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History of long tracking shots rolls in film lore

'Atonement' is the latest movie to use this tough cinematic device. And Orson Welles did it without a Steadicam.

December 28, 2007|Jake Coyle | Associated Press

NEW YORK -- The story of the long tracking shot would be best told in one take.

Our camera could begin with Orson Welles' "Touch of Evil," pass through Jean-Luc Godard's "Week End" and Martin Scorsese's "Goodfellas" and finally arrive at the latest installment in the canon: Joe Wright's "Atonement."

Through cinema history, audacious, lengthy tracking shots have captivated filmmakers and movie buffs who marvel at their grace and choreography. In a medium predicated on storytelling through the juxtaposition of images, the long tracking shot is the cinematic equivalent of a no-hitter in baseball: rare, untouched and very difficult to pull off.

In the middle of "Atonement," a 5 1/2 -minute shot unfolds as Robbie (James McAvoy), a British soldier in World War II, comes upon France's Dunkirk beach, where the final point in the British retreat from the Germans is portrayed as a grim circus of defeat and chaos.

In the Ian McEwan novel from which the movie was adapted, the scene is described in just a few pages. McEwan writes: "It was a rout and this was its terminus." On film, though, it took a lot more doing.

The scene was composed with 1,000 extras, a number of horses and vehicles on the beach, and (digitally added) ships off the coast. It all cost a sizable chunk of the film's estimated $30-million production budget and had to be shot in one day.

That's how long the extras were available, and that small time frame is what initially drove Wright and his director of photography, Seamus McGarvey, to stage the single long shot, rather than squeeze in a dozen separate setups.

"It was conceived out of necessity," Wright said in a recent interview. "We had one day with the extras and then the small issue of the tide coming in and washing away the entire set."

While the tide was out and the light was right, Wright and his crew managed 3 1/2 takes -- the fourth finally exhausting Steadicam operator Peter Robertson. (They used the third take.)

During production on other scenes, Robertson's course was mapped out, meandering through the shambled beach -- sometimes on foot, sometimes riding on a motorized cart.

"When we were making it, I didn't see it in the context of the classic tracking shot, or the history of great tracking shots," said Wright, whose "Pride & Prejudice" included a long shot, as did his British TV film "Charles II." "It felt much, much smaller than that."

But, of course, the shot has been received precisely in that context.

Variety Deputy Editor Anne Thompson blogged: "This shot has its admirers and detractors. It's a stunning shot, but does it take the viewer out of the movie, or serve a dramatic purpose? . . . I for one get a kick out of bravura shots like this, whether it's Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma, Robert Altman, Orson Welles, Antonioni or Alfonso Cuaron."

Perhaps the highest possible praise for such cinematic devices would echo that of umpires in baseball -- they're doing their job well when no one even notices them.

New York Times film critic A.O. Scott, however, said the "Atonement" shot's only impression is: " 'Wow, that's quite a tracking shot,' when it should be 'My God, what a horrible experience that must have been.' "

Any discussion of tracking shots typically begins with Welles' opening to 1958's "Touch of Evil," when Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh walk unknowingly alongside a car with explosives in its trunk.

Welles, by then a veteran director, had with director of photography Gregg Toland pioneered the use of deep focus on Welles' first film, 1941's "Citizen Kane." That meant more realism and fluidity for the camera, which could now present a foreground, middle ground and background. The apotheosis of this is reached in tracking shots that hold a film's realism for long periods.

"For the actors, they really enjoy them because you're in a situation where there's a fourth wall created," Wright said. "There's no area on the set they have to imagine; it's all in front of them."

Among the most famous is Godard's 10-minute shot in "Week End" in which a couple is stranded in a traffic jam, as well as Mikhail Kalatozov's acrobatic shot in 1964's "I Am Cuba." The conclusion to Michelangelo Antonioni's "The Passenger" (1975) is revered, as is Scorsese's legendary shot in "Goodfellas" in which Ray Liotta and Lorraine Bracco enter the Copacabana.

Some films have attempted to push the limits of uncut film, beginning with Alfred Hitchcock's "Rope" (1948), which he had wanted to film in one take but settled for 10. In 2002, Aleksandr Sokurov achieved Hitchcock's goal with "Russian Ark," a film that portrays three centuries of Russian history in one shot.

Many of these shots have become a matter of movie lore and are often paid homage. Altman composed a comic and highly self-reflexive eight-minute tracking shot to open "The Player" (1992), featuring characters discussing the "Touch of Evil" shot. In Doug Liman's "Swingers" (1996), his characters worshipfully chat about Scorsese's "Goodfellas" achievement.

Paul Thomas Anderson has made the tracking shot a trademark of his, particularly in "Boogie Nights" (1997) and "Magnolia" (1999).

Technology has helped a new generation of filmmakers accomplish increasingly daring tracking shots, particularly with the use of Steadicams. Cuaron's "Children of Men" (2006) featured several lengthy shots,including a daring Steadicam- and crane-aided shot during a shoot-out.

"One has to completely bow to the fact that when Orson Welles did the 'Touch of Evil' shot, he didn't have a Steadicam," Wright said. "Steadicams have totally liberated the tracking shot."

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