How to Emulate the Greatest Tracking Shots in History (for Cheap!)

December 26, 2016
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Seeing “La La Land” got me thinking about tracking shots, some of the most oft-celebrated filmmaking techniques in movies. Damien Chazelle’s throwback musical is filled with some of the most creative long takes I’ve seen in some time, leaving the theatre, all I wanted to do was  grab a camera and make my own. But how would I do it?

If you’re like me, you’ve been inspired by some great tracking shots and pondered the best way to implement them in your work. Good news, filmmakers! Thanks to modern technology, great-looking tracking shots are not only possible, they’re achievable in a number of different ways. Let’s look at four famous tracking shots you can emulate in 2017. If you’re gonna learn, why not learn from the best?

Note 1: Tracks and cranes and traditional steadicams aren’t being mentioned because, well, they aren’t new or inexpensive or fun to think about.

1. Go Swimming “Boogie Nights” Style with Image Stabilization

 

The Shot: It’s a handheld, slightly shaky, tracking shot that bounces around different conversations at a pool party until the camera follows a girl into the water and sticks around for a little while. Also in this class: The final long take in “Children of Men” and the shootout in “Hard Boiled."

How to Do It: You might be able to keep your hands steady enough to get this shot, but why take chances? There’s a lot you have to get right in a shot like this! Luckily, thanks to advances in in-camera and post stabilization , you shouldn’t have to break the bank to make this work. For the safety’s sake, let’s do both.

Camera: You can have in-camera stabilization or lens-based stabilization, In some cases, you can use both in tandem for the best effect. With that, and mobility, in mind, I’m going with the Panasonic GX8 for its internal 5-axis image stabilization. The GX8 might have the best internal IS for the money, and at under $1,000, it won’t break the bank. You can use your extra coin to throw on a Nauticam housing to get that underwater shot. Throw on a LUMIX 12-35mm F2.8 lens, to best utilize the dual stabilization features and you’re good to go!

Nauticam Housing on GX8

Post-Production: ReelSteady is the newest post stabilization tool that you can add to your post workflow. To save the $300 ReelSteady costs, Adobe’s Warp Stabilizer should clean up any unwanted shake that might have made its way to your footage.

Estimated Cost: $2,700 +/- lens choice and ReelSteady purchase.

2. Get Into the Club Gangster Style, Get a Gimbal

 

The Shot: In this famous “Goodfellas” shot, the camera follows two people as they maneuver from the wide-open, dark, street to the narrow club entry and eventually land at a table in the club. Unlike the shakier take in “Boogie Nights,” this shot is smooth all the way through. Also in this class: All of “Russian Ark.”

C100 on DJI Ronin-M

How to Do It: A shot like this screams for a gimbal. These puppies vary in cost quite a bit, depending on your camera’s weight and company priorities. Since we’re emulating Scorsese Hollywood picture, I don’t want to skimp on the camera. The Canon C100 Mk II is crazy great in low-light for the shoot and easily gets natural, film-like, skin tones (unlike the A7S II, its biggest competitor for this spot). This is all based on my preferences, you choose the camera that suits you, you’re your own person.

Since the C100 is pretty light, we can save a little bit of money on the gimbal. Here, we have two main options. The expensive Movi M5 for $2,000 and the less expensive DJI Ronin-M for $1,000 (no offense to CAME TV & Helix). Both options are great, but I’m aiming to save a little money so I’ll go for the Ronin-M. For a lens, let’s go with Scorsese-favorite focal length of under 25mm, utilize the C100’s great autofocus detection, and stay low light-friendly with the beautiful Sigma 24mm f/1.4

Estimated Cost: $5,800

3. You’re Gonna Wanna Stay in the Car, Grab an OSMO

 

The Shot: In “Children of Men,” the camera floats around a small car with five people as a conversation turns into an ambush attack, a death, and an escape. We never leave the car. This shot is in a class of its own.

How to Do It: This shot might be the hardest to emulate. To get the shot ten years ago, Alfonso Cuaron and Emmanuel Lubetzki’s team had to outfit a car roof that would allow a hanging camera to slide and spin around the inside of the vehicle. The actors had to dodge the camera as it moved in the take. In other words, you’re not going to get this shot outright, but we’re emulating here, not recreating, so just roll with it.

Yeah, this might be out of budget.

The cool thing about the DJI OSMO in this situation is its combination of size and steadiness. The camera eye will pan electronically, get a wide angle, and stay steady as the operator moves their arm around the car. With the right setup, the operator could position themselves around the middle console of the car (safety first, filmmakers) and with practice, be able to get five subjects in the shot. Upgrade to the DJI OSMO Pro kit, and you’ll get 12 stops of dynamic range and an image that won’t look half bad.

With a little ingenuity, you can get a great-looking, “Children of Men” inspired, interior vehicle tracking shot. The OSMO is that nifty.

Estimated Cost: $2,200 +/- OSMO accessories.

4. Spy on a Conspiracy, Get a Drone

 

The Shot: Orson Welles’ “Touch of Evil” opens with a close-up of a ticking bomb in a man’s hands. The camera follows the man as he sneaks the bomb into a nearby car’s trunk. The camera stays fixated on the car and elevates as a couple gets in. As the couple pulls out of the lot and drives down the busy street, the camera stays near the vehicle, focusing on a nearby couple walking alongside it. Eventually, the car passes the couple and exits the frame. The man and woman kiss and we hear the car explode offscreen. Also in this class: The opening shot of “Boogie Nights.”

How to Do It: In 1958, this shot required some masterfully elaborate crane-work and an enormous crew. Apparently, the shot required additional re-takes because the actor playing the customs agent was intimated by the huge crane rig descending on him and kept forgetting his one line. I doubt that actor would be so intimidated by the drone that could achieve a similar shot today.

From Beginning to End

Camera: There are a ton of options here at various price points. Today, Welles might choose the Alexa Mini for his production, but at a $36,000 base, it’s pricey. The RED Raven is another option that will look great but might be out of budget. When you factor in the octocopters required to operate these cameras, you’re pushing an additional $15k+ of gear. I want something simpler.

Drone: In a few months, this section of the article might look silly with the DJI Inspire 2 Premium Combo out. The footage looks incredible, and perfect for a “Touch of Evil” fan. Just check out this short film that was shot entirely on the Inspire 2.

 

The Zenmuse X5S is gorgeous, but since the Inspire 2 isn’t out yet, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The X5R/Inspire 1 combo is still great and probably the best image you can get for under $5,000. You can use the X5R’s raw recording to create the look you want. It looks pretty at night as well.

 

Estimated Cost: $4,800

Whether you’re throwing back to Orson Welles or pushing forward with Emmanuel Lubetzki, you can create a killer tracking shot in 2017 for a pretty frugal price. The technology is there waiting for you.

Have you created a killer tracking shot with your ShareGrid gear? Send it our way! We might even share it on the site.

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Brent L Zaffino

I am a filmmaker out of Atlanta, Georgia currently working as a freelance director and videographer for music videos, short films, and corporate videos.

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