On the Creepy Alluring Art of the Follow Shot

06/03/2009 4:00 AM |

“Following” is a montage of clips illustrating one of my favorite types of shots: one where the camera physically follows a character through his or her environment. I love this shot because it’s neither first-person nor third; it makes you aware of a character’s presence within the movie’s physical world while also forcing identification with the character. I also love the sensation of momentum that following shots invariably summon. Because the camera is so close to the character(s) being followed, we feel that we’re physically attached to those characters, as if by an invisible guide wire, being towed through their world, sometimes keeping pace, other times losing them as they weave through hallways, down staircases or through smoke or fog.

The impetus for this short is Darren Aronofsky’s movie The Wrestler (2008), which deploys following shots as the core of its visual strategy, following its hero, the down-and-out former pro wrestler Randy (Mickey Rourke), through his daily life. The recurrence of these shots got me thinking about the chain of influence that might have led Aronofsky to become so infatuated with them. The most immediate antecedent is the filmography of the Dardenne Brothers, whose down-and-dirty, documentary-influenced style includes plenty of shots where the camera is placed directly behind a main character’s head (this short contains two examples from their work). In The Wrestler, Aronofsky is obviously aiming for a Dardennes-like aesthetic, using the handheld, up-close camera to fix Randy in a world that feels more “real” than Hollywood (even though the unironically hokey story amounts to an R-rated Rocky).

But the Dardennes’ following shots, however distinctive, didn’t just arrive mysteriously on screens. They are descended from myriad other examples, some visually rough and seemingly spontaneous, others carefully choreographed, often taken with a smooth-gliding Steadicam or from a camera mounted on a dolly and then placed atop wheels or tracks. One of the earliest, most spectacular examples is the famous shot in F.W. Murnau’s 1927 melodrama Sunrise which follows a distraught woman into traffic in a small-town square as her husband chases after her, dodging Model T cars that veer frighteningly close. Starting in the mid-70s, with the invention of the Steadicam rig (which permits versatile handheld shots minus the usual shimmy and shake), following shots became somewhat easier to stage and thus more commonplace, and such virtuoso directors as Stanley Kubrick, Brian De Palma and Martin Scorsese (all of whom are represented in this montage) raised them to a new level of spectacle, to the point where the tracking shot practically became a little movie-within-a-movie.

I thought it would be fun to rifle through film history and piece together multiple examples to try to create a unified piece — a non-chronological tour through film history by way of the following shot, one that’s less about any specific film than the idea of the following shot. To that end, I’ve arranged the clips so that the first portion of the film has no credits, turning the experience of viewing into a game of “Can You Name the Movie?” It ends with a secondary montage of freeze-frames, one pulled from every clip as it appeared in the chronology, with printed information revealing the movie’s title and release date and the names of the director and cinematographer.

9 Comment

  • Another brilliant essay by Matt Seitz. Thanks to L for giving this man as much space as he wants to stretch his one-of-a-kind abilities.

  • To the author.
    Simple question re: your method.

    What do YOU use to make such a montage? What format are the files you edit?

  • La Promesse was amazing! The end shot where they walk away from the camera blew my mind!

  • I use Mac the Ripper or Handbrake to convert video to mpeg4 format, then mpeg Streamclip to convert the bits I need to dv format, which I then drop into a Final Cut timeline. The finished cut is then converted into an .mov format, then downscaled to make it small enough to upload.

  • I got 0 correct. I am amazing– in a way.

  • Beautiful.

  • Looks exquisite. This was really pleasant to watch, especially with the accompanying music–by the way, what was that? The follow shot truly is the oldest trick in the book, and I think you’d be hard pressed to find a movie that doesn’t have at least one usage of it. Your choices were wise and entertaining; I especially appreciated the inclusion of that scene from Die Hard. Seriously, the compilation would be utterly incomplete without that shot of chain-saw-wielding blonde pony-tailed terrorist.

  • Luke: The music is by my maternal grandmother, Hazel O. Volkart, who died in 1984. The recordings are taken from a compilation album recorded in a studio about six months before her death. She was in the advanced stages of bone cancer at the time and had horrendous arthritis to boot, and if you listen you can hear a few places where she hits the wrong note or gets the timing off. All in all, though, it’s a pretty amazing performance under the circumstances, especially considering that my grandmother made it her mission in life to write stuff that would have given Franz Liszt carpal tunnel. None of the recordings are commercially available — it’s just a bunch of old archival family stuff. The final piece was recorded on a Realistic mono tape recorder placed atop my grandma’s piano by my grandfather in about 1977. That voice you hear saying “Memories” is him calling the tune.

  • “I got 0 correct. I am amazing– in a way.”

    Ha! Yes, way better than the three or four I got .. . .

    And I second the first comment.