10 Tracking Shots As Visually Impressive As The One On ‘True Detective’

It’s nice to know that ten months from now, we won’t have to rack our brains trying to think of our favorite TV scene of the year, because unless Dan Harmon reads my all-corgi Community spec script, it’s going to be the final six-minute sequence of Sunday’s True Detective. Danger’s ode is a must-read, as is Cajun’s recap, and I’d like to add to the accolades being thrown at the scene, by pointing out others like it!

Tracking shots aren’t for everyone. Some people find them distracting or showy. Those people would be wrong. When used correctly, a tracking shot is exhilarating. Viewers aren’t given the relief of a cut or a chance to breathe; they have to stay with action, giving you a sense of what the characters are feeling. The reason the one on True Detective worked so well is because you didn’t realize it was happening. For many, it wasn’t until the second watch that you realized, holy sh*t, that’s six minutes, in one take.

All McConaughey, all the time. Here are 10 equally effective tracking shots from both TV shows and movies. Two notes: 1) Some of these long clips might have used a phantom cut, but you can’t tell, thanks to the MAGIC OF CINEMA (and editors), and 2) I didn’t include the Grand Central scene from Brian De Palma’s Carlito’s Way because it’s not online.

1. Goodfellas

It’s the Beatles of tracking shots, the Ulysses, the every meal made in Goodfellas. Set to the Crystals’ “Then He Kissed Me,” Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill leads Karen, and us, around the Copa, through a bathed-in-red hallway, the kitchen, and eventually, the dining room. Ever door is open for Hill, both literally and figuratively, but what I like best about this scene is how the camera constantly feels like it’s going to smash into Henry and Karen. There’s a wildness about the pauses and angles turned that’s thrilling to watch.

2. Children of Men

Immediately after finding a less soiled pair of pants, thanks to True Detective, I watched the (unfortunately non-embeddable) clip from Children of Men where Julianne Moore is — SPOILER ALERT, but c’mon, you should have watched Children of Men by now — shot. To accomplish the mobile scene, Alfonso Cuarón created a rolling rig “inside a car with the roof removed to move from front seat to back, occasionally turning the camera 360 degrees while actors ducked out of the way,” which isn’t even the most impressive thing about Children of Men. It’s second, behind convincing the world Clive Owen could be an action star.

3. The X-Files

True Detective isn’t the first TV series to employ a tracking shot. Many shows have, but the advantage True Detective has over, say, E.R. is that a) HBO money, and b) it’s an hour-long drama that’s actually an hour long, not 44 minutes and 16 minutes of commercials. But The X-Files still accomplished something riveting with their limited resources in the season six episode, “Triangle,” in which Mulder travels back in time to 1939, aboard a luxury passenger liner crawling with Nazis. It’s filmed in real time, in four uninterrupted eleven-minute takes, a process that David Duchovny later joked “could win [him the] Emmy for most bruises.” The scenes where then-Mulder and now-Scully run past each other in split-screen is nearly unrivaled in TV history, give or take a Semisonic music video.

4. Boogie Nights

Pretty much every Paul Thomas Anderson movie has at least seven epic tracking shots, but “The Death of Little Bill” (I’m fine “spoiling” this scene; not seeing Boogie Nights is worse than not seeing Children of Men) might be my favorite, because not only is it engrossing to follow, as William H. Macy winds his way around a party, it’s also really funny. The cut from Macy blowing his brains out to “80s” is an inspired choice.

5. Touch of Evil

That’s the sound of a million film school students orgasming at once. Mention Touch of Evil to them in casual conversation, and they’ll spend the next five hours explaining why that movie is SO much better than Citizen Kane. I mean, they’re kind of right, and they’ll use the opening scene, where the camera tracks Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh as they walk around Mexico, as proof. But no one needs to hear the word “auteur” outside of a classroom. To shut them up, say, “I prefer The Transformers: The Movie,” then walk away.

6. Serenity

Serenity Opening Credits from KayleeThrace on Vimeo.

Joss Whedon needed a way to introduce moviegoers who hadn’t seen Firefly to the characters in Serenity without spending too much time going over things those who HAD seen Firefly already knew. His solution: take them on a one-shot (well, technically two, but some visual trickery disguises that) trip around the titular spaceship, during “some slight turbulence.” Nathan Fillion is used to be followed around.

7. The Shining

From an article on the use of Steadicam in The Shining:

The Steadicam was also a great device to take the audience through the endless hallways and hedge maze of the Overlook Hotel. Geography is important in horror. You want the audience to know where the closet is so they can yell at the screen not to go in there. Yet as [Steadicam operator Garrett] Brown explains, “Your sense of the geography in The Shining was so much larger in scale than in most horror films. In most horror films, you’re learning the ins and outs of claustrophobic spaces. With The Shining, it felt much bigger.”

When Brown showed Kubrick that the Steadicam could shoot at a lens height from eighteen inches to waist-high, Kubrick was thrilled because much of the film revolved around a kid’s point of view. To film little Danny riding his Big Wheel through the halls, Brown rode on a wheelchair that Kubrick used for A Clockwork Orange. (Via)

So that’s the guy you have to thank for bringing your nightmare to life.

8. The Player

Eight minutes. For the first eight minutes of The Player, Robert Altman ducks in and out of multiple unconnected conversations on a Hollywood lot, including one about famous tracking shots. META. It’s not as technically impressive as the other selections on the list (rather than twisting, the camera basically spins in circles), but it’s still effectively elaborate, and apparently all of the dialogue was improvised on the spot.

9. Oldboy

And now we end with one literally kickass action scene…

10. Hard Boiled

…and another.