The tracking shot defined

In a nutshell

  • A tracking shot is a smooth camera movement that follows the subject along a planned path.
  • Tracking shots are performed using continuous camera movement that maintains a constant distance from the subject, often without cuts.
  • They are often used to explore settings, follow characters or create dynamic sequences in films.

A well-captured tracking shot will seem effortless in a finished film. However, as many filmmakers know, tracking shots are quite difficult to pull off. Despite their difficulty, they can make a static scene much more dynamic.

Let us take a look at the tracking shot, define what it is and examine how filmmakers have used it in their work.

What is a tracking shot?

A tracking shot involves moving the camera smoothly alongside or around the subject, maintaining a constant distance and direction. This technique can involve the camera following the subject from behind, moving ahead of it or even moving alongside.

Characteristics of tracking shots

  • Continuous movement: The camera follows the subject in a continuous path without much, if any, cuts for an extended period of time.
  • Dynamic composition: They allow filmmakers to explore settings, follow characters and create dynamic sequences.
  • Engagement and immersion: By moving with the subject, viewers are able to get a greater feel of the environment around the character. This makes viewers feel like they are part of the action.

When to use tracking shots

There are many ways that filmmakers can use tracking shorts to help tell their stories. Firstly, tracking shots can be a great way to seamlessly transition between settings. Films keep their audiences locked in on the emotions they’re conveying by opting for a fluid transition from scene to scene rather than cutting between scenes. When shooting “1917” (2019), director Sam Mendes consistently used tracking shots to give the illusion that the film was done in one take. With the use of clever camera work, CGI and the tracking shot, Mendes makes viewers believe the entire film is one continuous take. Mendes uses the tracking shot to transition throughout the film, following the protagonists as they navigate their way through a battleground during World War I.

These shots also serve as a tool for conveying important narrative elements such as relationships, power dynamics and environmental changes without relying on dialogue. Tracking shots closely follow characters, showing their actions and how they operate in their environment — which helps build a deeper connection between the audience and the characters. Perhaps one of the most famous tracking shots is the “Copacabana shot” from Goodfellas. Here, the camera follows Henry and Karen Hill through the back entrance of the Copacabana nightclub. It offers a continuous look at their path through the kitchen to their table in the main dining area and shows audiences how both characters interact with the environment and the people around them.

Additionally, tracking shots can create suspense and tension; the prolonged and continuous nature of these shots heightens anticipation and draws viewers deeper into the scene. This tracking shot from The Shining is a great example of this. Director Stanley Kubrick uses tracking shots to follow Danny as he rides his tricycle through the eerie halls of the Overlook Hotel. The visual and audio components of this scene heighten suspense, creating a feeling of isolation within the vast, empty corridors.

Finally, tracking shots allow filmmakers to showcase their technical prowess and artistic vision, offering creative camera movements and innovative perspectives that contribute to the film’s aesthetic.

What’s needed to perform a tracking shot?

Plan

Lots of planning goes into performing a clean tracking shot. The process begins with planning and storyboarding. During storyboarding, filmmakers conceptualize the scene, determine the purpose of the tracking shot and storyboard the camera’s path, actors’ movements and key moments.

During rehearsals, it’s important to make sure actors and actresses are aware, and practice, their movements in relation to the camera. This is also important for the camera operates to practice their path along with the actor.

Equipment

Depending on your specific shot, you may want or need some additional gear for smoothness and stabilization purposes. Other than the obvious filmmaking equipment (cameras, lights, etc.), you may find one of these necessary to perform your tracking shot.

  • Dollies, which are platforms on wheels that carry the camera along a track, allow for smooth, straight movements.
  • Steadicams are stabilizing systems worn by the camera operator, providing smooth footage while allowing for more freedom of movement.
  • Gimbals, which are handheld stabilizers, keep the camera steady and allow for flexible and fluid motion.
  • Drones are used for aerial tracking shots, offering smooth movement from high perspectives.

A skilled cinematographer

Executing the shot requires coordination between the camera operator, focus puller and actors to ensure smooth movement. The camera movements should be as fluid as possible while keeping the subject in focus. It only takes one thing (or person) to ruin your otherwise perfect shot. If your tracking shot takes up 60 seconds to film, it’s very possible that someone may miss their cue at second 58, meaning you have to start over. As frustrating as it is, this is a common side effect of performing stunning tracking shots. However, in post-production, minor adjustments and stabilization can be made to improve the shot’s smoothness or remove mistakes. Though, if possible, these mistakes should be fixed on set.

Different types of tracking shots

Tracking shots come in various forms, all serving different narrative purposes. Here are some of the most common ones in cinema:

Classic tracking shot

Tracking shot

Classic tracking shots involve moving the camera smoothly alongside, behind or ahead of the subject, maintaining a constant distance. These shots can be executed using various kinds of equipment (like the ones mentioned above). This type of tracking shot are quite versatile. They allow you to explore settings dynamically, follow characters through complex environments and maintain an immersive experience for the audience.

Dolly shot

Dolly shots involve mounting the camera on a wheeled platform that moves along a track, resulting smooth, linear movement. This type of shot is often used to follow characters or reveal scenes in a controlled manner. Dolly shots are ideal for scenes that require precise, fluid motion and are typically used when the director wants to maintain a high level of control over the camera’s path. Dolly tracks come in many shapes and configurations, such as twisty and circular patterns.

Handheld tracking shot

Handheld tracking shots are characterized by the camera being held and moved by the operator while they follow the subject without the help of stabilization equipment. This technique provides an intimate and immediate feel and are often used in action scenes or to create a sense of urgency. Handheld tracking shots introduce slight camera shake and more spontaneous movement compared to the controlled motion of dolly or original tracking shots. This approach is particularly effective in conveying the raw energy of a scene.

Drone/crane tracking shots

Drone and crane tracking shots involve mounting the camera on a drone or crane. These shots capture sweeping, aerial views or follow subjects from above. They can also establish settings or provide a grand perspective. Unlike ground-level tracking shots, drone and crane shots offer vertical and expansive horizontal movement. This type of shot is effective in showcasing large environments, complex scenes or dramatic landscapes.

Using the tracking shot

Tracking shots are a powerful tool in filmmaking. By understanding what tracking shots are, why they are used and how to identify them, you can appreciate the artistry and technical skill involved in creating these compelling cinematic moments. So, next time you watch a film, keep an eye out for tracking shots. Some will be stylistically apparent, and others will be more subtle. You can take note of how they’re done and find out how you can pull off a similar effect in your own work.

Kyle Alsberry
Kyle Alsberry
Kyle Alsberry is a multimedia producer and audiovisual technician at California State University, Chico and is Videomaker's associate editor.

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