One of the trademarks of the hack filmmaker is the way that they often bombard you with a dizzying array of MTV-style short takes. Such rapid-fire ADD sequences may be used to mask a multitude of film-making sins, including poor fight choreography and mediocre shot composition. This visual style only requires the hack director to worry about coverage, as the footage will be handed over to a professional editor to “make the magic happen”. Conversely, a true visionary filmmaker possesses the confidence to let the action in front of the camera speak for itself.
As a result, visionary filmmakers have often become known for extensive utilization of much longer takes, often containing intricate camera movements and exquisite timing. After all, how can you admire the mise-en-scene of a shot if it only stays on the screen for one second? Furthermore, a long tracking shot featuring either Steadicam or dolly movements, can become one of the most powerful and dynamic tools in a visionary filmmaker’s arsenal. A true visionary can often go from a high angle long shot to a closeup without the use of editing or zooming. However, in the wrong hands, long tracking shots can turn out self-indulgent and over-stylized, taking the viewers completely out of the film with their self-conscious artificiality.
One of the most famous long tracking shots in cinematic history can be found in the opening sequence from the 1958 film TOUCH OF EVIL, directed by the great Orson Welles. This incredible one-take crane shot begins at a low angle as the camera follows a shadowy character as he hurries to place a bomb in the trunk of a convertible. We do not even realize that the camera is on a crane until it moves upwards to look down upon the convertible as it drives away. The change in perspective adds to the tension as we now begin to await the seemingly inevitable explosion. As the camera continues to move along with the convertible, we see are introduced to this border town and and also the protagonist Vargas (Charlton Heston) and his wife (Janet Leigh). The tension continues to mount as Heston and Leigh walk virtually alongside the convertible for much of the scene.
Another more modern example of a very long tracking shot can be found in the 1990 film GOODFELLAS, directed by Martin Scorsese. This incredibly long Steadicam shot uses continuous fluidity to seamlessly show how Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) brings his then-girlfrield Karen into his world. With all of the characters and obstacles that had to be timed perfectly for this scene, especially the table at the end, the degree of difficulty in conceiving of and then flawlessly executing such a scene is astronomical.
Some other outstanding examples can be found in the opening sequence from Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1997 film BOOGIE NIGHTS and the classic fight scene from Park Chan-Wook’s 2003 film OLDBOY. The Boogie Nights sequence is kind of a combination of the Touch of Evil and GoodFellas scenes, smoothly introducing each of the characters with a gliding camera. The Oldboy scene, on the other hand, uses the long take to make the fight scene feel more grueling, taking away the video game elements that are brought in by the rapid-fire style of directors like Tony Scott to make the violence feel more painful.
What do these four scenes have in common? They were each directed by a true visionary filmmaker.