Tracking shots are one of the many weapons in your arsenal as a filmmaker that can really help to keep your shots from getting monotonous. A tracking shot is a single continuous shot from the ground with a moving camera. It’s easy to be in awe of film’s great storytellers maneuvering their cameras in a seemingly effortless manner when they have millions of dollars to stage them (a few of my must-see favorites: Alfonso Cuaron’s gritty Children of Men and the lesser known Samuel Fuller’s stunning-but-hard-to-find ode to journalism Park Row).
Here are four ways you can pull off the same feat for less:
1. Wheels are your friend.
You can get a good tracking shot by being creative with movement. My most successful endeavor happened by persuading my mother to drive about 5 miles per hour while I peeked through the sun roof of the car, camera in hand. While I do not recommend any daredevil tactics, it is quite easy to find methods of transport that will make for an amazing dolly substitute. Wheeling your camera tripod on a skateboard may look silly, but trust me, it’s effective.
2. Be patient and be prepared for about a million takes.
When you lack the sophisticated equipment and are filming on the fly, mistakes happen, be it bumps in the road or unwanted passersby in your background. So if by the 20th take your camera is still quaking over that unruly crack in the pavement, take a deep breath and work around it. You’ll get it eventually.
3. Hold your breath.
If you’re going for a shot that’s seamless, I’ve found that actually holding your breath is a small, but helpful gesture. Granted, don’t do this until you turn blue, but if your shot is relatively short, holding your breath for a couple of seconds as you guide your camera can help get rid of some of the shakiness.
4. Don’t rush it.
If working with actors and following their movements, make sure to establish a consistent pace. Try to maintain the same distance between you and the subject for continuity’s sake, as running into your actor doesn’t exactly bode well either.
At the end of the day, tracking shots are a lot about luck too. It could be the first take or the 42nd when you finally strike that cinematic gold. Part of the fun is being bold and experimental, because at the end of the day, the only thing that’s possibly better than that awesome shot, is explaining the lengths you went to get it to your admirers.
For a little inspiration, check out Mr. Marty Scorsese flaunting his talent just a bit (sorry, embedding disabled):