Saturday, January 5, 2008

Track of the Light

tracking shot: In film terminology, any shot where the camera is moved along on rails (tracks). Sometimes called a "dolly shot" or "trucking shot."

The term refers to any shot using a track or dolly, but the most famous ones are long takes, shots that follow an action or a sequence of actions in one long continuous take, flowing smoothly (usually) between multiple characters and settings.

Film nuts (like myself) particularly relish these shots because of the intricacy and difficulty and planning inherent in them.

In his praise of the recently released Atonement on today's edition of John and Dave's Pop Culture America, Daily Herald film critic Dann Gire singled out a four minute tracking shot of an evacuation for special praise. And that got me thinking about some of my favorite long-take tracking shots. Here are a few:

Touch of Evil -- In Orson Welles's noir classic, the first shot is of a bomb being tossed into the trunk of a car. From there, and without a break or edit, the camera finds Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh in the midst of a pleasant conversation. It follows them for a time, finds the car again, and then picks up the sudden explosion. The template for long take trackers.

Goodfellas -- The sequence where Ray Liotta takes Lorraine Bracco out for a date at the Copacabana is one of the most famous long takes in recent movies. The camera follows as the two make their way through a back entrance, through utility areas, through the kitchen, bypassing the long line of schlubs at the door. They are seated at a special table right down front center and enjoy the song stylings of Jerry Vail. The message is clear: crime is a shortcut to the sweet life.

Children of Men -- There are several long-take tracking shots in Alfonso Cuaron's dystopian vision. The one where Clive Owen's car is waylaid in the woods is often mentioned. But for me the core of the movie is the unbroken shot (actually, according to the DVD commentary track, there are several breaks, but digital editing has rendered them impossible to spot) where Owen escorts a woman and her child, the first baby born on earth in 18 years, through a bombed-out building, down a spiraling staircase, past soldier after soldier who seconds ago were at each other's throats but have stopped shooting and simply gape in awe. The shooting starts again soon after, but for that one sequence, a religious reverence falls over the film.

Serenity -- Nathan Fillion as Captain Mal conducts a four-minute tour of the Firefly class ship, stopping along the way to converse with each member of the crew. A marvelous way to become reacquainted with old friends and a great setting from the too-short-lived "Firefly" series.

Kill Bill Vol. 1 -- Quentin Tarantino is a show off (God bless him) and his directorial flourishes are often there for their own sake. But in the first volume of Kill Bill, he uses a long-take tracker to a very specific and canny purpose. Sometimes referred to as "The 5, 6, 7, 8's Scene," the camera starts out behind the chirpy Japanese punkettes of that name, follows the Bride into the bathroom where she suits up for the battle to come, finds several of the other principals as it circles through The House of Blue Leaves, then lights on the Bride again as she embarks on her bloody vengeance. The carnage to come is famous but it's this long-take shot that establishes the scene and gives a viewer the geography of the chaos to come.

The Player -- A tracking shot about tracking shots. The film opens with a long-take sequence travelling around the studio parking lot, picking up snippets of conversation along the way (one of which is a discussion of long-take trackers, including the one in Touch of Evil), and peering in through windows at Tim Robbins's high-powered movie exec as he hears desperate movie pitches. We are on the outside looking in, and Robbins is firmly on a pedestal that will be assaulted all through the film.

And there are many more. P.T. Anderson (now in some area's theaters with There Will Be Blood) has placed memorable ones in both Boogie Nights and Magnolia. Gus Van Sant's Elephant features long takes of kids walking through the halls of a high school that makes the place look like a vast wasteland. There's Bruce Willis entering the World Trade Center in the opening of Brian DePalma's unjustly villified Bonfire of the Vanities (Melanie Griffith is annoying, sure, but there's lots to recommend there). Hitchcock's Rope was famously shot in one long (cheated) take, but it's one of the master's less successful experiments. The then-new steadicam technology allowed Stanley Kubrick to follow a child on a Big Wheel through the endless halls of the Overlook Hotel in The Shining.

And here's an oddity. Michel Gondry, director of The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Human Nature, and the upcoming Be Kind, Rewind cut his teeth in music video and directed a little number called "Lucas with the Lid Off " all in one exceptionally impressive long take. Watch it here.

I'm sure I've forgotten a number of great ones. List them in the comments section.

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