A Brief History of Tracking Shots, Part I: True Detective (with Videos!)

Do you watch True Detective? Us too. Not bad, right? It features two outstanding actors and, in my opinion, has set itself apart from a lot of its predecessors in its serial killer genre by focusing above all else on tone. It has a near appalling indifference to its female characters, but that’s a possible subject for another essay. Eerie and, not to be redundant, bathed in high-stakes tent-revival religion and Southern Baptist iconography, it wades into a broadly weird and hazy bathtub using equally creepy policemen as our guides. (The creepiness of Matthew McConaughey’s Rust Cohle mirroring the unsettling confusion of the backwards bayou murk; the creepiness of Woody Harrelson’s Marty Hart mired in the comparatively more mundane slog attached to a husband’s deceit. Happy Valentine’s Day!) Matt Zoller Seitz was right to see shades of Capt. Willard’s hellish boat journey in Cohle’s deep-cover trip down the swap in the fourth episode, and Wesley Morris and Alex Pappedemas had it right in their podcast discussion of True Detective from earlier this week: the serial killer plot is a MacGuffin. Seriously, try and name the victim or try to picture what she looks like aside from the spirals inked on her back. In other words, it’s the pretense for our investigation into the detectives themselves, particularly Cohle, who remains a mystery in contrast to Marty’s typically and masculinely shitty poker face. As in David Fincher’s Zodiac, we’re more interested in the psychological damage done to the pursuers than the physically mortal damage done to the pursued. No surprise that the show is probably the closest in approach and mood to Fincher than I’ve seen recently.

Last week, True Detective also featured a six-minute long tracking shot. I’ve included it above. You might have heard about this, because it was all people seemed to want to discuss about the most recent episode. And it seemed to me that people preferred to discuss simply that the shot existed and HOLY SHIT IT WAS A CONTINUOUS SHOT THAT LASTED SIX ENTIRE MINUTES rather than what the shot actually contained and depicted. Unfortunately, this, I find, is a common crutch reviewers lean on, noting their amazement at the pure feat of the shot’s execution instead of kicking that crutch aside and considering its purpose within the wider scheme of the work at hand and the extent to which the use of a tracking shot succeeds in furthering and elevating the filmmaker’s intent. The reflexively automatic adulation that so frequently greets these shots and the directors behind them resembles, to me, the same almost involuntary praise visited upon any new #LONGFORM magazine piece: fraternal backslapping on Twitter for the writers by other writers that appears in the echo chamber before anyone can consider what was actually written or, in the case of the tracking shot, go back and think about what was filmed. Succinctly summarized by the postmortal Drew Magary better than I, these reactions should alert us to possible bad incentives for both the creators (to neglect the best way to serve their stories by employing formal elements they know people will lap up) and the critics (to only look at the surface of what they’re supposed to review).

This is not to say that directors and DPs (or journalists) don’t deserve accolades for the time, technical skill, and patience required to make these formal elements work. They do! With movies or TV, there are a lot of crew people and actors involved, and each must be required to be in a certain place at a certain time. To nail a shot that’s six minutes long needs painstaking rehearsals and the ability to not get aggravated when one person or gadget malfunctions and forces you to start all over again. And if shooting on digital makes filming them cheaper, they’re still tough!

But directors insert tracking shots for reasons other than looking cool, too. In thinking back over some of my favorite examples, a few of which I’ve included below, I think I can discern at least four functions that tracking shots add to a film’s or an episode’s other frames. First, they can enhance the action. Tracking shots are the product of a moving camera; if the camera is moving, the people being filmed by that camera often are, too. That usually means that they’re doing something, and if the film is asking us to follow them around for an extended period of time, calling for us to pay attention to what’s going on for a continuous sequence, the goal is often to brim the surroundings with some exciting events. The True Detective shot definitely wanted to accomplish this, and it succeeded in momentarily removing us from the show’s slow, mumbling stillness. It was a marked change in tone for the series, and one at which Seitz bristled, but I don’t have a problem with a methodical show using punctuated action as a payoff—let’s face it, the way the show is structured, and whether it ultimately delivers on its storytelling, will likely depend on the payoff to its various mysteries. By giving us a more urgent glimpse into what Cohle and Marty have gotten themselves into, we have a more solidified impression that the show’s tone isn’t a bluff. Entering the biker bar brought us down deeper into the Louisiana underworld, and leaving the bar didn’t restore anything resembling normalcy. Sure, we knew that McConaughey’s character would survive the botched raid, but we didn’t know ahead of time who the collateral damage would be, and we gained further insight into the torment that was already bothering Cohle and that promises to linger throughout the years to come. Increasing the tension was the shot’s sound design: McConaughey’s warnings over the muffled white noise of his supposed accomplices’ taunts punctured by shattered glass and ears ringing after a gun fires. (It’s a very subjective shot, and I’ll return to this in a second.)

Morris and Pappademas correctly expressed reservations that some of their fellow critics were praising the shot for existing, and in doing so Morris noted that there are already plenty of examples of continuous sequences in movies—and, he said, on the stage. It’s true that a play or a musical is a two-hour continuous sequence, but I’d argue that there’s a big difference between the boxed-in intimacy of the stage and what tracking shots can convey. There isn’t room to move around and gaze from different angles in a theater, where the action takes place in a confined space. These inhibitions are much, much less prominent on a movie or TV set, and that brings me to tracking shots’ second function—their ability to establish or reinforce scope. To consider the difference I’m trying to say exists, let’s compare a couple long shots. First, a seventeen-minute take from Steve McQueen’s Hunger, in which a completely static camera observes a conversation between Michael Fassbender and Liam Cunningham in which the two discuss the purpose of Fassbender’s character’s hunger strike (start at 0:23):

It’s riveting dialogue, expertly handed by Fassbender and Cunningham. But it’s not a tracking shot: neither moves away from the table, the camera doesn’t move at all, and the action consists solely of the pair’s words. Basically, it’s an example of what Morris was citing, and if you saw Fassbender and Cunningham replicate the scene on Broadway you’d come away with nearly the same exact impression. But would couldn’t be transposed to Broadway is the three-minute crane shot that famously opens Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil:

That’s simply because there’s too much literal ground for the actors and the camera to cover. What Welles does is establish the look at feel of the movie’s seedy and lawless border setting. McQueen, it should be said, isn’t after establishing scope the way Welles is, or the way Alfonso Cuarón is in Gravity (a snippet of that film’s lengthy opening shot can be seen here)—there’s a reason directors use tracking shots to open their movies, as a way of channelling their films’ size, in terms of both setting and ideas.

Of course, Sunday’s True Detective tracking shot wasn’t as interested in establishing scope, mostly because the show has already devoted so much energy to detailing Louisiana’s underbelly. We have a rough visual and tonal framework sprouting from the film’s exteriors and color palate, and we know both that the landscape is flat and weedy and that this landscape is populated by some unsavory ghosts and zombies. Thus, the shot confirms our perspective by using its length to demonstrate the constant danger and unpredictability with which our detectives must contend. I don’t think the shot adds anything where scope is concerned, the way Cuarón unveils the ultimate rot of the security state in the urban battle scenes of Children of Men (seen below), but True Detective called on us to double down on our suspicions, and its for that reason why I’d nitpick Seitz to say that the shot, while jarring, isn’t really out of lockstep with the show, at least so far.

Notice how the camera in the above clip uses Clive Owen as a pivot point. Notice, too, how the camera in True Detective spends some time doing exactly the same, staying with McConaughey but swiveling on either side him as the commotion ignites. Here’s a screen shot:

Screen Shot 2014-02-14 at 7.54.50 PM

I think the third function served by tracking shots is to tell us who’s important. This dovetails, certainly, with the establishing function I described above, in that long tracking shots can be introductory devices, especially in films or series with large casts. A good example is Boogie Nights, which features a cast so large Paul Thomas Anderson split the audience meet-and-greet into two lengthy shots. The second begins at 0:42:

Here, we meet all of the principals, learn what they do for a living, and critically for the film’s theme, the root of their individual and collective insecurities that have marginalized them. I think it’s an open question whether Anderson would’ve been better off combining the major introductions into one scene or if that would’ve been overwhelming. I’d lean towards the former if for no reason that the second shot exists almost solely to pay homage to a similar camera-goes-underwater shot from I Am Cuba, but keep reading for some better examples of incorporating allusions.

Again, we’ve already met Rust Cohle, and specifically our impression is one of a weird fucking dude. We’ve met Rust Cohle, but we don’t really know him, and this is where I think the True Detective tracking shot did elevate the material a little bit. I mentioned above that it’s a subjective shot—this is welcome particularly because the technical aspects of the shot and the outcome of the scene both hinge on Cohle. The ringing sound after the gun first goes off? I think that’s to replicate what he’s hearing. I think there’s a reason, too, that his voice is really the only discernible one during the scene—Cohle knows what he’s getting into but there is so much noise around him that he can’t control. Cohle is still an enigma, but now we have an idea of the people he used to run with, the peril in which he’s willing to place himself, and his near psychotic commitment to the job to the point where he’ll risk his humanity and his morality.

And last, as I intimated above, tracking shots are another tool in the filmmaker’s metafictional arsenalPTA made clear reference to I Am Cuba in Boogie Nights, though as I said he’s not riffing on that shot so much as finding an easy way to include it in his film—they’re both mood-setters. But other great tracking shots are not without wit, and I’m specifically thinking of the length shot with which Robert Altman begins The Player:

Some context is helpful here: Altman was largely shunned from Hollywood in the ’80s, and The Player was his response, a ruthless satire that openly mocks the studio culture in all of its vanity. That’s all on display in the opening, in which screenwriters pitch Tim Robbins stories by basically combining two movies that had already been done or resorting to sequel ideas. (The shot also introduces us to its protagonist in addition to setting the tone and scope and threatening the action to come.) Altman is shoehorning all that is good about movies, and all that is repulsive about Hollywood, and all that is groundbreaking about his own techniques (the slow zooms, the overlapping dialogue), to expose the studios for the same kind of circlejerking I discussed at the beginning of the essay, that of people who know when to say something is good while getting their facts wrong or not explaining why something is good, artistically speaking. (Fred Ward, for example, misquotes the length of Touch of Evil‘s opening shot while only praising it for its length.) That Altman extends the shot for even longer than True Detective did, and calls out studios’ championing of art while failing to trust the audience’s patience with so much cutting, gives him the last laugh. No such allusion was made in True Detective, at least to the best of my limited knowledge, though I’d love to hear if someone picked out a reference to another show or movie.

But True Detective did use its tracking shot in several of the ways that other talented and respected filmmakers have, in a fashion in which only film or TV is capable. To sum up, I’ll say that I bristle both when tracking shots are praised for the sheer fact of their existence and when they are dismissed as only being cameramen’s stunts. The certainly are cameramen’s stunts, but only slightly more than the rest of the movie or episode of which they are a part are cameramen’s stunts. Part of the reason I’m watching movies and TV shows is to see what the camera does and how a film’s technical elements interact with its story and its performances. No, I don’t want a tracking shot to be superfluous, but I would allow directors and DPs to show off a little bit—that’s certainly present in Sunday’s shot, especially when the camera hops over the chain-link fence that McConaughey and his miscreant biker hostage are climbing. At that point, the show wants to be sure you understand that the sequence was filmed in one take, and I don’t think that’s necessarily a crime. Especially not when we watch this stuff in part because we’d like to be wowed a little bit by whatever its creators and actors and crewmembers are bringing to the table, and not when in good movies and shows, chances are the tracking shots do their works justice. I’ll welcome their flourishes if we can also think about the motivation behind their inclusion.

And if you want one perfect example of how it’s done, one that also includes some metafictional appeal by standing in relief to its film’s frenzied closing act, I give you Henry Hill escorting Karen to the front table in GoodFellas. Happy Valentine’s Day, indeed:

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