What is a tracking shot? They are really fun to watch, but difficult to film. We’ve put together a list of the best tracking shots of all time.
Then we break down everything you’ll need to consider when blocking and planning a tracking shot in your own projects.
Watch: How to Direct Tracking Shots
What Is A Tracking Shot In Film
Let's chat about tracking shots
Tracking shots have evolved over the years, and the tracking shot definition has been altered alongside advancements in technology and creativity.
Let’s look at the tracking shot definition:
Tracking Shot Definition
What is a tracking shot?
A tracking shot is any shot that physically moves the camera through the scene for an extended amount of time. Tracking shots often follow a traveling subject, though they can be used to simply show off the scene. In the past, tracking was a term reserved specifically for lateral camera movement that almost exclusively took place on dolly tracks. A camera would “track-right” or “track-left,” while forward movement was referred to a ‘push-in’ or ‘dolly-in’ and backward as a ‘dolly-out.’
These terms are still used, but the vocabulary has changed along side technology. A dolly shot is now simply any shot that takes place on a dolly, which means a dolly shot can travel in any direction. Furthermore, tracking shots can be captured using any means of camera movement including 3-axis gimbals, vest stabilizers, drones, handheld, or any other tool used to physically move the camera body.
What does a tracking shot do?
- Physically moves through the scene
- Often follows a subject or bounces around
- Plays in the edit for an extended amount of time
Keep this tracking shot definition in mind, because it is much more broad than most filmmakers may think, and this limits their creativity.
Tracking camera movement can mean a lot of different things, and it can be alternated during the shot to utilize different means, even computers.
But what is a tracking shot compared to the many other types of camera movements in film. Here's a complete breakdown of each type along with their storytelling values and how they have contributed to some iconic moments in cinema history.
A director can have their team utilize handheld tracking camera movement for the first part of a shot, and then use other means to stabilize and move the camera, directing our attention elsewhere.
Best Shots of All Time
Our list of the best tracking shots?
What makes a great tracking shot? I’d argue three things.
The categories are:
- Setting — Shows off the setting with rich detail
- Character — Make us feel like a particular character in the scene
- Plot — Uses the tracking shot effect to enhance the plot of a story
Some tracking shots may not have tanks or dozens of stunt men, but if they can combine and enhance the different categories outlined above, a tracking shot will multiply its effectiveness by two or three times.
Our list attempts to rank these shots but in truth it will always come down to personal preference and the quality of the entire film.
Let’s take a look at some of the best tracking shots ever, and remember to always consider how broad the tracking shot definition can be:
There are a ton of great tracking shots in this film, from the opening scene, to the car ambush near the beginning of the film, and truly the entire movies is made up of a collection of really great tracking shots.
None compare to the final tracking shot in the film.
I know I said earlier that you don’t need a tank, but having the entire camera enveloped by smoke and debris from a shell to a building entrance or blood spray that is caught by the lens is a real step up.
You totally understand the setting a geography, you totally feel like Theo in the scene, and the plot is very much tied to a ticking clock.
2. Russian Ark
This entire film is actually one big 96-minute tracking shot done in a single Steadicam take, so it is safe to say that it enhances the setting, character, and plot. This is truly one of the greatest cinematic achievements ever.
Consider the amount of time and care it took to pull off this film. The rehearsals, the blocking, the acting, the depth, and the layers.
3. The Player
This is one of the more interesting and calm tracking shots mainly because it doesn’t so much follow a subject, but rather floats around a single area to show the studio backlot while placing you in the shoes of the character.
This is a great example of how a tracking shot doesn’t need to be attached to the back of a character as they walk through a scene. Tracking camera movement doesn’t mean you’re attached to an actor, especially when you can do a crane shot like Altman does in this tracking shot.
This tracking shot is often said to be the favorite of many film fans. We feel the best part of this shot shows off the Copacabana Club by placing us inside the shoes of Karen Friedman and not Henry Hill.
You might notice that the shot begins in a close-up on the keys, which shows that you can change shot size to gain some extra cinematic effect.
This tracking shot is often considered the perfection of golden era tracking shots, and that’s because it uses one of the best cinematic devices around…the ticking clock.
Orson Welles switches focus all throughout the scene, and in doing so he amplifies our connection to the bomb in the trunk of the car. This is also one of the earliest popular uses of the crane shot.
6. Snake Eyes
Brian De Palma created many great tracking shots in his day, but this one takes the cake for many reasons. The shots starts in such a way that you don’t even realize you’re watching a monitor, and just gets better.
The shot also works really well as a way to introduce the characters, give you hidden information for the plot, and shows off the setting really well.
Personally, this is one of my favorite moments in any film ever, and the way it is captured with a tracking shot is perfect for the scene.
Instead of a ticking clock with a bomb that could go off, this bomb has already gone off, and now Daniel must retrieve his son, and then decide where to focus his attention.
It’s a difficult choice, and the real-time effect you gain from a tracking shot allows us to better empathize with Daniel.
8. Pulp Fiction
A big part of what makes this tracking shot so good is how it makes us feel while we watch it. We know the stakes, and we know why Butch has decided to go back for his watch, so following him is exhilarating.
I worked on a short film with DP Andrzej Sekula, and I asked him how they achieved moving through the fence during this scene, and he told me that the team made the chain link fence retractable, so they could pull it out of the way right after Butch passes through.
9. The Revenant
This tracking shot uses CGI and specialized techniques to blend the shots together, but that doesn’t take anything away from how the scene is staged.
The anxiety created by the scene is so strong, and the extra bits of water and sound design really make the scene a joy to watch.
Moving through a battle will always make your tracking shot pretty cinematic, and few do cinema as well as Steven Spielberg. This is also a good example of a somewhat unstable tracking shot.
Why didn’t Spielberg elect to use a dolly shot for this tracking shot? What was he thinking?
Moving through the space alongside Upham is a nice touch as well, especially since most viewers share the same level of battle experience as his character versus any of the others in the film.
11. True Detective
This is one of the most realistic tracking shots you’ll see, and the fact that it is a television series rather than a film is a great feat.
Though it has yet to come up, some of the dialogue in this scene is really what sells the fun and the realism that makes this magnetic scene.
I love this tracking shot, and the main reason is because it brings something new to the table, which is that this tracking shot incorporates both a scene transition and passage of time. This is something not commonly done with tracking shots.
Try to bring something new to the table with your tracking shots, and you will impress the producers and agents and executives. Now, I know this is a crane shot, but that doesn’t mean you can’t figure something out.
This entire film is also made up of a bunch of tracking shot examples, but the best one is where Riggan is locked out of the theatre and must run to the front door to make it back to the stage before the next scene begins.
One of the reasons this shot is so great is that is works on a thematic level for the film and the Riggan’s character because it shows his commitment to the show. He is trapped — forced to humiliate himself… for the show.
14. The Shining
Creepy doesn’t begin to define it. The great thing about a Kubrick tracking shot is how much room there is to view the surroundings. How much he lets the shots breathe, and in doing so creates terror.
Think of the camera movement as more of a supernatural evil, as though the spirit of the hotel is watching the family — the tracking shot as POV.
15. Boogie Nights
This film has some really great tracking shots, but this one is great because it has a lot of moving parts, makes you feel like you’re attending the party, and also pays homage to another great tracking shot from the early days of cinema.
There are a lot of good tracking shots here and in his other films, so make sure to take a look at as many as you can with PT Anderson.
16. Soy Cuba
I put this one next to Boogie Nights for a reason, and if you don’t know why, take a minute to think about it while you relax by the pool.
At the time, this was a really fantastic achievement, and there are more tracking shots in the film that are worth a watch or two. Tracking camera movement has since been improved, but the shot stands up.
This tracking shot shows the reality of the battle of Dunkirk, and it shows the horror of war, the futility, and if you consider that each man and woman on that beach had someone they hoped to see again.
Eye trace is used really well in this shot, and if you ever want to see an example of a director building a really full shot, this is a good choice.
There are a ton of great Kubrick tracking shots, some of which are shorter in duration than many on this list but still powerful and hypnotic. This is the best from Full Metal Jacket because of the layers Kubrick creates.
If you haven’t seen this film, go watch it. See how Kubrick's use of tracking shots changes over the course of the film, and how the setting, character, and plot plays into every decision he makes with each scene.
This tracking shot from Spectre is really great, and in fact is the best part of the entire film. What makes this shot so special is that it transports us to the festival, and helps to solidify just how cool 007 really is by switching from crane shots to either vest stabilizers or handheld.
It’s a fun scene, and watching Bond walk along the edge of a building with such confidence is fun to watch — a great example of tracking camera movement that seems to alternate.
I remember where I was when I saw this tracking shot because… well because I was in a movie theatre, but the point is not diminished. This is one of those amazing tracking shots that never leaves my mind.
It’s always fun to watch any of the fight scenes in 300, but I think it is fair to say that this moment is one of the best in the entire film. This is a great example of a dolly shot that is also a tracking shot.
21. The Wrestler
This film is really great, but one of the best things is how the tracking shots in this film create a deep feeling of empathy for a character that most people would write off in real life.
That’s the power of cinema (Huey Lewis).
These shots are also helped by the sound design, which is another area you should at the very least consider when cutting your scene.
22. The Protector
If you like fight scenes, and you like tracking shots, how can you do better than this? Tony Ja gets to show off his skills, and the choreography is tops.
While you watch this scene, pay attention to the focus of the shot. When does it seem blurry, when does it seem sharp? Then apply what you learned to your next epic tracking shot.
23. Paths of Glory
Stanley Kubrick has shown up here a few times, and that is because he is commonly known as the king of tracking shots. The tracking camera movement in this scene is motivated, and the depth of field allows for some great moments.
He does this a lot, and part of this is just his classical style of filmmaking, where dollies were the best tool, and staging was much more theatrical in general, not to mention he cut his teeth as a photographer.
That may seem odd, since photography doesn’t really allow camera movement, but it forces you to place more in the frame.
Instead of cutting back and forth between a half dozen mediocre shots, why not live inside one perfect shot, and cut when necessary.
24. Hard Boiled
This is a great tracking shot for a number of reasons, but the choreography in general makes it a winner. Don’t take my word for it.
Yeah so you may have to rehearse for a while, and so what if you spend some money on breakaway glass, but what you come away with is a super cool shot that can take a good movie and make it great.
25. VictoriaThis is another one of those films that is made up entirely out of tracking shots, and when you watch it proves that the gimmick works really well.
If you want to build a great tracking shot, you first need a great scene, so make sure that your script events set you up nicely.
Remember to consider your setting, character, and plot so that you can decide which moments will best be served by a tracking shot, and when you should skip it.
Tracking Shot Camera Movement
How to plan and shoot a tracking shot
Planning out tracking shots requires a camera and a desire, but to make them work really well you will want to incorporate some form of camera stabilizer, and then create a plan for the visuals that will take place.
CONSIDER EYE TRACE & THE RULE OF THIRDS
One thing you will want to keep in mind is where you are directing the viewer’s attention. The rule of thirds cuts your frame into three equal sections both vertically, and horizontally, creating four middle vertices.
If you place imagery on any one of those vertices, you will drastically improve the shot composition and the possibility that the viewer will easily notice whatever you hope to show off in the scene.
BUILD YOUR SHOT LIST
Even though your tracking shot is considered one shot, it will more often than not be a collection of shots that take place during a single take.This shot list from Pulp Fiction shows you how you can use multiple frame cells to visualize how each beat in your shot list can be planned:
Consider shots that may begin in a close-up, but end in an extreme wide shot, or even a simple medium shot. Knowing this, you can plan out each of your important beats with both a shot list and a detailed storyboard.
BLOCK OUT YOUR SCENE
Next you will want to block out your scene, and while you do this consider the background and foreground to make your shot more complicated, or to introduce information with the surrounding imagery.
Consider the blocking in your favorite tracking shot above, and think about how it was planned and built to make the scene better.
PLAN YOUR CAMERA MOVEMENT
You should consider your camera while you build the blocking, but once you have you now need to cement your camera movement decisions.
Some of these include the speed of your camera, the stability of your camera, and the duration of the shot in general.
You will also have to consider your film equipment, and while you may not be able to get a crane shot like the professionals doesn’t mean you can’t still find a clever way to get some really good footage.
How does a slow tracking shot make you feel when compared with a rather quick tracking shot? How do Stanley Kubrick tracking shots compare with, say, Wes Anderson tracking shots?
WIDE ANGLE LENS AND MEASURE YOUR FOCUS DISTANCES
One of the best things to do with a tracking shot is to choose a wide angle lens so that your movement is more stable, registers better, and allows for a larger depth of field so that more of your frame with be acceptably sharp.
Roger Deakins likes to use wide angle lenses:
Regardless, you will want to measure otu and mark your subject’s focus distance during important beats so that your camera team can confidently pull focus while the shot size and distance changes mid take.
Explore different camera movements
We've covered the tracking shot but there are many other camera movements to discuss. As you amass your camera movement repertoire, you will be able to amplify your visual storytelling exponentially. You're already on your way but the only question is which camera movement will you dive into next?