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The Tracking Shot and Action Games

This article is part of Film Week, Kill Screen’s week-long meditation on the intersection between film and videogames. Check out the other articles here. And, if you’re in NYC, grab tickets to our Film Fest at Two5Six on Friday, May 15th.

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How are the scenes of minutes-long, carefully choreographed, cut-free combat in Daredevil and True Detective similar? Though they are very different scenes (the former is a simple brawl set in a static hallway, the latter a chaotic police raid that spans an entire block) they both use the implications of one long take—known as a tracking shot—to underscore the point their shared violence makes. In Daredevil, the tension of the unbroken shot recapitulates the plot of the episode—Matt Murdock is grievously wounded in a fight, but comes back for more—while forcing the audience to experience the fight as Murdock does: one long, uninterrupted, exhausting exchange without any cuts to ease the tension or interrupt the choreography. In essence, the tracking shot places the viewer in the scene in an almost intimate fashion. Given its ability to generate closeness, it is then no surprise that videogames—especially action games—have adopted this shot as their aesthetic.

the tracking shot places the viewer in the scene in an almost intimate fashion

But the tracking shot, in its various permutations, does not merely bring the viewer in. It also imparts a sense of seamless energy and momentum, as in the opening to Boogie Nights or The Goodfellas, where the viewer is literally being taken into and introduced to various clubs by the movement of the camera. Or it can take that sense of perpetual motion and transform it into sheer panic, as with the car-chase scene in Children of Men. Most recently, Birdman’s extreme use of unbroken shots helped to express the desperate energy that drove Michael Keaton’s character, while Russian Ark uses an absolutely massive tracking shot to transmit the jubilant momentum of three centuries of Russian history. In short, there is an energy found in the shot that mirrors the kind found in action games, from, say, first-person shooters and third-person platforming games.

In part, this connection is merely stating the obvious: the camera is fixed upon the player out of necessity—how else could the player see what is happening? To go further, the tracking shot is just a name given to the kind of view we all use in our own lives, where our eyes are the camera and our days are the uninterrupted scene. In a medium obsessed with realism, it is the most realistic way to recreate our lived experience, and from this angle we can see why dissatisfaction with cutscenes is a recurrent subject in discussions surrounding videogames. As games are defined by the player’s interaction, removing agency in the form of scripted cinematics or cutscenes becomes a cardinal sin. And the visual turn this lack of control takes—the shift from tracking shot to the varied intonation of whatever angles and shots the script dictates—emphasizes the “unnatural” quality of the shift. To quote the filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard: “every cut is a lie.”

removing agency in the form of scripted cinematics or cutscenes becomes a cardinal sin

But to accept a camera style as convention does not divest that convention of its meaning: film has a language of shots and takes that add depth and meaning to the matter they depict, and it is this language that games—in their capacity of a visual medium—try to borrow. Originally, the tracking shot was named after the actual tracks laid down for a camera and dolly. This miniature railroad allowed the camera to move along with both the actors and the action to create one long, unbroken shot. Though technically the only true tracking shot is one that has actually involved tracks, in the days of steadicam the term has broadened to include any long, unbroken shot. The tracking shot, in the inimitable words of Film Critic Hulk, can do the following:

1. THE THING THAT TRACKING SHOTS DO BEST IS HOLDING TENSION […] 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.

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. […]

3. THE THIRD THING THAT TRACKING SHOTS ARE GOOD AT IS SHOWCASING A COMPLEX ENVIRONMENT. […]

We can see how these elements translate to the tracking shot inherent to videogames: the ideal experience of gameplay is one of uninterrupted grace, of rolling, running, and even gunning with a preternatural sense of perfect movement; the flow and ebb of tension (a firefight or a game of hide-and-seek) and release (the checkpoint, the completed level); the visually complex layout of battlefields and jungle-gyms. From the buoyant navigation of Prince of Persia’s palaces to the open, navigable landscapes of Assassin’s Creed or Shadow of Mordor, we can see the way in which the ideas and emotions translated by the tracking shot have, in many cases already, been captured by videogames.

Yet the very elements that tracking shots can transmit are too often the very same elements that action games neglect, producing their opposites: linear environments instead of complex ones; buggy, stodgy action instead of grace; the lazy expression of a vicarious power fantasy instead of legitimate tension. It is not surprising that Assassin’s Creed Unity invoked cinematic conventions to justify its thirty frames-per-second, and then proceeded to release an awkward, jarring mess; both the frame-rate and the final product represented a misunderstanding of the cinematic ideals they were so desperate to latch onto. The screen moves at twenty-four frames-per-second—though modern three-blade shutters create the impression of seventy-two images-per-second—while the game’s only claim to cinematic convention was marred by graceless technical gaffes.

All this is not to be prescriptive and say “this is how it should be done.” Just as the experience of tracking shots in film transmits to the audience its intended effect, so does the well-constructed game transfer its enthusiasm to the player in the same way a native speaker of English is able to use the language without being able to define either predicates or the past perfect tense.

But in cinema, the tracking shot allows the screen to show more than mere action. The unbroken shot in Daredevil is so effective because it is the thematic climax of various threads present throughout the episode: Murdoch’s injuries are referenced throughout the episode and the agonizing display during that fight scene helps to reinforce both his heroism and just how tenuous his position is. But in order to translate these details, the tracking shot relies on everything that came before it: dialogue, shots, cuts, and so on. In essence, the tracking shot is so effective because it is a rare word in a rich language—and, to return to videogames, what does one word mean when it is the only one available? The tracking shot is the best way to describe the in-game camera native to the action genre, but it’s also the only name that can be given to the view. It is difficult to imagine games using the language of cinema while only able to speak a few words of that language.

the tracking shot is so effective because it is a rare word in a rich language

Or, perhaps, the tracking shot is simply an old world that has begun to adopt an entirely different meaning, in the same way that cinema was once the French cinéma, which was reshaped from the Ancient Greek kinema, “movement.”

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This article is part of Film Week, Kill Screen’s week-long meditation on the intersection between film and videogames. Check out the other articles here. And, if you’re in NYC, grab tickets to our Film Fest at Two5Six on Friday, May 15th.