb is planted, a car crosses the border and the bomb eventually detonates. Shot before the days of digital trickery, the sequence was laid out like a complicated ballet, with actors moving in and out of the frame on specific beats.
ROPE (1948): Alfred Hitchcock could be a show-off. This whodunit appears to be one continuous shot, but was actually shot in 20-minute segments. When Hitchcock needed to change a magazine in the cameras, he would pan across something black, say the back of a man's jacket, and use that second of darkness to make his editing cuts. A clever idea, but the gimmick is often more interesting than the film.
BOOGIE NIGHTS (1997): Sure, the long tracking shot that weaves through the bucolic pool-side paradise is a direct lift from the little seen I Am Cuba , but it's a lovely piece of work that does much of the scene-setting heavy lifting in a few short minutes.
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