The Top 5 Greatest Tracking Shots (Long Takes) of All Time
The tracking shot. The long take. Whatever you decide to call it, no other cinematic device tests the prowess of a film director like a long scene uninterrupted by any cuts. Directors love the tracking shot because a beautiful long take proves more than anything that they know what they're doing: dialogue must be timed perfectly, camera operators must be on point, action choreography must hit their marks, and no mistakes can be made. The longer the shot, the harder it is to film. So, in my humble opinion, here are the five greatest tracking shots of all time:
5. Oldboy (2003)
Park Chan-wook's 2003 revenge thriller Oldboy has one of the most visceral examples of a long take, when Dae-su Oh makes his way through a crowded hallway of enemies armed with nothing but a claw hammer (the tracking shot begins at the 00:32 mark). The camera pulls out far and wide and sticks with one perspective, slowly trailing our protagonist through the hallway as he dispatches the goons thrown his way. Messy and balletic at the same time, the entire scene is a flailing of limbs and bodies with some fantastic fight choreography and laser-precise timing.
4. Hard Boiled (1992)
Hong Kong action director John Woo broke through to American audiences on the merits of his 1992 shoot 'em up Hard Boiled. His later films tailored for the Western demographic obviously have more polish, but no scene in Face/Off or Mission Impossible 2 can compare to this three-minute rampage through a multi-story hospital. Interesting fact: in the middle of filming this long take, while the camera follows Chow Yun-fat and Tony Leung Chiu-wai into the elevator to reload their arsenals, John Woo and his crew scrambled to clean up and refurbish the area outside the elevator doors to make it look like a completely different floor before the bullets started flying again.
3. Goodfellas (1990)
The greatest directors use the camera as a tool rather than a flourish, and thoughtful use of the lens helps tell the story and support the narrative of the script. No other scene on this list embodies this philosophy more than the Copacabana tracking shot from Martin Scorsese's seminal gangster film, Goodfellas. Karen Friedman (Lorraine Bracco), the audience surrogate, follows Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) as he introduces her to his lavish and confident lifestyle, and her amazement becomes our amazement as door after door is being opened, literally and figuratively.
2. Children of Men (2006)
Alfonso Cuarón's 2006 film Children of Men has a four-minute plus tracking shot that can only be described as: "in the action." The camera puts us right in the thick of a harrowing car chase as Theo (Clive Owen) and his compatriots are assaulted on the road while they attempt to smuggle Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey), the first pregnant woman on Earth in over 18 years, to safety. A complex dolly system and raft was built under the car to facilitate the movement of the camera within the confines of the cramped car, and as the camera pans from character to character, the audience shares their abject terror to the chaos unfolding around them. It's a gut-punch of a scene, and a technical marvel, especially if you take a look at the behind-the-scenes B-roll.
1. Pride and Prejudice (2005)
No explosions, no crowded hallway brawls, and no car chases in this one, but Joe Wright's 2005 adaptation of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice contains one of the most awe-inspiring tracking shots of all time. The scene begins with Elizabeth (Keira Knightley) as she enters the Netherfield ball, and how the camera operates and how all the actors and crew hit their marks afterwards is nothing short of a miracle. Perspectives shift, characters enter and leave the scene, then re-enter, all while delivering dialogue and movement cues without hesitation. While it is the least flashy scene on this list, the sheer magnitude of planning an uninterrupted three minute scene like this must have been staggering.