How does one create a great tracking shot in film? What strategies are available to keep the shot interesting for the audience without becoming too chaotic? With this example from Martin Scorsese’s excellent film The Wolf of Wall Street, we’ll show you how a master filmmaker uses eye lines, blocking, and framing to create a riveting long take and avoid unnecessary cuts.
Make sure to read through to the end for more examples of long takes in television and film!
Watch: The Wolf of Wall Street — Scene Breakdown
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The Wolf of Wall Street Analysis
As an audience, we’re naturally inclined to follow the gaze of the characters on screen, evident by the tried and true 180-degree rule. In this scene from The Wolf of Wall Street, we follow the eye lines of Jordan (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Manny (Jon Favreau) as they look ahead to the conference room off-screen.
A simple glance off-screen motivates the camera in that direction. It is a subtle but natural way to transition the shot. Otherwise, without the eye line motivation, the camera move runs a greater risk of pulling the audience out of the scene rather than guiding them through it.
This next scene from The Aviator, also directed by Martin Scorsese, expertly shows how to navigate eye lines. Whenever there’s three or more characters on screen, the director must be extra cautious of eye lines because too many differing gazes will confuse the audience.
Eye lines inform us of both the interest of characters and their natural disposition. For example, Howard (Leonardo DiCaprio) makes eye contact with other characters who he’s conversing with in a polite manner, while Katherine’s (Cate Blanchett) gaze is locked on him.
So, through all of the commotion at the dinner table, we can perceive a character dynamic between the two. That is until Howard’s interrupted by her mother and his gaze shifts downward in embarrassment. In turn Katherine abandons her gaze towards him which results in the breakdown of the scene.
Blocking is a tricky concept to fully grasp, but fear not, with enough time and practice it will start to become second nature just like it has for Martin Scorsese.
In this scene fromThe Wolf of Wall Street, Scorsese uses character blocking to relay the chaotic nature of Stratton Oakmont’s financial office. Specifically, he uses “character hand-offs” to direct traffic and keep the attention of the audience focused exactly where he wants.
It’s hard enough to block a short take, but where does one begin with blocking a long take? It starts with organization and planning, transposed onto a storyboard.
This scene from True Detective is a great example of how to block a long take. At six minutes long, the chances of accidentally obscuring the camera are nearly infinite. But through clever blocking and a steady camera operator, we weave through the action of the scene like a fly on an ever-expanding wall.
This expert blocking is made possible by keeping tabs on three things in the frame: space, shapes and lines. Director Cary Fukunaga even added another degree of difficulty to his job by shooting at night and adding light as a factor. Yet through all of the challenges, the scene does a great job of communicating character and plot in an impressive long take.
Framing in The Wolf of Wall Street
A scene can be visually clear and look the part, but it won’t matter much without the proper framing. Scorsese’s scene from The Wolf of Wall Street works so well because it combines these three aspects expertly.
Framing is the act of emphasizing something in a shot. When Jordan returns at the end of the long take in The Wolf of Wall Street, he’s center-framed, which implies that he’s the focus of the scene. This point is further exaggerated by Jordan breaking the fourth wall when he addresses the audience directly.
Many critics have drawn parallels from The Wolf of Wall Street to Scorsese’s earlier work Goodfellas, with this scene being perhaps the best proof of such an assertion.
The ending scene of Goodfellas isn’t a long take but it is framed in a nearly identical way to that of the scene from The Wolf of Wall Street. At 1:33 of the clip, the camera places Henry (Ray Liotta) center frame.
Henry narrates to the audience in the same way that Jordan does while the framing stays the same. Again, this framing creates a first-person POV for the audience, an unsettling, film-world immersion.
ONE FINAL EXAMPLE OF THE LONG TAKE
Raging Bull (1980)
It’s been forty years since the release of Raging Bull but plenty of film-buffs still regard it as Martin Scorsese’s greatest film, not just for its direction but also its style, tone and excellent lead performances.
There are few long takes in cinema history that are more iconic than that of the one in Raging Bull. In many ways, this shot served as the essential foundation for all subsequent long takes in Scorsese’s career.
The most enduring aspect of the take is its immersive quality. Scorsese frames Jake (Robert De Niro) center and follows him down the path to the ring. By doing so, we feel the tightness of the space and how chaotic the scene appears from Jake’s perspective.
The blocking is significant as well as we see that Jake is obscured by the trainers behind him. This creates a disconnect between the audience and his character, separated by physical space.
A Filmmaker’s Guide to Scorsese
We’ve looked at how Martin Scorsese uses eye lines, blocking and framing to create strong scenes, but there’s so much more that makes him a masterclass filmmaker. In this article, we look at how Scorsese applies practical ideas to his productions with examples from his extensive filmography. By the end, you’ll have a better idea than ever before about what makes Scorsese’s work so great.