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A tracking shot is simply a moving camera, so called because in the older days to make such a shot they needed to lay down tracks for the camera rig to follow.
An Epic Tracking Shot takes this Up to Eleven. This is where the camera goes on an uninterrupted journey from a close-up to a distance shot or vice versa. The purpose of this complicated shot is so that you can see the sheer scope of their environment or that it helps reveal the location of different groups or characters in relation to each other.
What usually makes this so "epic" is that the complexity of the shot is such that it would be impossible to do without the use of some sort of visual effect, such as going from a city skyline into an apartment, and then through a keyhole into the bathroom. This doesn't mean that there has to be loads of Conspicuous CG, it's just that it would be quite difficult and very expensive to do certain shots like that any other way.
Many directors use this as a Signature Style, and is also quite popular to use as the opening or ending shot of a movie or episode.
A variation is to combine this with between scene eye-catches, at least to give the illusion that it is one continuous shot. Another popular variation is where the camera seems to sink into the ground or ceiling to show what is happening on different floors. It is also one of the big signs that a television episode has received a Big-Budget Beef-Up.
A production can also have several very wide camera shots taken from a helicopter and zooming in slightly without actually being one of these shots. The key is how it goes from an extremely wide angle to a reasonable close-up or vice-versa.
- The silent film Sunrise, and its director F.W. Murnau, were largely responsible for introducing this trope to Hollywood.
- The Avengers: it starts with Black Widow on the back of a Chitauri on a flying sled, controlling him. Iron Man flies by her and he blasts a couple of aliens on the ground. He lands next to and fights alongside Captain America, then flies up the side of a building where Hawkeye is on the roof fighting off aliens. Hawkeye shoots an arrow and the camera follows it as it hits a Chitauri sled. It falls and a leviathan passes by where the Hulk and Thor are on it fighting aliens. The Hulk stabs the leviathan with a big piece of debris, and Thor hammers it in. This brings the leviathan crashing into Grand Central Station.
- In the first Mission Impossible movie, there's an epic helicopter shot that pulls up to the Chunnel Train, then through a window into a compartment. There's a similar shot in The Birdcage, starting actoss the ocean, up to Miami Beach, then uninterrupted into Robin William's club.
- A classic example is seen at the start of The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.
- Star Trek First Contact began almost inside Captain Picards eye, then progressively pulled back to show how massive the Borg complex was. A later moment in the movie begins with a view of the Enterprise, then travels underneath the saucer section to focus on a couple of people emerging in space suits to walk across the hull. It gives a real sense of size to the ship.
- A particularly impressive shot was used for Treasure Planet. You see a half-moon in the sky and when the characters talk of going to the spaceport the camera then zooms towards the moon and as it gets bigger you see more details and eventually notice that it isn't a moon, but the spaceport itself shaped like a half moon.
- David Fincher loves doing this, like the garbage can in Fight Club or running the camera through the entire house (including going through walls) in Panic Room.
- Michael Bay is fond of doing a "showdown" tracking shot where two enemies are hiding behind barriers, both ready to jump out at each other, and the camera starts behind one of them and does a high speed move while rotating 180 degrees. Sometimes going through walls.
- Transformers and following the Allspark to Earth.
- The end of Resident Evil The Movie has a particularly good one involving Alice pulling out a shotgun from a police car and cocking it determinedly, and then pulling slowly out revealing a completely devastated Raccoon City.
- Men in Black ends with an epic tracking shot by starting with an overhead of J and L, then pulling away to see the Earth, continuing on past the solar system and the galaxy to show that our galaxy is simply a marble much like the Mac Guffin of the film.
- Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban had a couple of shots that went through the numerous, moving, Death Trap-esque clock gears, through the closed window and into the coutyard.
- The second film has a shot which starts with a distant shot of Hogwarts and zooms in through the roof of the greenhouse, revealing Professor Sprout starting the Herbology class.
- Also The Oner, action movie Tom Yum Goong /The Protector/ Warrior King features a four-minute one-shot elaborate fight sequence that reportedly took eight days to get right in which Tony Jaa fights his way up a building. Must be seen to be believed.
- One scene in Total Recall has several villains walking around inside an abandoned alien base. At the end the camera pulls back (via special effects) to reveal the incredible size of the base.
- Several in Watchmen.
- Orson Welles
- In Goodfellas, Henry and his girlfriend entering the back of the Copabana Club. Watch it here
- In Robert Altman's The Player, the opening tracking shot, which even has two film execs giving a Shout Out to Touch of Evil.
- The Argentine film El secreto de sus ojos (The Secret in their Eyes) has a tracking shot that starts with an above view of a football (soccer) stadium during a match, then dives into the crowd to focus first on the policemen trying to spot a murder suspect among the fans, then on the suspect as he is seen by the police, and finally on a dizzying chase scene through the stairs and toilets of the stadium.
- The opening shot of Contact.
- The opening battle of Revenge of the Sith.
- The final shot of Minority Report, starts with a simple pull back from two of the precogs sitting in a room in a house, back through the house, out through the (closed) window, and away from the house and up.
- The ending of Time Bandits has the camera pulling away from Kevin's house, up out into space, ending with a shot of the time hole map. Watch it here, starting at 2:00.
- Powers of Ten by Charles and Ray Eames (1977) starts with a picnic blanket in a park and pulls out, marking every time the distance has increased to a power of ten, until our entire galaxy is just a dot in space. Then, we zoom all the way in again and keep going until we get down to the structure of an atom. Watch it here, starting at 0:50.
- Godard was a big fan of the long tracking shot. It's evident in his early work. In Contempt, there's an early shot of the characters walking outside the studio space talking with the American producer that lasts for some 6 minutes - but most famously in his late 1960's film Weekend which opens with a stunning tracking shot of the protagonists driving around traffic which lasts for more than 10 minutes.
- The closing shot of Fantasia, a languid shot through a Gothic-looking forest at dawn. It was so hard to pull off that it wasn't finished until hours before the world premiere.
- The Rescuers Down Under opens with the camera flying for miles at high speed from a ladybug on a blade of grass to Cody's bedroom.
- Pinocchio has a shot of the village waking up in the morning, starting with the church bell and going down the streets to Geppetto's door. All the more impressive considering it was done in 1940.
- Children of Men has a tracking shot of the protagonist maneuvering desperately through a combat zone to rescue another person, lasting over seven-and-a-half minutes. Likewise, an earlier scene has a long tracking shot (from the perspective of a car's interior) as a group of characters rush to escape people trying to kidnap their cargo.
- The opening shot of Psycho was meant to be one with the camera panning through the city until it entered the hotel room Marion was having her affair in, but it was impossible to do with the technology of the time. Gus Van Sant's shot-for-shot remake actually does it.
- The film Atonement has an extensive one depicting the Dunkirk evacuation.
- The remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, after the hitchhiker commits suicide: the camera starts on everyone's shocked reaction, then pulls back through the bullet wound, out the back of her head and the shattered rear windshield.
- Kill Bill Vol. 1 has a spectacular example of this which can be viewed here.
- Alfred Hitchcock's Young and Innocent reveals that the real murderer has an eye twitch, then does a slow, dramatic tracking shot from the lobby ceiling of the hotel, through the dancer-filled ballroom, and up to a close-up of the eyes of the blackface orchestra drummer. No points guessing what his eye does.
- The film Russian Ark, which is all one single tracking shot. The whole film.
- The title sequence of Superman Returns is one long tracking shot from Krypton to Earth. And it is gorgeous.
- The introduction to the crew in Serenity takes the form of a huge Oner that follows Mal through the ship, past each crew member in turn. There's another later in the film, when preparing to Hold the Line against the Reavers in Mr. Universe's complex. According to the commentary, both shots were intended to give a sense of the space the action was shortly to take place in.
- One of the tracking shots in Das Boot required special effects to produce. It pans across a submarine factory/pen, passing by at least three subs. However, only one model sub was actually built for this scene.
- The Green Hornet takes this concept Up to Eleven by having the villain send out his henchman to pass along his orders to kill the titular hero to all the hoodlums under his thumb. Rather than track each person who receives the call, the camera divides into more cameras to follow every single hoodlum as they are mobilized, up until all the views end in the deaths of a dozen criminals mistaken for the Green Hornet.
- At the beginning of The Lion King 1 1/2, there was a tracking shot that backs very far away from Pride Rock, finally stopping at a field in the middle of nowhere which soon reveals itself as a meerkat colony.
- There's a literary example in John Sladek's novel Roderick, where the title character (a robot boy) lets his newly-repaired eye do a long pan over a street scene, revealing all of the muggers, petty thieves, drug dealers, whores and other vices that his human 'mother' fails to notice.
- The Light Fantastic ends with such a shot, or at least it says it does.
- Various of the "Next Generation" Star Trek series would often end with a shot of someone looking out a window to have the shot pan out to show the rest of the ship or station they were on. In Star Trek the Next Generation they would visually "cheat" the image by pulling out only part way, then cut to the approximate area of the ship. In later series as CG became more cost effective, they would do it uninterrupted.
- The best example of this would be the series finale of Star Trek Deep Space Nine, where the camera pans away from Kira and Jake looking out a window all the way out until the station is out of sight before the credits roll.
- Smallville uses these on occasion. One shows Clark leaving Smallville by Super Speed, then the camera pulls back to see the entire Earth, and then zooms in to South America where Clark is arriving.
- The opening credits of the old 60s show Hawaii Five-O feature an epic zoom-in from the city of Honolulu to Jack Lord, standing on the roof of a building.
- Firefly uses the "sink through the ceiling or ground" variation in the episode "Objects in Space" for both River listening in underneath the rest of the crew and Jubal Early listening in on top of their ship.
- Warehouse 13 uses the eye catcher variation using a handful of stock footage bits of moving quickly around the warehouse only to merge the stock footage with original footage as it goes into a specific area.
- Battlestar Galactica, the final shot of season 3 has the camera move back from the Fleet, until we see its location in the galaxy, and then moves back to where the Cylons are. Pretty impressive stuff, that.
- The opening shot of the Doctor Who story The Trial of a Time Lord as the camera swoops around the Time Lords' space station. It's really incredible for the budget of a mid-'80s British TV show, and the model is remarkably believable given how close the camera gets.
- The opening shot of the 2005 reboot tracked in from Earth orbit down into current-day London, and into Rose's bedroom.
- One of the intros to Babylon 5 shows a person in a spacesuit welding in space. The camera then pulls back to show the enormous titular station next to which the person is just a dot.
- Red Dwarf uses a similar opening.
- The opening of the 50's documentary TV show, The Twentieth Century, included a pan shot from the ground up to about 60 miles where you could see the curvature of the earth. No camera tricks, however. The camera was mounted on a captured V2 rocket when it was launched in 1946.
- In the season five opener of Stargate Atlantis, the camera zooms out from the team's location and pulls back through the solar system until it turns around, zooms through another solar system, and finally stops as we see an enemy ship orbiting another planet.
- Kamen Rider Fourze pulls this out occasionally. Whenever Gentaro starts his Catch Phrase, it'll soon zoom out to a view of Earth along with the sun, moon and other planets then zooms in back on Gentaro finishing it.
- There are three from the first episode ("A Study in Pink") of Sherlock that stand out enough to be discussed during the commentary.
- In one, a camera follows Sherlock and John down the steps of 221 Baker Street, rotates around them as they interact with Mrs. Hudson, rotates around them again as they go through the narrow entrance corridor, follows them out the door into the street, then flies up into the air as the pair drive off in a taxi. It was pulled off with a wipe, right as John walks across the field of vision, everyone freezes until the camera is put on a crane and action is resumed.
- Another shot involved the camera mounted on a pole going up the center of a flight of stairs, then through a hole in the floor.
- The third was involved when there was supposed to be two identical buildings side by side, and the shot went from a room in one of them, through a window, then into another room through a window of the second building. Since the film crew were unable to find a pair of suitable buildings, one of them was CGI, which meant the shot was made by going out, turning around, and going back in the same window, then manipulating it later in editing.
- The opening cutscene of Primal is a tracking shot starting from a great distance, traveling high above a bridge over a river, past a gargoyle high on a building ledge, continuing forward and down to a back-alley with a junkie lying in it.
- Later in the game there's a long tracking shot underwater through the skeleton of a giant fish.
- The Modern Warfare games like doing this in the cutscenes between missions, going from a satellite view of an entire country and then zooming in progressively to show entire battlefields full of high-tech armies, just to establish the scale. Often the camera zooms in (often from orbit!) to show your squad, and further down to first-person view to begin the mission.
- Fallout: New Vegas starts off with one of these, beginning with a framed photo of the Lucky 38 casino hanging on a wall, moving to the trashed Lucky 38 holding it, then to the New Vegas Strip, and continuing onto an NCR sniper, who fires a bullet into a raider's head (that the camera faithfully follows). It continues further back to see Caesar's Legion soldiers moving out towards the Strip. We finally end in the Goodsprings Graveyard, where Benny shoots the Courier.
- Each episode of Red vs. Blue Reconstruction opened with a tracking shot of some kind. Probably the most noteable was when the camera pans over Standoff and unltimately flies through an open window into a base where the characters are standing and the scene begins with no transition. Granted, due to the game engine's flying camera it's not a hard shot to pull off in the game, but it would be in real life.
- Gunnerkrigg Court: The first page of "Sky Watcher and the Angel" starts zoomed in on Sky Watcher's antenna, and zooms out to show the entire city skyline.
- Re Boot. It was actually quite common for an episode to begin with a view of Mainframe, then with a series of twists, turns and dizzying angles it focused in on the spot they needed to be in order to begin the story.
- The episode of Futurama "Bender Should Not Be Allowed On TV" has a shot of the Planet Express Ship taking off from New New York, flying around the Earth and landing in LA. All within the space of a few seconds.
- A Couch Gag from The Simpsons features a Shout-Out to the above-mentioned Powers of Ten, where the "camera" pulling back to reveal the planet, then the galaxy, then the universe... only to reveal atoms, then cells, then we realise that the universe was within Homer all along.
- The Thief and the Cobbler has several. One which defies perspective has a zoom which goes through another character's eye; another zooms out from a character's mouth to a "God's eye view" of the areas around the huge city he's in.