I first saw Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas when I was twelve years old. It was one of the first truly “adult” movies that I ever saw, and the matter of whether I should have watched Goodfellas at that age is open to debate. But, for better or for worse, it happened, and it was one of the early pebbles that set off the avalanche of my obsession with film. One scene in particular stayed with me after the film was over, and, curiously enough, it wasn’t one of the many scenes of harsh violence or unsettling drug abuse. Instead, it was a sleek little scene from early in the film’s runtime, a sequence where up-and-coming gangster Henry takes his wife-to-be to the Copacabana Nightclub. It’s a magically graceful scene, one that thoroughly absorbed young me. It takes three minutes for the pair to go from the entrance to the club, through the service entrance and the kitchen, to their table. The first time I saw it, I didn’t stir for the entire scene. I don’t know if I even breathed.
It wasn’t until my third time watching the film, my third go through the Copacabana scene, that it suddenly dawned on me: was this entire scene one single, continuous shot? I couldn’t hit the rewind button fast enough. And sure enough, there it was, all three glorious minutes of it in a single, cut-less block of film. Now, was this the only thing that made it an outstanding scene? Of course not. The choice of accompanying music is exquisitely chosen and timed to the action, Ray Liotta and Lorraine Bracco are magnetic, both individually and as a duo, and a hundred other details are expertly arranged. But there’s something about the uninterrupted way in which the camera moves through the space and the action that just made it come alive.
Little did I, in my prepubescent naiveté, realize that I had just stumbled into one of the most revered and admired techniques in filmmaking. Every part of the filmmaking toolkit has been used to great effect and dazzling impact in a variety of circumstances, but few things have been known to elicit the proverbial cinematic boner in film-lovers around the world the way the long, uninterrupted tracking shot does. How many times have we sat up in our chairs upon realizing that a shot has gone on for longer than 30 seconds and wondered, our hearts already starting to race, how long before a cut comes up? Who among us didn’t feel their jaws dropping further and further as that first, unbelievable shot in Gravity just kept going and going and going? What is it about this piece of the filmmaking arsenal that has made it so admired, venerated, and even fetishized? Why do we love the long tracking shot so much?
Before we dive into any grandiose theories, let’s take a moment to talk about what exactly the properties of the long tracking shot are. The standard issue, straight-out-of-the-authoritative-film-textbook idea is that prolonged shots are a source of tension. That’s partly because over a century of filmmaking we’ve been conditioned to expect certain things, and the presence of cuts at steady, regular intervals is one of them. Put in other words, when we’re watching a film we just know that there’s a cut in our future. Usually there’s only a few seconds between each successive jump, so we’re not really thinking about this. But when the amount of time between each cut gets ticked up, there’s definitely a part of us that feels that as a source of pressure. It may not happen at a conscious level, but when we go for an abnormally long period of time without a cut, our brains become aware that we’re absorbing the film in a way that’s not the norm. And that sense, whether it’s intellectualized or just viscerally felt, produces a sense of tension.
Now, questions like, “Well what is considered an abnormally long time without a cut?” have ill-defined answers at best, and usually come down to film-by-film relativity. For example, in the days of Alfred Hitchcock, cutting speeds were much more leisurely than they are today and oners (scenes that are carried out in a single shot, and many of the examples we’ll be discussing here count) were a relatively common presence in films, so a shot would have to be particularly long to create that sense of denied expectations. By contrast, in a film by Baz Luhrman or Michael Bay, a thirty-second shot may seem like a complete disruption of the film’s rhythm. Likewise, each individual shot will have certain factors that either emphasize or diminish our awareness of the growing expanse between cuts. A static, medium close-up of a man staring directly into the camera will have you begging for the next cut in just a few seconds, while a shot that features a lot of reframings, character entrances and exits, varied backgrounds, and shifts in perspectives may be able to go on for a few minutes before you get that, “Waaaait, how long has this shot been” moment. Steven Spielberg is particularly noted for his ability to have respectably lengthy oners that don’t trigger that feeling of tension, so there’s more to this than just chronometry.
And similarly, these shots don’t just inspire tension because they withhold the visual of the cut. It’s just as important to note that they deny us the abstraction we usually get from editing. Moment by moment, films omit a lot of information, jumping from one relevant piece to the next, skipping over unimportant moments, and in general presenting an almost bullet point view of events that carefully guides our attention and our reactions. A steady stream of cuts offers a malleability of space and time to a film, and that’s precisely what’s lessened when we go into a long shot. Once we go into a shot that we’re not going to leave for a few minutes, there’s definitely a sense that we’re… trapped may have too negative a connotation, so let’s say rooted in the specific place and time we’re seeing. This is what makes these shots so rewarding for makers of thrillers and suspense films. When Gravity’s opening shot puts us through seventeen minutes of increasingly disastrous space walk, we’re in that situation for the duration. When Orson Welles opens Touch of Evil with a shot that takes us from a bomb being armed to its detonation, we live the countdown in real time.
And, of course, there’s more to these kinds of shots than just generating tension (that’s just something that they’re reallygood at). They can instill a sense of grace, etherealness, or detachment, the way the beach scene from Joe Wright’s Atonement does. They can visually illustrate a sense of cohesion or unity between characters or events, like this shot from the climatic fight scene in Joss Whedon’s The Avengers. They can clue the audience into the way that a character is feeling, or something they’re planning, by creating a visual progression in the way we watch them interact with a given situation, the way we do in the famous “holding the key” shot from Hitchcock’s Notorious. They’re exceptional at introducing spaces and geographical relationships between various elements, the introductory shot for the main settings in David Fincher’s Panic Room being a great examples.
Closely related to that last point, the long tracking shot often makes us feel like we have been physically dropped into the place itself, like we have a an actual presence within the space. Again, most of the time we’re watching things from the abstracted, somewhat impressionistic method of regular cuts and don’t feel like we have a singular entry point into the world but when we have a single, fixed point of perspective, we are more aware of our own presence. And just to be clear, that’s not necessarily a bad thing! It might mean that we’re aware that we’re watching a film rather than being one hundred percent absorbed in the story, but this might work in the film’s favor. Part of why that Copacabana scene from Goodfellas feels so seductive, or why Children of Men’s final shootout feels so visceral, is that we don’t just see the characters going through something, we actually get walked through it with them. Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark, which takes all of these concepts to an extreme by presenting the entire film in a single, titanic take, buys so wholeheartedly into this idea of audience placement inside the film that it actually has the camera act as a character, one that the other people in the film acknowledge and interact with.
So the long tracking shot is a powerful tool in the filmmaking arsenal, one that tends to default towards creating tension but can be successfully deployed in a variety of situations for a variety of richly nuanced effects, and which can be used to modulate the position from which the audience interfaces with whatever they’re watching. All of which is awesome and I kind of want to leave it at that but… there’s something about this technique that strikes us on a less logical level. Our affection for these kinds of shots goes beyond, “Wow, that was so the right way to express that emotion and/or psychological situation!” So… remember when I mentioned grandiose theories earlier? Yeah, here we go:
Why do we love long tracking shots so much? First of all: they look difficult. I mean, look at this thing. Holy shit, right? Even if you know nothing about the challenges of steadicam operation or equipment rigging, or if you haven’t the faintest clue of what it takes to organize that many extras and haven’t even begun to ponder what a nightmare lighting an environment that massive and varied would be, on a gut level this looks hard. There’s an element of obvious choreography, calculation, and coordination that goes into making something like that come together. The fact that a ton of, not only skill, but also effort and dedication went into making a shot like that possible is very much on its surface, and there’s a degree of pleasure to be had by just being aware of that.
Secondly, long tracking shots also emphasize the achievement in choreography in terms of what is happening on the screen. Think about the famous hallway fight from Chan-wook Park’s Oldboy. The fight is extremely impressive in and of itself, but the way in which it is shot and presented further emphasizes this. There are no cuts in which to hide impacts, no camera reversals to accentuate movements, no dynamic montage to create an illusion of speed. It’s all just played out in front of you, and made all the more effective because the film makes it harder to find the seams in the stunning choreography. It really feels like an actual, brutal fight took place in front of us, and the long, uninterrupted take that contains it just feels like the skilled magician inviting you take a look at his stage, knowing you won’t find the secret to his tricks.
And finally, perhaps most importantly… there’s just something to the fact that these kinds of shots are noticeable. They are loud and they do call attention to themselves, something that has, admittedly, gotten them their fair share of criticism. And it’s true, they may be show-offy, or grandiose, the fact that they’re so blunt in their presence may ultimately be very distracting from pure engagement with characters and story. But go back to the start of this article and my reaction to that scene from Goodfellas. Even as a young boy, largely illiterate when it came to film, there was something about that shot that spoke to me, and it was something that I was able to, at least partially, break down and understand very quickly. That’s not how most film works. It’s largely an invisible language, one that’s based on causing reactions without a clearly detectable chain of stimulus. Understanding the hows and whys of a film’s workings takes time, effort, and a specially trained eye. Except in certain rare cases that just announce themselves as an achievement. I think that on a primal level our enjoyment of these long shots is very similar to our enjoyment of their natural opposite, the montage. They’re moments that are particularly easy to sink our teeth into as appraisers, instances where a high level of artistry sits at a more visible level. I think that may be the real reason we are so infatuated with long tracking shots – not because executing them isn’t something that involves a high degree of complexity and minutiae, but because in an art form that is so full of nuance and particularity recognizing these moments as achievements feels like simplicity itself.