tracking shot

What is a Tracking Shot? [Definition & Examples]

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Have you ever seen a shot in a film that carried you through a scene without even realizing it? Most likely it was a tracking shot.

This versatile tool has the power to transport a viewer directly into the action. It’s considered one of the most essential building blocks in film.

In this article, we’re going to discuss what tracking shots are, why they’re used, where you’ve seen them, and how to use them for your next project.

So without further ado, let’s explore this effective technique.

What is a Tracking Shot?

First off, a tracking shot is a broad term and can include many things. Simply put, it’s when the camera physically moves through a scene following one or more subjects.

Overall, tracking shots set the pace of the film, establish a setting, introduce characters, evoke emotion, and reveal information.

You’ve probably seen many opening or closing scenes use what’s known as a single-take or long shot. These shots run for an extended period of time, almost like a mini story unfolding within a film. Important to note, that a long-shot or single-take shot is a type of tracking shot.

In fact, many people think a tracking shot includes following a subject from a static position using a tilt, pan, or zoom. This is false. A tracking shot can include those things, but the camera is always mobile.

Tracking Shot History

Historically, cinema cameras used to be very heavy. Therefore, the only way to achieve a smooth movement was by putting the camera and operator on a dolly with tracks. This is known as a dolly shot, which is a type of tracking shot. We’ll explain more about the different types of tracking shots later in the article.

Over time, tracking shots have evolved into various forms. As a matter of fact, the first steadicam was invented on the set of Bound for Glory (1976). This was all thanks to a camera operator named Garret Brown. He was the first to film smoothly while walking. Later on, his test shots from running up the steps of the Art Museum in Philadelphia landed him a job on the low-budget boxing movie Rocky (1976).

You can see his story and how his invention changed how we see cinema below.

Why Use the Tracking Shot?

In a nutshell, tracking shots are one of the most effective ways to immerse viewers into a film. They become part of the story, silently observing characters, embodied by the camera, anticipating what will happen next.

Below are a few different ways to use a tracking shot in a film.

  • Set the pace
  • Create a mood
  • Film’s opening
  • Heighten tension
  • Drive action
  • Reveal information
  • Simulate a natural experience
  • Connect audience to the characters
  • Establish character relationships
  • Film’s climax

Types of Tracking Shots

As mentioned, a tracking shot is a broad term. Below, you can see several ways to capture the art of camera movement.

  • Dolly Shot – ‘Dolly In & ‘Dolly Out’ or ‘Push In’ & ‘Pull Out’
  • Trucking Shot – Camera travels left or right with the subject
  • Long Shot – Extended one take 
  • Steadicam Shot – Stable handheld
  • Crane/Jib Shot – Vertical movement
  • Drone Shot – Aerial movement

Best Examples of Tracking Shots in Films

There’s no better way to explain this technique than with examples. Below, we have a variety of notable tracking shots from scenes that produce effective results.

The Wrestler (2014)

First off, this tracking shot example from The Wrestler (2014) is packed with metaphors, visually and audibly. In this continuous shot, Mickey Rourke gets ready for his new job as a meat slicer. Then, while walking downstairs to the kitchen, the journey brings him back to the good ‘Ol days of grand entrances as a wrestling star. Then, as he crosses through the vertical blinds, the building roar of a fantasy audience fades to his current reality without the spotlight.

Forrest Gump (1994)

In this classic example from Forrest Gump (1994), several tracking shots are used to great effect. First, we see a static start, where Forrest realizes the presence of danger. Then, tension builds as he slowly attempts to escape with an obvious handicap. Next, we see a tension building POV of the bullies on bicycles who are gaining ground. Lastly, there’s a hair raising trucking shot racing along Forrest as he defies all odds. This unforgettable scene is told with brilliant camera movement. 

1917 (2019)

This tracking shot example directed by Sam Mendes is one of a kind. Simply put, it’s hard to blink. The shaky tracking shot resembles wartime footage with a concert of well-constructed action. In this scene, you feel the agony of an impossible mission. In fact, the whole movie is one continuous shot.

Children of Men (2006)

One long take worth examining is from Children of Men (2006). First, this scene begins calm and collected but slowly evolves into chaos. The camera rotates from the center console of the car between four characters allowing the viewer to feel like a passenger in the car. The tracking camera movement is a breathtaking ride.

Enter the Void (2018)

Next, Enter the Void (2018) is full of tracking shots. Most of this movie is shown as a POV of the main character until he crosses to the other side. In this one take shot, he shares a deep conversation all the way from his apartment to the VOID.

Gravity (2013)

Lastly, we have a great example of how a slow tracking shot can set the pace of a film. In the opening scene of Gravity (2013) the camera slowly floats from outer space into the area of action. This tracking camera movement provides sensations of weightlessness throughout the film.

How to Shoot a Tracking Shot

First off, don’t rush it. In fact, tracking shots can be complex with many moving parts. For this reason, preparation and planning is vital. Being detailed and as intentional as possible will reflect in your final results.

To achieve a great tracking shot, follow these simple guidelines. You’ll have a better idea of what factors you need to consider during pre-production.

1. Mood

First, know what your mood you’re trying to achieve. It’s helpful to examine some popular films as to how they accomplished the desired effect. Then, seek out unique ways to reveal information about the setting, characters, and motives. In addition, look for ways to generate the element of surprise.

2. Shot Duration

Next, the speed of the camera tracking movement evokes different emotions. For instance, a quick tracking shot can elevate the energy, while a slow motion creates intimacy or tension.

3. Eye Trace

Eye trace is a technique that refers to drawing a viewer’s eyes to a specific area in the frame. By doing so, you provide the viewer with a relaxed experience, gracefully carrying the eye from one action to the next. You want the viewer to know where to look. Avoid confusion wherever possible.

4. Framing & Composition

One of the beauties of a tracking shot is that you can include several different compositions all in one shot. First, you can start with a close-up of a key object and then transition from one character to another. Framing informs who or what has control in a scene. Framing a tracking shot is extremely dependent on two other key elements staging and blocking.

5. Staging & Blocking

An easy way to start planning your scene is to match your camera movement to the setting and character actions. Decisions are as simple as whether the camera is in front of or behind the subject. Remember, careful choreography is an art and can provide dramatic results.

6. Rehearsal

Next, know the space and establish clear communication with the crew and actors. For instance, mark the ground for the camera operator’s movement. Do the same for the actors, primary and secondary. Otherwise, if any element fails, it’ll all have to be repeated. 

7. Editing

In terms of editing, tracking shots can be a useful way to transition from one scene to another. For example, you could match the camera movement from the end of your shot to the opening of your next scene. This provides a smooth viewer experience. Keep this in mind before shooting, this step pays off in the end. Also, storyboarding gives you a clearer vision of the bigger picture.

8. Tracking Shot Equipment

Your choice of equipment is a crucial decision when planning out a tracking shot. Luckily with all the advancements in technology, there are many options for all scenarios and budgets.

  • 3-axis motorized gimbal
  • Steadicam
  • Slider
  • Tripod Dolly
  • Jib/Crane
  • Drone
  • Cable Cam
  • Tripod Dolly
  • Table Top Dolly
  • Onewheel + gimbal

If you are pressed for budget, there are several alternatives to getting a smooth tracking shot. For example, you could ride in a car, use a wheelchair, or even a skateboard. If you have a smooth surface, you can even try putting tennis balls on the feet of your tripod.

9. Lens Choice

Lastly, a tracking shot can vary based on the choice of lens. A wider lens allows for a more open experience while minimizing the technical requirements such as focus. On the other hand, a telephoto lens compresses the space around the subject, making an already hectic scene even more intense.

Wrapping Up

To sum up, tracking shots are an amazing technique for any filmmaker’s tool kit. They can shape the experience of your story and fill every frame with meaning and suspense.

It can make any story more compelling. However you do it, you’ll be able to elevate your film by creating a stronger emotional connection with the audience.

Now you have a clear understanding, dig deep and discover unique ways to execute memorable tracking shots.

Marcus VanWormer
Marcus VanWormer
Marcus is a freelance director, cinematographer, and video editor based in Brooklyn. He has a diverse background in film production working with companies like ABC, CBS, Jeep, Harley Davidson, and Levi's. His passion is storytelling. Follow him on Linkedin.
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