The tracking shot is the gateway drug for film nerds. It’s one of the first camera techniques that any viewer can recognize on film. Dictionary.com defines it succinctly as “a camera shot in which the cameraman follows a specific person or event in the action.” Here are ten great examples.
Electra Glide in Blue (1973)
It’s impossible to include this clip without including a spoiler. Electra Glide in Blue is the perfect example of a flawed film that possesses moments of brilliance- exactly the kind of film that you can learn a lot from. This scene blew me away. I like to pretend that there’s still a camera on a dolly somewhere in Arizona that’s been pulling back for the last 40 years.
I Am Cuba (1964)
This really is breath-taking, swooping in and out of the crowded streets into an aerial of a crowded funeral mass. Amazing.
Godard’s traffic jam shot in Weekend is legendary. It takes major balls to fill up seven minutes of a film with nothing but a traffic jam set to the constant sound of honking horns, complete with French life going on in the periphery. Here it is with commentary.
Boogie Nights (1997)
If you were alive during the 1970s at all, and especially if you were alive during the 1990s revival of 70s nostalgia, then you understand how effectively PT Anderson’s Boogie Nights (1997) captures both eras. It’s peppered all over the film, especially in the tracking shot at the pool party. It says a lot for Anderson’s skill that this is one of two tracking shots from the film that easily could’ve been included.
The Shining (1980)
This tracking shot works on so many levels. The use of sound is tremendous and jarring. The whole thing builds suspense around several parts of the hotel. And it strikes an odd nostalgic chord if you ever owned been four and ridden a Big Wheel. Who knew that the rumble of a Big Wheel could be such an effective device?
Godard strikes twice on the list, this time with a stationary shot of a cameraman recording a tracking shot, which might just be the most French New Wave thing ever put to celluloid.
The opening shot of the film was shot the way 3D is meant to be used, with clockwork dissolving into an aerial of the Paris streets, eventually arriving at the train station that Hugo calls home. Given Scorsese’s love of a constantly-moving camera, it’s no surprise that he’d be on here twice.
Shaun of the Dead (2004)
There’s a brilliant tracking shot early in the film that cuts a swath across Shaun’s neighborhood as he wakes up, hungover, to make his daily trip to the convenience store. Like other great tracking shots on this list, it’s effective because it conveys so much while showing so little. In one short span of time, we come to learn that the zombie outbreak has happened, and Shaun- sleepwalking through life- barely even notices, even as he walks by multiple zombies. And it strikes the humor chord so well, in typical Edgar Wright fashion.
Full Metal Jacket (1987)
It’s not as long as its peers on this list, but it mimics Godard’s work from Contempt and twists it into something uniquely American. It’s just another flourish illustrating Kubrick’s prowess as a filmmaker. Also, Surfin’ Bird.
This list is incomplete without it. The economy of the story in this tiny three minute clip is filmmaking at its finest.