The long tracking shot is a staple of great filmmakers everywhere, used as both an effective storytelling method and a blatant showcase for a director’s technical prowess. Creating a scene with one extended and unbroken take isn’t where the genius lies – anyone with a camera and spare time can organize a two to three minute piece – it’s the ability to combine elaborate camerawork with worthwhile plot development that matters. It’s one thing to linger on a scene, another thing entirely to have it unfold on the audience like a magician revealing a missing card to collective astonishment. It’s the feeling as a viewer of being involved in the movie, watching it happen knowing you’re seeing it in real time, no cuts or jumps, no pauses for effect. The very best use it as a way to drag the viewer further down the rabbit hole, whether in the story itself or into the director’s own style. Here are some of the very finest.
Martin Scorsese is a master of long tracking shots and owns perhaps the most iconic of all time – the Copacabana scene from Goodfellas. No list of perfectly executed tracking shots could even begin to materialize without first mentioning this one. It’s a masterclass in storytelling – as Ray Liotta’s Henry introduces his date Karen to the world he lives in, Scorsese does the same to his audience. This is the gateway to the extravagant lifestyle Henry lives, a casual walk through a back entryway, through hallways, the kitchen and finally the dining room of the club, before a table carried by a waiter is placed directly in front of the stage for them to sit at. In just over three minutes Scorsese brilliantly illustrates how easily addictive this life is, placing viewers in the exact same position as Lorraine Bracco’s Karen throughout.
This is still a scene referenced by filmmakers and fans alike. Scorsese’s memorable tracking shots from Mean Streets and Casino are just as well made, but neither can match this for its impact and class, or the fact it comes from arguably the greatest movie of all time. So much of the film hinges on the audience being able to accept Karen’s willingness to succumb to Henry’s world, and with just this one scene it all becomes entirely understandable. Enticing, exciting, ingeniously conceived and perfectly paced, it does more in three minutes than most films do in two hours. One of the most influential pieces of cinema ever released.
2. CHILDREN OF MEN
Alfonso Cuarón is a massive fan of the extended tracking shot and while each of his films contains one worthy of this list, Children Of Men is his crowning achievement. His dystopian thriller is a technical marvel, an astonishingly crafted film with two clear showstoppers – a mad scramble through a war ravaged city and an attack on a car filmed from inside the vehicle itself – both unbroken shots created in a mindblowing flurry of choreography and precision. The former comes near the end of the film and is almost traumatizingly effective, but the car attack scene is a feat of technical prowess bordering on the impossible.
The scene starts casually, the camera sitting in the middle of the car, turning slowly amongst its occupants. It’s a disarmingly casual moment interrupted by a torched car rolling slowly into their path. The camera turns with the characters to the road in front of them, spotting the burning vehicle before slowly swivelling to Chiwetel Ejiofor’s driver and the scene unfolding outside his window. Shots are fired, blood is spilled, and somehow the camera leaves the car to circle Clive Owen’s panicked main character Theo. Cuarón has since revealed that the scene wasn’t actually one unbroken shot – instead separate cuts seamlessly woven together to give the impression. It’s an unbelievable achievement either way. His next film Gravity employed the technique as much as possible, spending much of the film in one continuous motion, but this one visually stunning scene remains his peak.
3. BOOGIE NIGHTS
The opening scene of Boogie Nights is a clear descendent of the Copacabana entry from Goodfellas, something that goes without saying given its director’s reverence for Martin Scorsese. Paul Thomas Anderson has always acknowledged the influence Scorsese has had over his career, and with this scene he offers a sly nod to both that iconic scene and the film itself. It begins on the title of the movie, spelled out in bright lights above the entryway to a club. The camera is fluid throughout, veering on its side as it slides up the name of the club in bold letters on the side of the building before dropping down to a car below it. It’s the Copacabana scene made over in a neon blur, exciting yet never rushed, a whirl of images flowing past.
Anderson manages to introduce all of the main characters while clearly outlining the class disparity between each one – first and foremost Burt Reynolds and Julieanne Moore being welcomed in past the line at the door by Luis Guzmán’s club owner, John C. Reilly and Don Cheadle as the gloriously named Reed Rothchild and Buck Swope respectively, Heather Graham’s Rollergirl and finally Mark Wahlberg’s future Dirk Diggler waiting tables in the middle of it all. Scorsese’s fingerprints are all over the scene, but Anderson takes us one step further, putting us inside the movie. Where Goodfellas wows you from the outside in, Anderson instead invites you to the party, puts you on the dancefloor, makes you a part of the scene. It was the first moment of true genius from a director who would give us so many more.
Atonement is split in two halves – the first a scandalous period piece detailing the events leading up to a life destroying lie; the second the dark heartache and regret of its aftermath set during World War II. There is less greatness and lasting influence here than in other entries on the list, a merely decent film split by one phenomenal piece of filmmaking in the form of this tracking shot over a decimated beach front. It’s a devastating scene not only in its place in the story, but also in its stark quality in comparison to the rest of the movie. Joe Wright’s work here is beautiful throughout, but this one scene somehow makes a good movie closer to great. It’s haunting, heartbreaking and expertly constructed.
With everything happening in the scene its remarkable how Wright doesn’t ever appear to overplay his hand. There’s a melancholy to it all, the camera drifting amongst the mess and dishevelled soldiers. Key to the shot is the performance from James McAvoy, the centrepiece of it all. The sheer anguish of the situation is written all over his face, and Wright brilliantly shifts his frame from the enormity of the wreckage on the beach to McAvoy’s traumatized expression time and again. Much of the reaction after the film was released focussed on this one scene for good reason. It’s an example of an amazing filmmaker working on material that doesn’t quite match his talents. The story is good, the director is better.
The opening scene of the 1978 classic Halloween doesn’t offer the technical wizardry that others on the list possess, but is no less impactful. John Carpenter’s breakthrough hit is one of the most influential horror films of all time, a terrifying slasher flick packed with iconic moments and images, most of which are clearly defined as early in the movie as this scene. It begins with credits over a hollowed out pumpkin, a staple of Halloween night in the US, before a long tracking shot shown from the perspective of the killer himself. Almost everything the franchise became famous for is in this one scene – the instantly memorable soundtrack, the tension filled stalking and voyeuristic camera viewpoint – it is all hilariously simple yet mind-boggingly effective. Carpenter immediately puts the audience behind the eyes of evil, right up to the camera looking through the eyeholes of his mask as he stabs his first victim to death. It’s Jaws on land, with the young Michael Myers swapping places with everyone’s favourite shark.
He also sets the template for slasher films from then on, laying down the unspoken rules and guidelines that Scream famously mocked years later. A teenage girl in various states of undress, murdered immediately after sex. It’s a format used in hundreds of similar films from then on, the promiscuous and drug taking teens all served on a platter to a demented madman with the innocent, clean living lead left to survive as “the final girl”. Carpenter managed to introduce the world to an iconic character, establish the recognizable film theme music, and redefine the way horror films were created, all in one incredible scene.
6. THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU
Wes Anderson’s long tracking shots avoid the wandering choreography of others on the list. His movies have always felt like intricate dioramas for the audience to peer into, quietly taking in all the painstaking detailing he’s known for. With The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou the director had a full sized ship built and split in half for shots just like this one, the camera not so much moving through as it is delicately drifting past each room of the ship and its inhabitants. The artistry here isn’t in camera angles or sweeping movements, it’s in the specifics – the minutia of each cabin and the shipmates’ activities. The set becomes another character, with this scene taking the audience deep inside its every nook and cranny.
As always, the world Anderson creates here is peppered with eccentricities, but is undeniably beautiful. The genius here isn’t in the timing or sequencing, it’s in the construction. The ship is made out like a doll’s house, a toy for the director to wave his camera over. It wanders along each room, pausing for the narration to catch up, eventually making its way over every part of the ship right down to dolphins swimming underneath. He’s a clearly divisive filmmaker, and this scene contains literally everything his detractors have always hated about him – the unbearable whimsy, the static acting, the heightened unreality of it all – which obviously makes it everything his obsessive fan base loves about him. It’s the director at his most elaborate, in all his distinctive glory. There’s no-one else quite like Wes Anderson.
7. THE SHINING
There is some argument over the inclusion of both the Wes Anderson pick and Stanley Kubrick’s iconic big wheel hallway scene from The Shining. Neither choice runs for as long as some of the other scenes on the list, but it’s impossible to deny their effectiveness, especially this iconic entry. With his parents busy in other areas of the otherwise empty hotel, young Danny rides through its hallways on his tricycle, eventually happening upon the two disturbingly creepy Grady twins. The final reveal is terrifying, and has been referenced and parodied in equal measure ever since, but it’s the tricycle ride to get there that makes it what it is. The scene is all slow burn build up, a minute long section of just Danny riding along before a brief stop at the infamous room 237.
The twin girls are what people remember, but the lead in is where Kubrick does his best work, slowly building the tension with every corner turned. There is no sound but the turning of the wheels, the camera lurking behind Danny’s tricycle seeing everything from his low viewpoint. It’s hypnotic viewing, the big wheel rolling along black, orange and burgundy patterned carpets, the blank hallway walls right up until the flowered wallpaper where he sees the twins. It’s spine tingling viewing even without the twins. The Shining isn’t the best film of Kubrick’s legendary career, but is dripping with memory searing imagery and moments, this scene being one of the very best.