22 November 2015

Long Shots

© MGM and Kotaku
By happy happenstance, I found myself in conversation with our resident filmologist John Floyd discussing the single-camera, continuous tracking shot that opens Spectre. This phrase, ‘single-camera, continuous tracking shot’ or SCCS, refers to using one camera only to follow the action even as it moves uninterruptedly, sometimes over relatively great distances. (The 5½-minute tracking shot of the beach landing in Atonement stretched over a quarter of a mile.) Such a technique gives a sweeping sense of place and an immediacy of time.

Sure, your cousin Jenny shoots with a single camera all the time with her cell phone. Great Uncle Spassky did it before her with his compact video recorder. Of course he forgot he left the camera on during that inglorious argument during Louise’s wedding and Jennifer’s phone was confiscated by Old Mrs. Henpecker in English class after she documented Tonya Thurible really wasn’t wearing undies. But to be sure, they weren’t making epics to be shown at international film festivals, let alone your local Cineplex.

Plot Shots

You may have heard variations of single-camera, continuous tracking shot in connection with last year’s acclaimed Birdman. Virtually the entire movie appeared as one uninterrupted shot.

    Director Alejandro G. Iñárritu …

Iñárritu used a number of extremely clever cinematic tricks to fool the eye, visual sleight-of-hand, sneaky editing, and a smidgen of digital magic. He learned from a master.

I’d love to word-playfully tie Birdman in with The Birds, but my target is a different movie entirely, Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948). Candidly, I appreciate it more as a film study than a film story. Hitch innovated two things: For the first time, he filmed in color. And, for the first time in a major movie, he elevated to an art form single-camera shooting…

… including cheating.

At least five times, Hitchcock used a fade-to-black technique, standard in films with cut scenes, but here the lens loomed close to the back of an actor’s dark jacket and when it pulled back and swung right, the audience found itself viewing a newly set-up scene without realizing it.

As mentioned last week, the opening scene in Spectre uses a fast-moving, single shot technique, and like Rope and Birdman, they cheated as well when entering and leaving the hotel room, and again when the building collapses. The hotel suite was on a sound stage not in Mexico, but London. We can forgive them for that.

On the Move

Quentin Tarantino’s often flawed story-telling enchants me less than his film techniques. Kill Bill was no exception and here the show became fascinating. As continuous filming moved about the building, stagehands rushed to remove and replace walls and lay in a camera ramp on the fly. That is old-fashioned movie magic.

Tarantino’s efforts sometimes remind me of Japanese martial arts epics. Kung-fu cameras love long tracking sequences, the bigger the better. While the action may appear cartoonish, the cameraman– and the audience– get a workout. On at least one epic, filming stopped so they could replace an exhausted cameraman.

In The Shining, Stanley Kubrick employed the recently invented Steadicam. Kubrick and the camera’s inventor, Garrett Brown, continued developing and refining the Steadicam and its potential. The result was one of The Shining’s most famous scenes featuring the plastic tricycle. A camera, mounted mere centimetres above the floor, followed little Danny as he pedaled his Big Wheels trike through the hotel hallways.

My favorite example is Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil, made in 1958, a decade after Hitchcock’s Rope. I rarely watch movies more than once, but I’ve studied that opening sequence many times.

Rope, like Rear Window, was largely shot within a single room, but Touch of Evil sweeps through a city, even from one country to another. Welles had a reputation for blowing budgets and schedules, not to mention cars. When studio execs heard Welles spent an entire day rehearsing the opening shot, they rocketed someone off to give him hell. But Welles had fooled the studio. That one amazing shot put him days ahead of his shooting schedule.

I rewatched it after seeing Spectre. Clearly, Touch of Evil majorly influenced Spectre’s director, Sam Mendes.

Lest you think this type of immersive camera work is reserved for the big screen, season one episode four of True Detective contains a heart-thumping scene where Rusty Cohle, embedded with white supremacist bikers in a black, gang-ridden, crack house neighborhood, tries to get himself and an uncooperative neo-nazi out alive, while protecting innocents, especially a black child. Look for a possible cut in a black screen when the camera swoops up to frame a helicopter and then drops to pick up Cohle again.

It seems directors of our crime genres love single-camera, continuous tracking shot. I’ve mentioned several examples, and you can find others documented here and here and here. But single-camera shooting is showing up another place without a crime in sight… music videos.

Droning On

Take, for example, the group OK Go, known for continuous single-camera shoots as well as loyal fans in North America and Japan who participate in their intricate videos.

They came to my attention through ‘This Too Shall Pass’, known as the Rube Goldberg vid. (A Rube Goldberg Machine is the equivalent of a Heath Robinson Contraption in the UK and eine Was-passiert-dann-Maschine or Nonsens-Maschine in Germany. Australia’s Bruce Petty inventions came much later.) Watch the video; you won’t be disappointed.

Most of OK Go’s videos feature single camera shots, but in this intriguing video, they use a drone. The result is … uplifting.

How Girls Do It or Saving the Best for Last

Not sure how I stumbled upon it, but I’ve watched ‘The Voice Within’ fifteen or twenty times. It’s fun studying the old theatre, trying to figure out how the crew accomplished the camera work while unwrapping power cables as they moved around. (And Christina Aguilera doesn’t look exactly awful either.)

And that’s it for now. Some movie examples like The Player I haven’t seen and I didn’t include Gravity in my list because so much CGI was involved. Other than Kill Bill, my examples have shortchanged martial arts movies, not because they’re terrible, but because I’m less familiar with the genre.

Feel free to chime in. What are your favorites? Let us hear from you.

Our friend ABA sent in a pair of articles relating to last week’s article about James Bond and Spectre. Thanks, ABA!

Notes specific to Spectre
For example, the movie-making wrecked some £24-million in cars, about $36-million dollars. The entire film cost £250-million or about $380-million.

Notes about Bond movies
For example, both Steven Spielberg and Quentin Tarantino wanted to direct Bond films. Whew! 007 might just have dodged a bullet there.


  1. Great Column, Leigh! My favorite will always be that long, long opening scene from Touch of Evil. Another great tracking sequence happened about halfway through the movie Superman: as I remember it, Lois watched Supe fly away off her balcony, then turned and walked back inside her apartment to talk to Clark Kent, in what was supposedly the same shot. (I'll have to go back and watch it again!)

  2. Yeah, John, Touch of Evil is the greatest.

    In my mind's eye, I can picture that Superman scene, but I hadn't realized it was ‘continuous’. Thanks for that info.

  3. The ultimate, however, is "The Russian Ark" by Alexander Sokurov - a 96 minute single camera steady-cam sequence. Not a crime/spy movie, but phenomenal. Check it out!

  4. Eve, I've seen beautiful clips of it but not the whole thing. I've read the recording equipment was limited to 100 minutes, therefore limiting the time of the film. I believe they also cut or cut back the audio to save space and dubbed it in later.

    Thanks for reminding me!

  5. When you think about it, first-person storytelling is like a gopro camera mounted on a helmet or a police bodycam. You get that nonstop point of view. Liked the vids, good selection there.

  6. Thank you, Anon. It's true that camera positioning helps tell the story. Birdman has a first person feel because the camera sticks with him. However, the True Detective scene has a third person feel; at times the camera ducks into places that Rust doesn't go.

    Spectre seems positioned between the two. The camera picks Bond up mid-festival, although we don't know yet it's him. Then the camera seems to fly above him as he moves into… I can't say more without introducing a spoiler. But yes, the camera definitely effects the story telling.

  7. You can watch "The Russian Ark" - full-length, with English subtitles - here:

  8. Mel Brooks' parody/love song to Hitchcock, High Anxiety, has a wonderful take on that, starting outside the dining room of the asylum.

  9. Good find, ABA. Thank you!

    Rob, I saw High Anxiety long, long ago, when I knew a lot less about film-making (and story-telling). I miss Mel Brooks movies.

  10. Leigh- Here is the Mel Brooks scene. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0dLAh2nREz8

  11. Rob, I had forgotten that scene. Good memory.

  12. I'm pretty sure the long takes in ROPE were limited by the amount of film in the camera magazines - 18 minutes, maybe? There's another example in FRENZY (an under-rated Hitchcock, in my opinion), where the camera tracks two people through the market, follows them up a flight of stairs, pauses while they go into an apartment, then backs down the stairs again, and retreats through the market, reversing the shot. First off, while the camera's backing up, there's a murder going on in the apartment - which you in the audience know, so the reversed camera movement is visual irony: life goes on, regardless - and secondly, Hitch uses a couple of disguised cuts, like a guy carrying a case of lettuce directly in front of the camera, so it's not an uninterrupted dolly shot, just seems like one.

    My personal favorite in a Hong Kong movie is John Woo's HARD-BOILED, the unbroken shot in the hospital, where they actually get on an elevator halfway through and go up a floor - I think it really is shot in a single take.


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