Why move the camera? Two static shots edited next to each other will shift the viewers perspective and will still make spatial and temporal sense in the context of the film. Yet moving the camera will afford the director, or director of photography, more diverse thematic and dramatic tools for telling their story.
“Generally speaking, a moving shot is more difficult and time-consuming to execute than a static shot, but it also offers graphic and dramatic opportunities unique to film. Camera movements replaces a series of edited shots used to follow a subject, to make connections between ideas, to create graphic and rhythmic variation or to simulate the movement of a subject in a subjective sequence.” (Katz, 1991, pg 279)
There are two kinds of camera moves. Stationary or Pivot moves, and Dynamic moves. Stationary camera moves involve pivoting the camera either horizontally (panning) or vertically (tilting) from a stationary spot which would traditionally employ a tri-pod, but can still be achieved hand-held. For example you pan from a person in bed asleep to their alarm clock which is about to go off.
Dynamic camera moves involve moving the entire camera in space. This type of camera move was impossible during the onset of the Sound Age of cinema as the cameras being used were not only quite cumbersome, but were also extremely noisy and would interfere with the diegetic sound. So only when quieter cameras were invented was it viable for the dynamic camera move to become a workable technique.
A tracking shot is a camera move with the intention of following or tracking a subject.
Mikhail Kalatozov’s film Soy Cuba (1964) employs a stunning one-take tracking shot of a coffin being lead through crowded streets. The camera floats upwards, seemingly of it’s own accord, through buildings and windows. Nowadays tracking shots have the aid of a Steadicam. This camera rig allows for much smoother movement when the camera is being held by a camera man. One the best examples of a Steadicam tracking shot is in Stanley Kubrick’s film The Shining (1980) where the camera smoothly follows a young boy on his tricycle around the corridors of a hotel.
dolly shots are usually moving shots where the camera moves closer of further away from the subject. This camera move is the substitute for a Zoom as film cameras generally do not have this type of lens. You can either dolly-in or dolly-out depending on what sort of shot you wish to achieve. A famous example of a dolly-zoom is in Stephen Spielberg’s film Jaws (1975) when Officer Brody sees the Shark attacking someone in the water. This type of shot highlights the officer’s reaction the events taking place.
A boom shot is achieved when you either lift the camera up or down. (boom up or boom down) This can be done with a handheld camera or mechanically with a boom or jib arm. The final dynamic camera move is the crane shot. This camera move requires a special piece of equipment called a crane. The camera is attached to the crane and moved high up, and results in a distinctive type shot which is commonly used for establishing a large space. A well-known instance of this type of camera move is shown in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) The camera, attached to a crane, tracks a woman walking towards a door then remains static as she walks through the doorway. The camera then lifts up to a first-storey window where the woman walks into the frame. The camera then continues to ascend until it has lifted over the entire building and shows the same woman walking into town.
The tracking shot might be considered the most immersive of all the shot types available as it not only places you into the heart of the action of a scene, but it can actively move you out of, and away from, the action. Therefore it has various applications in creating a sense of immersion, and in many instances, anticipation and dread.
“The tracking shot is used to follow a subject or explore space. This can be a simple shot framing one subject or a complex sequence shot that connects multiple story elements varying the staging and composition in a single flowing movement.” (Katz, 1991, pg 295)
As mentioned above; Stanley Kubrick makes excellent use of the tracking shot in The Shining: the scene where Danny is cycling through the corridors of the sinister Overlook Hotel. There are actually two similar scenes, but with a major difference. The camera tracks Danny quite close behind (and as close to the floor as he would be) but just far enough away for him to round the corners before we can see what’s there. This results in a sense of anticipation and fear because the viewer has no idea what is about to happen, especially when Danny goes out of sight for a brief moment. The tracking shot gives the effect that you are travelling toward something. So when the first instance of Danny travelling through the corridors results in not very much happening the sense of expectation compounds to the next scene, and when Danny finally does come across the ghostly apparition of twin girls blocking his way, it is all the more affecting.
Gus Van Sant also makes use of this sense of unfulfilled dread in his film Elephant (2003). The film isn’t much more than a collection of tracking shots following several different, and interlacing, paths of teenagers as they walk around their high school. As each path results in no pay-off whatsoever the anticipation builds and builds until when events do begin to unfold it is all the more the shocking.
The tracking shot doesn’t always have to evoke a negative emotion. In Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights (1997) he uses an intricate tracking shot simply to introduce his cast of characters, and their relationships to each other. Furthermore, in the sublime opening to Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958) Welles not only uses the one-take tracking crane shot to introduce the characters, but also to shows Mexican border town in which the film is set and the includes the pivotal moment of the saboteur planting a bomb in a car. Moreover this also induces a feeling of trepidation in the viewer as you have no clue when the bomb will detonate, yet this all juxtaposes with the light-hearted setting and dialogue.
Katz, Steven D, 1991 – Film Directing Shot by Shot: Visualizing from Concept to Screen, Michael Wiese Productions