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An Appreciation Of The Tracking Shot


hlywdkjk
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From the AP by way of the the LATimes.

 

History of long tracking shots rolls in film lore

'Atonement' is the latest movie to use this tough cinematic device. And Orson Welles did it without a Steadicam.

By Jake Coyle / Associated Press

 

December 28, 2007

 

NEW YORK -- The story of the long tracking shot would be best told in one take.

 

Our camera could begin with Orson Welles' "Touch of Evil," pass through Jean-Luc Godard's "Week End" and Martin Scorsese's "Goodfellas" and finally arrive at the latest installment in the canon: Joe Wright's "Atonement."

 

Through cinema history, audacious, lengthy tracking shots have captivated filmmakers and movie buffs who marvel at their grace and choreography. In a medium predicated on storytelling through the juxtaposition of images, the long tracking shot is the cinematic equivalent of a no-hitter in baseball: rare, untouched and very difficult to pull off.

 

In the middle of "Atonement," a 5 1/2 -minute shot unfolds as Robbie (James McAvoy), a British soldier in World War II, comes upon France's Dunkirk beach, where the final point in the British retreat from the Germans is portrayed as a grim circus of defeat and chaos.

 

In the Ian McEwan novel from which the movie was adapted, the scene is described in just a few pages. McEwan writes: "It was a rout and this was its terminus." On film, though, it took a lot more doing.

 

The scene was composed with 1,000 extras, a number of horses and vehicles on the beach, and (digitally added) ships off the coast. It all cost a sizable chunk of the film's estimated $30-million production budget and had to be shot in one day.

 

That's how long the extras were available, and that small time frame is what initially drove Wright and his director of photography, Seamus McGarvey, to stage the single long shot, rather than squeeze in a dozen separate setups.

 

"It was conceived out of necessity," Wright said in a recent interview. "We had one day with the extras and then the small issue of the tide coming in and washing away the entire set."

 

While the tide was out and the light was right, Wright and his crew managed 3 1/2 takes -- the fourth finally exhausting Steadicam operator Peter Robertson. (They used the third take.)

 

During production on other scenes, Robertson's course was mapped out, meandering through the shambled beach -- sometimes on foot, sometimes riding on a motorized cart.

 

"When we were making it, I didn't see it in the context of the classic tracking shot, or the history of great tracking shots," said Wright, whose "Pride & Prejudice" included a long shot, as did his British TV film "Charles II." "It felt much, much smaller than that."

 

But, of course, the shot has been received precisely in that context.

 

Variety Deputy Editor Anne Thompson blogged: "This shot has its admirers and detractors. It's a stunning shot, but does it take the viewer out of the movie, or serve a dramatic purpose? . . . I for one get a kick out of bravura shots like this, whether it's Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma, Robert Altman, Orson Welles, Antonioni or Alfonso Cuaron."

 

Perhaps the highest possible praise for such cinematic devices would echo that of umpires in baseball -- they're doing their job well when no one even notices them.

 

New York Times film critic A.O. Scott, however, said the "Atonement" shot's only impression is: " 'Wow, that's quite a tracking shot,' when it should be 'My God, what a horrible experience that must have been.' "

 

Any discussion of tracking shots typically begins with Welles' opening to 1958's "Touch of Evil," when Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh walk unknowingly alongside a car with explosives in its trunk.

 

Welles, by then a veteran director, had with director of photography Gregg Toland pioneered the use of deep focus on Welles' first film, 1941's "Citizen Kane." That meant more realism and fluidity for the camera, which could now present a foreground, middle ground and background. The apotheosis of this is reached in tracking shots that hold a film's realism for long periods.

 

"For the actors, they really enjoy them because you're in a situation where there's a fourth wall created," Wright said. "There's no area on the set they have to imagine; it's all in front of them."

 

Among the most famous is Godard's 10-minute shot in "Week End" in which a couple is stranded in a traffic jam, as well as Mikhail Kalatozov's acrobatic shot in 1964's "I Am Cuba." The conclusion to Michelangelo Antonioni's "The Passenger" (1975) is revered, as is Scorsese's legendary shot in "Goodfellas" in which Ray Liotta and Lorraine Bracco enter the Copacabana.

 

Some films have attempted to push the limits of uncut film, beginning with Alfred Hitchcock's "Rope" (1948), which he had wanted to film in one take but settled for 10. In 2002, Aleksandr Sokurov achieved Hitchcock's goal with "Russian Ark," a film that portrays three centuries of Russian history in one shot.

 

Many of these shots have become a matter of movie lore and are often paid homage. Altman composed a comic and highly self-reflexive eight-minute tracking shot to open "The Player" (1992), featuring characters discussing the "Touch of Evil" shot. In Doug Liman's "Swingers" (1996), his characters worshipfully chat about Scorsese's "Goodfellas" achievement.

 

Paul Thomas Anderson has made the tracking shot a trademark of his, particularly in "Boogie Nights" (1997) and "Magnolia" (1999).

 

Technology has helped a new generation of filmmakers accomplish increasingly daring tracking shots, particularly with the use of Steadicams. Cuaron's "Children of Men" (2006) featured several lengthy shots,including a daring Steadicam- and crane-aided shot during a shoot-out.

 

"One has to completely bow to the fact that when Orson Welles did the 'Touch of Evil' shot, he didn't have a Steadicam," Wright said. "Steadicams have totally liberated the tracking shot."

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Welles, by then a veteran director, had with director of photography Gregg Toland pioneered the use of deep focus on Welles' first film, 1941's "Citizen Kane." That meant more realism and fluidity for the camera, which could now present a foreground, middle ground and background. The apotheosis of this is reached in tracking shots that hold a film's realism for long periods.

 

Welles never intended to open TOUCH OF EVIL with that shot; by the time it came 'round to film the opening scenes, Welles was already so far behind schedule that the studio was threatening to replace him as director, or shut the film down. Rather than allow that to happen, Welles conceived of a way to meld the entire opening sequence of shots into one continuous tracking shot; as complex as that shot is, and even taking into account the danger of blown takes that would necessitate going back and shooting the whole thing from the beginning, use of the tracking shot allowed Welles to eliminate a score of camera set-ups and the lighting rigging each would've required, the equivalent of tearing several pages from the script and tossing them into the trash can.

 

By the end of that long, cold night in Venice, CA, Welles was back on schedule.

 

Still, any shot that has viewers saying to themselves or others, "what a great shot," is a bad shot, as it does, indeed, take the viewer out of the movie and paints a picture of a director more intent on proving what a great artiste and genius he is, than he is in telling his story.

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It seems to me that this article, by mention of Rope, is talking about a couple different techniques. The scenes in Rope are merely long takes; the scenes take place on a single set, so there would be very little, if any track laid for the camera to move along. I have no problems with either long takes, or extensive tracking shots, in distracting me from the storyline of a film; in fact it is a additional layer of enjoyment for me of a film when I view these types of techniques.

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Unless the character breaks the fourth wall, the tracking shot doesn't take me out of the movie. I enjoyed the tracking shot in "Atonement." To me, it showed the effects of war in one fell swoop. I admired the technical know-how it took to coordinate it all...and felt bad for what war costs. I continued to enjoy the story "Atonement" had to tell.

 

Yes, I notice 'shots' in a movie...but it doesn't spoil the experience for me, anyway.

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Hey, Kyle, I just posted a little something about this at the Oasis...

 

I must disagree with New York Times film critic A.O. Scott: (Quote) New York Times film critic A.O. Scott, however, said the "Atonement" shot's only impression is: " 'Wow, that's quite a tracking shot,' when it should be 'My God, what a horrible experience that must have been.' "

 

When I watched ATONEMENT, I really FELT as though I was there on the beach at Dunkirk with Robbie Turner. I DID think, "My God, what a horrible experience that must have been." So there, A.O. Scott.

 

It was only after the shot was over that I thought, wow, that was one long tracking shot. Cool.

 

It IS possible for me to simultaneously enjoy the technical expertise of a film AND be caught up in the story. Kind of like when I'm driving my car AND enjoying singing along to a cd. Sheesh. The brain can take in more than one thing at a time.

 

Sandy K

 

Message was edited by: sandykaypax

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"...The brain can take in more than one thing at a time."

 

Some folks' brain can. But maybe not critics from great Metropolitan newspapers. See what happens when one lives in ivory towers where the air is rare...and they don't pay for their movie tickets. I enjoyed the tracking shot...recognized it was a tracking shot and was not taken out of the story.

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