December 31, 2011

Amazing tracking shots

A long time ago, I read what was described as one of the most amazing tracking shots in film, starting at a great height and ending up underwater. (A tracking shot is a long single take with the camera moving.) It sounded incredible but I did not think I would ever see it because I did not know the name of the film and besides in those days the only way to see a film was in theaters and if you missed it on its first run you were pretty much out of luck unless they showed it again at a film festival.

For some reason, I recalled the tracking shot description a few days ago and, thanks to the internet, was able to find it. It occurs at the beginning of the 1964 Soviet Union-Cuba joint production Soy Cuba (I Am Cuba). Here it is, with the shot beginning at the 2:10 mark.

It turns out that the same film has in my opinion an even more incredible tracking shot that begins at the 1:40 mark of the clip below.

You watch in amazement and wonder "How the hell did they do that?"

It is good to remember that this film was made in the days when equipment was nowhere near as sophisticated as it is today and there was no post-production computer wizardry. These were real virtuoso performances by the director and cinematographer, that required exquisite timing by everyone involved. This is why I am far more impressed with the special effects in old films like this and 2001: A Space Odyssey than in, say, The Matrix.


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One of the most astounding tracking shots I recall is in "D-Day, The Sixth of June." The allies were breaking through the German lines and
invading a French town. (I hope I'm remembering this right.)

Posted by Jim Baldwin on January 1, 2012 11:20 AM

That really was amazing. Thanks for sharing!

All I can imagine is a clothesline-dolly and dumbwaiter setup, but they must have retouched it to get rid of the lines. Totally guessing.

Posted by Peter on January 1, 2012 06:28 PM

If you like tracking shots, you may enjoy the movie Russian Ark, which is one continuous 90+ minute shot as they move throughout the Hermitage in St. Petersburg.

Posted by Nathan & the Cynic on January 2, 2012 09:55 AM

Equally amazing to me is how all the action was staged and blocked perfectly. It's one thing to do a long tracking shot when not much is going on; it is quite another to do a long tracking shot when there is action along every point of the track.

Stanley Kubrick was very fond of reverse tracks, where the camera was in front of the action and looking back, rather than looking forward. The shot in 2001 where Gary Lockwood is jogging is one of his classics, but I prefer the shot of Kirk Douglas in Paths of Glory where he is walking along the trenches. A great movie made even even better by a great shot.

Re: technology, I think it has ruined a lot of the art and craft of moviemaking. I like horror films a lot, and I find low-budget horror more effective than the big-budget Hollywood productions.

Posted by Scott on January 3, 2012 09:51 AM

Wong Kar-Wai has some really great track shots in some of his movies, some well over a minute long. I recommend "Happy Together" for its contemplative landscape shots and "In the Mood for Love".

Posted by Jared A on January 3, 2012 03:33 PM

There are two particularly amazing tracking shots in the film Children of Men. One is a sort of chase/fight that takes place almost entirely inside a car. The other involves the main character trying to navigate through deteriorating streets and buildings in a war zone.

I think the car chase one is particularly effective because it makes the audience feel like they're a passenger in the car while the action is happening in close proximity to them. (The way they tricked out the car to achieve this was also fascinating.)

Mano, I doubt you have seen this film. I'm not sure if you'll want to seek out these scenes or not, because I know you're not a fan of movie violence.

Posted by Chris on January 4, 2012 09:34 AM

I had forgotten about the wonderful track shots in Children of Men. Cuaron's cinematography has never disappointed me. I actually would recommend the movie to Mano because it is the perfect anti-action movie. Offhand I cannot think of any movie that more perfectly deconstructs movie violence.

Posted by Jared A on January 4, 2012 09:50 AM