The cinematic equivalent of a run-on sentence, lengthy tracking shots allow a film to pack a whole lot of detail into one continuous, meticulously planned, uninterrupted sequence. This is a look at our picks for ten of the greatest 1+ minute tracking shots in film.
A feature film typically has a runtime somewhere between one and three hours. While this may seem like a long amount of time with which to use to tell a story, it can actually place constraints on how detailed the story can be. As a result, film makers tend to edit out seemingly superfluous details. Most of the time they don’t want the camera to linger too long on an unimportant subject, or activity. Audiences don’t need to see every minute movement or scenery detail in order to understand a concept or a theme.
But sometimes you need a long, extended shot showing all of these seemingly unnecessary details. Sometimes the most mundane is actually interesting based on the perspective the film is offering, and for these cases, an extended shot can be helpful. Extended shots bring a certain feel and drive to a film. They help to establish a character by allowing the audience a better picture of their mannerisms and personality. They can bring an audience into a setting or environment by showing them details which they may not have otherwise picked up on. Most of all, tracking shots are memorable, and it is no coincidence that some of the most famous shots in history are extended tracking shots.
The extended shot has been utilized by filmmakers for more than 100 years. What started as simply a camera on a dolly to move left or right has evolved into an attempt to create a complicated sequence that seems like it is made entirely out of one continuous shot. With use of mechanized lifts, drones, and CGI, the opportunity to create spellbinding extended tracking shots has never been better.
In this article, I select the ten greatest extended racking shots of all time. To be eligible, the shot has to be continuous (or else more than one shot edited to look like the sequence is entirely one shot), and the sequence has to last longer than 1 minute. The camera has to physically move, not use CGI or other special effects to make it look like the camera or perspective has changed. I am only considering one tracking shot per director, and preference leans towards new, original ideas rather than those which are homage to things which have come before (there are quite a few of those). Let’s get started!
#10 – Snake Eyes (1998)
Length of Shot: 12:30
Director/DP: Brian De Palma/Stephen H. Burum
What Makes it So Great: This is one of those long shots which isn’t actually a long shot, but several shorter ones creatively stitched together. Nonetheless, the impact is significant. As the opening shot of the film, it is an expositional tour-de-force. Not only does it nail down the setting and the stakes of the plot, it does a tremendous job of introducing the main character. But this sequence is not on this list simply because it benefits the film’s storyline. This is also a very technically challenging shot. The perspective of the camera changes at least three times without cutting. In a sense it almost breaks down the fourth wall. As a result, it is a very interesting and adventurous opening shot for a film. There were many other worthy shots I considered for this #10 slot, but I went with this one because of the complex camera work and clever disguise of cuts.
#9 – The Shining (1980)
Length of Shot: 1:08
Director/DP: Stanley Kubrick/John Alcott
What Makes it So Great: While this shot is on the shorter side compared to the others on this list, it is by no means the most forgettable. In fact, it may just be one of the most memorable shots in all of cinema. As the camera follows behind Danny Lloyd while he rides his trike through the empty halls of the Overlook Hotel, cinematic horror bliss is achieved. It’s an alliance of sound and vision which sends chills down your spine. A shot of a child playing with his toy shouldn’t be frightening, but the evacuated atmosphere makes it haunting. The sound of the plastic wheels on the carpet, transitioned to the wood floors is grating, yet hypnotic. You can’t look away, even if you want to. And we’ll never forget the pattern of that carpet…
#8 – Boogie Nights (1997)
Length of Shot: Just under 3 minutes
Director/DP: Paul Thomas Anderson/Robert Elswit
What Makes it So Great: This is one of many great tracking shots in Paul Thomas Anderson’s films, and I chose this one over some of his others to appear in this best-of list because it is a perfect representation of how the acclaimed director gets the most out of this type of shot. While his other shots may be more technically challenging, this one is the most memorable. For starters, it opens the film – a trend you will see in a few of these other shots. By opening with a long tracking shot, Anderson draws the audience into his environment. Anderson also uses this shot to show us many of the main characters. We don’t know who they are yet, and so just seeing how they fit together and interact in this space is important to understand their relationships. Finally, the hectic activity, contrast of bright and dark, and the music all set the thematic tone for the rest of the film. Anderson may have borrowed many ideas from some of the other shots on this list that came before, but he does make it his own.
# 7 – Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014)
Length of Shot: At least 2:35
Director/DP: Alejandro Inarritu/Emmanuel Lubezki
What Makes it So Great: Birdman is the first film on this list which is edited to seem like it is made of mostly continuous shots. While it may not go to extremes as much as #6 on this list, it is still a significant cinematic achievement because of the way it is constructed. But if it were merely a film of long continuous shots, just for the sake of making long continuous shots, it wouldn’t be on this list, and it wouldn’t have won the Oscar for Best Picture. This film’s long shots are consistent with the subject matter – an actor making a play. A play is in essence a series of long continuous shots. But filming a play is boring. This film echoes the format of its subject matter, but does so in a way that is interesting, and fresh. The most eye-opening moment is this climactic continuous shot, which is both unexpected and fitting for the subject matter and as a defining moment for the film’s main character. It is a moment that transforms from “oh crap!” to “oh wow!”. It is drama in both a realistic and surreal manner.
# 6 – 1917 (2019)
Length of Continuous Sequence: The entire film, just under 2 hrs (although the actors have said the actual longest shot was only about 8 minutes long, the whole film was pieced together to appear seamless)
Director/DP: Sam Mendes /Roger Deakins
What Makes it So Great: There have been entire films before this one which have been created to look like a continuous shot (see Birdman on this list, or Russian Ark). There have also been films with incredible historical war-time tracking shots (Paths of Glory, Atonement, Saving Private Ryan). But I would say that all of those films didn’t push the limits as far as 1917. This was a film based on a single idea, a continuous harrowing experience for the audience. Not only does it accomplish that goal, it does so in spellbinding beauty which captured the audience’s attention in a way its influences never could imagine. So although this entry onto my list breaks my code of originality, the sheer scale makes it perhaps the most impressive accomplishment here.
# 5 – The Player (1994)
Length of Shot: 8:05
Director/DP: Robert Altman/Jean Lepine
What Makes it So Great: This is really a ground-breaking shot. Like #2 on this list it is utilized as the opening shot of a film to introduce the audience to the narrative and the tone of the film. But it is also more than just a first glimpse into this interesting story. This shot serves as an exposition – it introduces a number of the main characters while also exploring the setting of a majority of the film. But it doesn’t just set things up for later. It is also a fascinating exploration into the Hollywood movie machine as well. Yes, it is a fictionalized and embellished look at a business that has a long list of critics, but it nonetheless shows us a more realistic picture of the entertainment industry than we typically see in film. This is Robert Altman’s ode to Hollywood, showing off both the good and the bad. The good – the creativity, drive, and careful planning required to pull off such a shot. The bad – how Hollywood is as much a place for dreams to die as it is for them to become reality…
# 4 – Gravity (2013)
Length of Shot: 17+ minutes
Director/DP: Alfonso Cuaron /Emmanuel Lubezki
What Makes it So Great: Gravity is a stunning tour-de-force of filmmaking prowess, and this opening sequence sets the tone for an auxilarating, and beautiful film watching experience. The absence of what the film is named after gives Cauron an opportunity to move his camera without restriction. A combination of quality CGI and complicated hoists achieves an introduction to a film unlike any other. Cauron’s idea with the shot was to slowly ease the audience into the characters and the setting. Furthermore, a lack of cuts helps to make you forget you are watching a movie. Realism was the goal, and this shot clearly achieves it despite not being real at all. Cauron has a history of long, famous tracking shots (see Children of Men). I felt this one was the pinnacle of what he achieved so far.
# 3 – Hard Boiled (1992)
Length of Shot: 2:44
Director/DP: John Woo/Wing-Hang Wong
What Makes it So Great: Action scenes which are created to look like one continuous shot are commonplace these days (see the sideways shot in Oldboy, or the army of Smiths shot in The Matrix Reloaded). The extended tracking shot is the perfect method with which to capture hectic on-screen activity. Quick cuts can be distracting, and make the audience feel dizzy. Long cuts make action choreography (and stunts, and special effects) that much more impressive because there is no room for error. It brings a realism into one of the most fantastical parts of cinema. But this scene from Hard Boiled happened before modern technology (CGI) made it easy to pull off that sort of an action scene. It was before long action scenes were the norm. It basically invented them. This is the grandfather of modern action scenes in the movie which was nearly a decade ahead of its time.
# 2 – Touch of Evil (1958)
Length of Shot: 3:20
Director/DP: Orson Welles/Russel Metty
What Makes it So Great: Orson Welles was an innovator of cinema in more ways than one. From the types of stories he told, to the way he told them, and the manner in which he told them – he approached things in a new and exciting way. With all that he has been able to do, I would still say that this shot from Touch of Evil may be one of his greatest achievements. He took the inventive camera work which we saw in some of his earlier films, and found the perfect application for it. This is an introduction to a dark subject, a bomb being placed in a car and its victims being blissfully unaware.
The genius is how Welles manipulates the audience with this very frightening imagery, immediately in the opening seconds of his film. Imagine audiences settling down into their seats in the theater for a couple of hours of escapist entertainment, and you’re faced with the proposition of knowing death is on its way. The shot unfolds like a runaway freight train, every second ticks by more frightening than the last. It was a hell of an opening, one we have not forgotten about all of these years later.
(For more tremendous opening shots in film, check out: The 10 Best Opening Shots in Film)
# 1 – Goodfellas (1990)
Length of Shot: 3:03
Director/DP: Martin Scorsese/Michael Ballhaus
What Makes it So Great: Goodfellas is an excellent view into a life of crime. Specifically, Scorsese contrasts how the people in the mob are both different, and the same as the rest of us. As they live their lives of crime, they also have personal lives outside of their work. That includes families and all of the good and bad that comes from domestic life. In this scene, Scorsese explores the wonder of going out to a fancy dinner theater, but from the perspective of a well-connected mob member. It’s fascinating, turning an almost everyday occurrence on its head. The way Scorsese uses a lengthy tracking shot to reveal the extent people are willing to go out of their way to appease this criminal is fascinating.
I ranked this scene number one because it has taken the purpose and intention of those extended shots which came before, and gave them a new, and exciting purpose. It would go on to be a significant influence on others (including #8 and #10 on this list). It is the most memorable moment from the best film of one of the best filmmakers to have ever been born.