Film Crit Hulk Smash: Hulk vs. Tracking Shots

Let's talk about that TRUE DETECTIVE shot.

WAIT, THERE'S STILL SOME DEBATE OVER LONG TRACKING SHOTS?

BLURGH. HULK'S FRUSTRATION COMES FROM THE FACT THAT HULK JUST WENT DOWN THE RABBIT HOLE OF COLUMNS AND PEOPLE TALKING ABOUT THE END OF THAT LAST TRUE DETECTIVE EPISODE (HOLY MOLY WHAT A SHOW), AND IT’S SOMETIMES INFURIATING HOW MUCH THE BASICS OF CINEMATIC LANGUAGE IS UNFAIRLY TURNED INTO A PURE TASTE OR OPINION THING. IT’S NOT THAT WE CAN’T DEBATE WHETHER OR NOT CERTAIN TECHNIQUES EXECUTE THAT LANGUAGE EFFECTIVELY, IT'S THAT THERE SEEMS TO BE SOME MISUNDERSTANDING OVER WHAT TRACKING SHOTS EVEN ARE AND WHAT THEY ARE TRYING TO DO. AND THIS IGNORANCE SPILLS OVER INTO THE FACT THAT MANY PEOPLE DON'T SEEM TO GET THAT WE'VE ACTUALLY DEFINED A LOT OF CINEMATIC LANGUAGE ALREADY AND UNDERSTAND PRECISELY HOW IT AFFECTS PEOPLE ON A VISCERAL LEVEL (WHICH ISN'T TO SAY THOSE MEANINGS CAN'T BE INVERTED, BUT THERE'S JUST NUANCE THERE). AND THE REASON FOR ALL OF THIS TROUBLE STEMS FROM THE FACT THAT EVEN THOUGH AESTHETICS ARE CONCRETE IN TERMS OF THEIR EFFECT, THEY ARE SOMEWHAT HARD TO EXPLAIN AND EVEN HARDER TO RECOGNIZE WITHOUT A LOT OF TRAINING.

SO LET'S GET CONCRETE.

1. THE THING THAT TRACKING SHOTS DO BEST IS HOLDING TENSION (SEE: GRAVITY AND EVERYTHING CUARON HAS EVER DONE). WHEN SHIT STARTS HITTING THE FAN, THE AUDIENCE INSTINCT IS TO TURN AWAY, TO BREAK IT, TO FIND SOME KIND OF RELIEF, AND WHEN YOU DON'T LET THAT HAPPEN YOU RATCHET UP THE INTENSITY. IT STILL NEEDS TO BE COMPOSED CORRECTLY SO THAT THE SUBJECT AND EMOTION ARE HIGHLIGHTED IN A MEANINGFUL WAY, BUT THIS IS STILL HOW THEY WORK BEST.

2. THE SECOND THING THAT TRACKING SHOTS ARE GOOD AT IS SHOWCASING "GRACE" - I.E. THE FLUIDITY OF THE MOVEMENT OF THE SHOT ITSELF CAN DOUBLE DOWN ON THE FLUIDITY THAT THE SUBJECT IS EXPRESSING. THIS TACT HIGHLIGHTS THE PERFORMANCE OF THE SUBJECT AND SPEAKS WITH THE ASSUMPTION THAT WHAT YOU ARE SEEING IS ONE COMPLETE ACTION FROM A PERSON AND THUS "REAL" (EVEN WHEN IT IS PURE MOVIE MAGIC). BUT ONE THING TO UNDERSTAND ABOUT GRACE IS THAT IT TENDS TO LESSEN THE DRAMA AND BRINGS WITH IT A SLIGHT BIT OF AWARENESS. WE ARE EFFECTIVELY WITNESSING PERFORMANCE AND THUS MORE OF A DISCONNECT OF AWE. THIS LACK OF VISCERA CAN ACTUALLY BE IMPORTANT SOMETIMES, ESPECIALLY IF YOU ARE TRYING TO BUILD INTO AN EMOTIONAL SWOON THAT IS ABOUT SOMETHING BEYOND THE DRAMA (THINK THE ENDING OF SPEED RACER, WHERE IT'S NOT ABOUT "WILL HE WIN?" BUT ALL THE CATHARSIS OF THE EMOTIONAL ARCS). BUT PLEASE NOTE THIS ISSUE FOR LATER.

3. THE THIRD THING THAT TRACKING SHOTS ARE GOOD AT IS SHOWCASING A COMPLEX ENVIRONMENT. PLEASE UNDERSTAND THIS TENDS TO BE LESS VISCERAL IN TERMS OF EXPERIENCE AND MORE INFORMATIONAL (E.G. THIS IS THE KIND OF BUSY NEWSROOM THEY WORK AT!). IT TENDS TO BE GOOD FOR WALK AND TALKS AND SUCH OR SOME CHAOTIC ACTION SCENES, BUT IT'S IMPORTANT TO REMEMBER THAT THE EFFECT OF THIS KIND OF COMPLEX ENVIRONMENT SHOT IS PRETTY SHORT-LIVED. YOU MAKE THE POINT EARLY SO THE SCENE REALLY NEEDS TO BECOME ABOUT OTHER THINGS.

OKAY. SO THERE'S THE BASICS.

THE PROBLEM IS THAT PEOPLE DO THESE BASICS WRONG ALL THE TIME.

HULK WILL SEE ALL THESE ACTION SCENES WHERE THEY'RE USING INAPPROPRIATE, GRACEFUL LONG SHOTS WHEN THEY'RE SO CLEARLY STRIVING FOR VISCERAL IMPACT; IT'S REALLY JUST SYMPTOMATIC OF THE PROBLEM OF FILMMAKERS INDULGENTLY WANTING ALL OUR ACTION HEROES TO BE UNSTOPPABLE BADASSES. AND IT DOUBLE-SUCKS BECAUSE SHOWCASING GRACE IS A COMPLETELY DRAMA-LESS TACTIC, WHICH TRIPLE-SUCKS BECAUSE TRACKING SHOTS CAN BE SO DAMN FULL OF DRAMA AS THE CUARON INCLINATION PROVES. YOU JUST HAVE TO MAKE THE LONG SHOT A THREAT AND NOT A SHOWCASE FOR HOW AWESOME YOUR HERO IS. AND IT SHOULD BE SAID THAT "A CUT" CAN HAVE THE SAME EXACT DYNAMIC. A CUT CAN BE A WONDERFULLY VISCERAL THING OR IT CAN BE NONSENSICAL TEXTURE THAT FLIES IN THE FACE OF WHAT YOU'RE TRYING TO CONVEY AT A GIVEN MOMENT. AND BETWEEN THE TWO THINGS HULK SEES SO MANY MOVIES CUTTING NONSENSICALLY OR HOLDING SHOTS NONSENSICALLY (TO BE FAIR, A LOT OF TIMES EDITORS ARE TRYING TO DO THE BEST WITH WHAT THE CAMERA DEPT GAVE THEM) AND IT ALL JUST SEEMS TO MISS THAT THERE'S AN ART TO THE TIMING HERE. IF MOVIES ARE SCULPTING IN TIME, THEN SOME FOLKS ARE SCULPTING ALL WRONG AND FAILING TO REALIZE THAT IT'S NOTHING BUT TIMING THAT MAKES YOUR MOVIE. FOR INSTANCE, WHAT REALLY MAKES THE RAID SO GREAT IS IT IS A PERFECTLY COMPOSED MOVIE. EVERY CUT COMES WITH IMPACT. EVERY HOLD COMES WITH TENSION. AND THERE YOU REALIZE THAT WHAT REALLY MAKES THE LONG SHOTS IN GRAVITY WORK IS THE INCREDIBLE EFFECTIVENESS OF WHEN HE FINALLY DECIDES TO ACTUALLY MAKE A CUT (THE OPENING OF THE HATCH!).

THE LARGER POINT IS, WHEN YOU CAN ACTUALLY EXECUTE THE A LONG TRACKING SHOT WITH THE UNDERSTANDING OF ANY OF THOSE THREE QUALITIES THEN IT WORKS LIKE GANGBUSTERS.

AND THE OTHER SIDE OF THAT LARGER POINT: WHEN YOU’RE NOT USING THE LANGUAGE OF THE LONG TRACKING SHOT AS AN EXPRESSION OF THOSE THINGS THEN THAT'S WHERE THE WHOLE “SHOWING OFF” ACCUSATION MIGHT HAVE SOME VALIDITY.

HULK JUST MENTIONED ALL THE ACTION MOVIES THAT FALL FOR THE BADASS INCLINATION, BUT REALLY WE'RE JUST GETTING AT THE TRUTH THAT ALL CINEMATIC EXPRESSION IS ABOUT THE MEANING TO CHARACTER AND STORY (DUH). FOR INSTANCE, EVERYONE SPENT THAT YEAR TALKING ABOUT THE FAMOUS TRACKING SHOT IN ATONEMENT, BUT TO HULK IT'S THE PERFECT EXAMPLE OF NOT UNDERSTANDING THE LARGER POINT. THE SHOT IS BEAUTIFUL. IT SWOONS WITH GRACE. IT SHOWS OFF AN INCREDIBLY COMPLEX ENVIRONMENT. BUT THERE'S, LIKE, NO REAL MEANING TO THE STORY AND CHARACTERS BEYOND WHAT WE GET IN THE FIRST FIVE SECONDS. THE GREAT A.O. SCOTT PUT IT PERFECTLY. IT'S: ''Wow, that's quite a tracking shot,' when it should be 'My God, what a horrible experience that must have been.'" IT'S ACTUALLY ONE OF JOE WRIGHT'S MORE TROUBLESOME HABITS. HE'S SO IN LOVE WITH WHAT CINEMA CAN EXPRESS AND PULLING OFF PRODUCTION MIRACLES THAT HE SOMETIMES MISSES THE PURPOSE OF COMPOSING THE SHOTS IN THE FIRST PLACE. KEY WORD BEING SOMETIMES BECAUSE YOU GIVE HULK THAT STILL SHOT FROM THAT SAME FILM, WHEREIN THEY ARE CAUGHT HAVING SEX IN THE LIBRARY AND IT HOLDS ON HER AS TRIES TO SHE FIX HER DRESS SO THE SISTER DOESN'T NOTICE. THAT SUBTLE TENSION AND OBSERVATION? THAT CHARACTER MOMENT? THAT'S PERFECTLY EXPRESSIVE CINEMA, AND HULK WILL HAPPILY EAT IT UP ANY DAY OF THE WEEK.

THIS ULTIMATELY BRINGS US TO THE MOST TROUBLING PART OF THE POPULAR CONVERSATION: THE TRACKING SHOT IS SUCH A TANGIBLE DETAIL (I.E. THING THAT SOMEONE CAN EASILY NOTICE) THAT IT BECOMES A LIGHTNING ROD FOR A LOT OF OPINIONS THAT HAVE RELATIVELY LITTLE TO DO WITH WHETHER OR NOT THE SHOT ACTUALLY WORKS. AND WORKS IS PERHAPS A RELATIVE TERM BECAUSE SO MANY PEOPLE HAVE AUTOMATICALLY DECIDED THAT "LONG TRACKING SHOT = SHOWY" DECISION IN THEIR MINDS THAT THEY'LL IGNORE ALL STORY CONTEXT AND POTENTIAL VISCERAL FEELINGS BECAUSE THE LOGIC PART OF THEIR BRAIN IS TELLING THEM SOMETHING IS BAD BEFORE OR AS THEY ARE ACTUALLY EXPERIENCING IT (WHICH GETS INTO A STUPID CHICKEN / EGG ARGUMENT, BUT THAT'S HOW IT WORKS). SO THE BETTER QUESTION IS: WHAT MAKES PEOPLE THINK LIKE THAT IN THE FIRST PLACE?

SO THERE'S THIS THING THAT HAPPENS WHERE A LOT OF PEOPLE COME TO WORSHIP AT THE ALTAR OF CINEMATIC NATURALISM. ON ONE LEVEL IT'S UNDERSTANDABLE: WE GO TO MOVIES FOR EXPERIENCES. BUT FOR SO MANY PEOPLE THE DESIRE FOR NATURALISM IS AN EXPRESSION OF THE OVERWHELMING NEED TO HAVE A COMPLETELY TRANSFERRED-TO-THEIR-EXPERIENCE FILM WHERE NOTHING RUINS THE ILLUSION AND ANYTHING THAT IS NOTICEABLE TAKES THEM OUT OF A SCENE. AND WHAT'S SO TROUBLING ABOUT THIS IS IT'S RARELY ABOUT ACTUAL NATURALISM, ACCURATE HUMAN BEHAVIOR OR MATURE THOUGHT, AND FAR MORE THE WILL TO PRESERVE THE ILLUSION OF A FANTASY; OFTEN NO DIFFERENT THEN THE WAY MOST PEOPLE WANT THEIR SUPERHEROES TO BE "DARK" AND "REALISTIC," WHEN REALISM WENT OUT THE WINDOW A LONG TIME AGO.

THUS, THE WHOLE LOVE OF NATURALISM THING JUST BREEDS THIS NONSENSE DISCUSSION OF STYLE OVER SUBSTANCE, WHERE PEOPLE GET CONFUSED AND THINK THAT TERM GIVES THEM LICENSE TO SPEAK ILL OF EVERY BIT OF OVERT STYLIZATION EVER. IT'S AS IF IT HAS BECOME SOME FALSE LAW THAT ANYTHING STYLISH ISN'T INTERESTED IN EXPRESSING SOMETHING "REAL" OR WHATEVER, WHICH IS NOTHING BUT THE AGE-OLD PROBLEM OF MISTAKING FORM FOR FUNCTION. BECAUSE HERE'S THE THING: IT'S ALL STYLE. RESERVATION IS STYLE. SILENCE IS A STYLE. ORGANIC DOCU-STYLE IS A DAMN STYLE (CLEARLY). IT'S REALLY JUST ABOUT WHETHER OR NOT THAT STYLE WORKS IN HARMONIOUS FASHION WITH THE TONE, STORY AND THEMATIC POINT OF A GIVEN MOMENT. SOMETIMES THAT STYLIZATION CAN BE PERFECT. AND SOMETIMES IT CAN BE COMPLETELY EXTRANEOUS. FOR THERE ARE PLENTY OF NATURALISTS THAT HULK ADORES (MIKE LEIGH!) AND THERE ARE PLENTY OF OVERT STYLISTS (P.T. ANDERSON!) THAT HULK ADORES TOO. THE LANGUAGE IS THE LANGUAGE, BUT IT'S ALL CINEMA AND IT'S ALL JUST ABOUT USING THE LANGUAGE RIGHT.

BESIDES, IF WE'RE GOING TO GET INTO IT, HULK WOULD ARGUE THAT THE TRACKING SHOT IS ACTUALLY JUST ANOTHER FORM OF PERFECT NATURALISM. GODARD SAID IT BEST: "Every cut is a lie." AND WITH THE HIGH DEGREE OF DIFFICULTY (STORY OR PRODUCTION), ACTUALLY GETTING THE RARE JOY OF WATCHING A PERFECTLY-EXECUTED TRACKING SHOT UNFOLD TO A LARGER, MEANINGFUL POINT AND VISCERAL EXPERIENCE IS ONE OF THE GREAT JOYS OF REALIZING CINEMATIC TRUTH. AND HULK WOULD ARGUE TO THROW THAT TACTIC OUT AS A BAD THING IS TO NOT ONLY MISUNDERSTAND HOW CINEMA WORKS IN A BROADER SENSE, BUT TO EXPRESS A PRETTY NARROW APPRECIATION FOR CINEMA IN GENERAL.

SO NOW THAT WE HAVE ALL THAT OUT OF THE WAY, WE CAN ACTUALLY TALK ABOUT THAT DAMN TRACKING SHOT IN TRUE DETECTIVE. FOR ONE, IT WASN'T OUT OF PLACE AT ALL IN THE WORLD OF THE SHOW (WHICH HAS BEEN OVERTLY STYLED THE WHOLE TIME). IT HAD THE PERFECT INTENTION OF HOLDING TENSION. THAT TENSION WAS ESPECIALLY AMPED UP BECAUSE WE WERE IN A REALISTIC WORLD (EVEN IF IT IS STYLIZED). THE TRACKING SHOT WAS POSED AS A THREAT WHERE WE FEARED FOR THEIR SAFETY INSTEAD OF MARVELING AT HOW BADASS THEY WERE. THERE WERE ADMITTEDLY A FEW AWKWARD MOMENTS AND DEAD SPOTS DURING THE SHOT, WHICH IS ACTUALLY PROBABLY THE ENTIRE CREATION FOR THE "NOT WORKING" EMOTIONAL REACTION WHICH CAUSED SOME PEOPLE TO KICK UP A FUSS (ALONG WITH THE SIMPLE FACT THAT THEY NOTICED IT AND IT BROKE THE PRECIOUSNESS OF THEIR EMOTIONAL TRANSFERENCE), BUT ALL THAT WOULD DISCOUNT THE COUNTLESS MOMENTS IN THE SHOT WHERE IT WORKED SO DAMN WELL (GOING BACK AND FORTH BETWEEN THE TWO ROOMS, THE FENCE CLIMB, THE CAR SCREECHING BACK). PUT IT ALL TOGETHER AND THERE IS SIMPLY NO DOUBTING THAT THE SHOT WORKED EXTRAORDINARILY WELL, WAS WHOLLY TO THEIR PURPOSE AND REALLY MANAGED TO CAP AN INCREDIBLY INTENSE EPISODE IN SPECTACULAR FASHION. IT'S A WIN IF THERE EVER WAS ONE.

AND OUTSIDE THE REALMS OF MERE FUNCTIONALITY, PART OF WHAT MADE THE SHOT SUCH A TALKING POINT IS THAT IT WAS PURE CINEMA AND IT JUST SO HAPPENED TO BE ON TV. THAT ALONE IS SOMETHING SUBSTANTIAL.

<3 HULK

P.S - ACTUALLY UNRELATED TO THE MEANING OF THE SUBJECT, BUT STILL GOOD TO KNOW ABOUT THE SUBJECT IN GENERAL: A "TRACKING SHOT" HAS BECOME THE STANDARD TERM FOR ANY KIND OF LONG SHOT BECAUSE IT "TRACKS" THE SUBJECT... YEAH, THAT'S BULLPOOP. THE ORIGIN OF THE WORD STEMS FROM THE FACT THAT IN ORDER TO GET THAT KIND OF MOVEMENT, YOU USED TO HAVE TO LAY DOWN DOLLY TRACKS - HENCE "TRACKING." AND WITH THE ADVENT OF CRANES THERE WERE ALSO "CRANE SHOTS" AND THE TWO SHOTS WERE CALLED TWO DIFFERENT THINGS AND EVERYONE ON SET KNEW THEM AS SUCH. AND THEN STEADICAM KIND OF BLEW BOTH DESIGNATIONS ALL TO HELL, BUT THE TERM "TRACKING SHOT" STUCK AROUND IN PEOPLE'S HEADS BECAUSE OF THE SIMPLE WORD TRACKING. AND IT'S PROBABLY FINE FOR CRITICAL USE (LANGUAGE IS FLUID), BUT UNDERSTAND THAT THERE ARE STILL PEOPLE ON FILM SETS AND D.P.S WHO WILL YELL AT YOU FOR CALLING A CRANE OR A STEADICAM SHOT A TRACKING SHOT BECAUSE "THERE AIN'T NO DAMN TRACK IN SIGHT." THIS IS HAPPENING LESS AND LESS THESE DAYS, BUT IT'S JUST FOOD FOR THOUGHT AND PART OF THE REASON HULK JUST DESIGNATES THEM ALL UNDER "LONG SHOTS."

P.P. S. HULK LOVES ALL YOU BUTTZ.

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