Tracking Shots in Film in Theory and Practice (Part 3): Motivation and Types

Camera movement in film in theory and practice (Part 3) Motivation and types
Know how: The use of tracking shots in film and video | Image: Cinematographer Dan Mindel, ASC BSC

When a camera leaves its location during a shot, it is called a tracking shot. The camera movement therefore always contains the leaving of the starting point. This has consequences.

Looking back, it is hard to believe today that in the first years after the invention of the moving picture, the camera mostly just watched the action motionless. Dynamics in early silent film mostly existed only as slapstick in front of the lens.

You need to know

  • A distinction is made between forward, backward and sideways movements of the running film camera.
  • Camera movements are movements that differ from the shoulder camera by their smoothness. The floating effect is made possible by rails, steadycam or a gimbal.
  • As long as it is dramaturgically motivated, a camera movement in all directions is permissible.
  • The most important types of camera movement are the slow movement, the reversal and the crane movement.

Definition of camera movement

Whether in the direction of travel, backwards or across the movement, the line of sight can go in all directions in camera movements, as long as it is dramaturgically motivated. That’s why driving as forward motion or backward motion is most common.

A movement of the camera through space is called a ride.

Even if today movements can be digitally stabilized in the later image processing (usually costly!): One of the biggest challenges is not only the content-related motivation of the camera movement, but also the technical stability during the duration of the movement.

If the recording unit shakes while the camera is moving, this disturbs the viewer sensitively and distracts him from perceiving the content. That is why there are different technical systems for tracking shots in professional filmmaking. Films follow their own language from the point of view of movement with a view to camera work.

Tracking shot: Filming

Kamerafahrt: Dreharbeiten Condor Films - filmpuls

For driving shots from vehicles, the equipment is mounted on a rig, usually together with light sources. The vehicle itself usually sits on a trailer, which is moved by a towing vehicle. This is so that the actors can concentrate on their acting and not on directing.

Dolly (mobile rail cars that move on rails), camera crane, slider or the so-called steadycam, where the camera is attached to the cameraman and can be handled extremely mobile like a handheld camera thanks to sophisticated stabilization systems, give the filmmaker almost unlimited freedom of movement.

Forward travel and reverse travel

Since Hitchcock in Vertigo ingeniously linked the zoom (which does not count as a drive and is not a drive!) with a drive in the opposite direction, even the film-loving layman knows: the drive is characterized optically by a constantly changing center of the picture perspective.

A circumstance that has cost many a producer a lot of nerves during the image processing of high-quality 360 films.

At the beginning of scenes, a forward tracking shot often brings the viewer closer to the main characters. In the same case, driving backwards gives the viewer the feeling of a growing distance.

In order to film new image impressions, a ride does not necessarily have to be curvy. Even in a straight line, the tracking shot allows the viewer to discover new things. Hidden things can come into view, and just like the human eye, the angle of view does not change.

Therefore, the motivation of driving shots should be that it accompanies the viewer, or alternatively the person(s). The majority of movements today are done with steadycam or comparable but simpler stabilization systems, or on rails (dolly).

Rope camera and drones

One of the exotic motion systems is the rope camera. Here the camera, remote-controlled by a motor, follows a taut rope over the scenery or right through it.

Drones must not be missing from this list. Whether it’s a professional quadrocopter or a semi-professional version, camera drones are unfortunately a major contributor to drone footage being created anywhere you can fly in an age where the majority of film is uploaded to YouTube and a simple slider costs no more than a smartphone. Regardless of whether or not that adds meaning to the content.

-> see: Dionys Frei and Davide Tiraboschi have achieved what many dream of. They regularly work for Hollywood with their drone company Dedicam.

Types of camera movement

There are many types of possible rides. The pun not only rhymes, but gets to the heart of the matter. There is not one way to move the camera. Not a fixed duration for the length of the movement. As little as there isn’t a way to make a film or video, regardless of whether it’s for the big screen or YouTube.

Journeys can basically be divided into three categories (mixed forms are omitted here):

1Slow travel

As with panning, slow travel can deepen feelings and moods. Many directors also use slow motion because it gives the viewer a heightened sense of space. This strengthens the identification with the main characters.

For like the slow camera movement and the slowly moving camera, the human being, and thus his eye, seldom stands in place for more than a breath, motionless for long periods of time. It is therefore often a good idea to combine slow travel with a searching pan.


When the lens moves around an object. As with slow travel, the circumnavigation, whether on rails, steadycam or handheld, often involves driving shots and panning. This shifts the foreground, middle ground and background, which to a greater extent creates the illusion in the viewer that he is actually at the scene of the play.

In the informative film, the tour has an explanatory character, while in the emotional film, the tour has a more dramatizing effect.

3Crane ride

Crane travel, though always popular, is often abused as gum for the eyes. Correctly, the crane movement, like any camera movement (dramaturgically conditioned by the sheer scope of its range of motion), must be strictly motivated.

Unmotivated vertical journeys, once referred to as the “elevator effect” by old hands in feature films, irritate the viewer instead of creating suspense.

Comparable things must unfortunately also be said about epic flights with camera drones, which are unmotivated in terms of content: Flight shots with drones have unfortunately become the new plague in commissioned film. Anyone who has had the opportunity to judge image films in a competition jury for a few days knows what we are talking about.

The unleashed camera

For technical reasons, the film camera was tied to heavy tripods until around 1920. When the first handheld film cameras came on the market after the war, partly as a result of the first front-line reconnaissance from airplanes in the war of position in the First World War, the cinematic avant-garde used the handheld recording devices to find new cinematic dimensions. The tracking shot has been freed from its technical shackles.

In 1923, for example, the French film pioneer Abel Gance had a camera attached to a horse for the first time for his film “Napoleon”.

For “The Last Man”, cinematographer Karl Freund attached the handheld camera to his own chest and mingled with the dancing couples himself for a dance scene. The subjective perception of the spectator was thus contrasted with the subjectivity of controlled chance.

Bullet Time vs Camera Moves

With the bullet Time effect, what looks like one trip is actually a series of individual images taken simultaneously from different perspectives. There is a separate article on Filmpuls about the special effect version of the 360 circle ride.

Summary of the camera movement

Like everywhere else where technical innovation was suddenly perceived as groundbreaking, the innovation and technology, and thus the camera work itself, became the star.

Following the legend, French film pioneers tried to reproduce the perspective of a snowflake with a hand-held camera thrown through the air at its main characters. It was at this time that the term “unleashed camera” was coined, and today it is making something of a comeback with action cams in extreme sports.

Until self-learning software gets there, it’s still up to humans to translate their vision into felt reality.

It is not only the tracking shots that shape the moving image. In the field of optics, the film image is also essentially determined by the focal length, and in video technology by the video format and the film format. An introduction for beginners to the subject is given in the Filmpuls article “The ultimate introduction to video technology”.

Continuation of the series

The series of articles on camera movements comprises 4 parts:

  • Introduction to movement in film(Part 1)
  • the camera pan(part 2)
  • Tracking shots (Part 3, this FILMPULSE article)
  • Criteria(part 4) of image movement

For an introduction to lighting, see Introduction to Spotlights and Film Lighting. For more on camera work, also check out the article 10 Good Film Books and the post on what a good storyboard can do.

This article was automatically translated into English using AI. If you would like to help us improve the quality, we would be happy to hear from you.

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