This post is about shooting the perfect track-in shot.
In a track-in shot, the camera moves in on the subject. The classic track-in shot starts with a frontal medium shot of an actor and the camera moves in to end on some sort of close-up. This has nothing to do with zooming – the camera physically moves in on the subject, usually by means of a dolly being pushed along tracks or a smooth floor.
It is undeniably a very useful and beautiful shot when it is solidly motivated by the story you are telling. The most astoundingly effective and beautiful track-in shots are done by Steven Spielberg; they really stand out from the track-in shots filmed by other directors. Whenever I see a Steven Spielberg track-in shot, there is just something about it that is visually compelling and really a cut above everyone else’s.
How to implement this shot
1. The focal length is neither very short nor very long
By experimenting with lenses and actors, I have found this “sweet focal length” to be around 85mm or 100mm (this refers to 35mm motion picture lenses).
If you are using a smaller gauge (such as a 2/3” CCD camcorder) you will need to use the equivalent focal length if you want to achieve the same visual result. At any rate, with the average camcorder, the look produced by an 85mm or 100mm motion picture lens is approximately equivalent to the look achieved by a camcorder with the zoom set at 4x (this only refers to the perspective and feeling of motion, definitely not to the depth of field, which will be deeper with smaller gauges).
2. The track-in motion is smooth and controlled
In many cases it is so slow as to be imperceptible (but still affects the viewer emotionally, which is the beauty of it).
Sometimes it is not a perfectly straight dead-on movement, but combines a small lateral movement component so that, as the camera moves in, it also has to pan very slightly, making the background move in the frame and enhancing the feeling of motion. In other words, the axis of the camera movement is slightly diagonal relative to the plane of the subject being filmed. To clarify further, you would set up the shot by starting right in front of your subject, walking straight backwards for however many feet you want, and then move slightly to the left or to the right – that is your starting camera position in the track-in shot. This will make the movement slightly diagonal – if you are still puzzled, I guarantee that if you try this with your camcorder it will become very obvious.
3. The depth of field must be shallow
If you attempt this shot with a small-gauge format such as HDV, don’t be disappointed if it doesn’t look exactly like the real thing. Part of what makes this shot so effective is the fact that, as the camera moves in, the background becomes progressively more blurred while the subject remains pin-sharp.
I have personally used this technique and can confirm that this is how the look is achieved. It is quite simple once you know, but most filmmakers do not know it, so it is quite rare to see it properly executed in films. The following is an example of this technique taken from the Ray Ban spot on my reel — except in this shot there is the added complication of an actor’s shoulder in the foreground, making it a track-in 2-shot:
None of this should be taken to mean that the only way to film a beautiful track-in shot is to use an 85mm or 100mm lens – that particular tip applies if you want the delicate, beautiful, flattering look of many of Steven Spielberg’s track-in shots. However, Steven Spielberg himself sometimes uses very wide lenses in some track-in shots (and in most of his static shots). Furthermore, he also sometimes uses very long lenses. If all this talk of long and wide lenses has no visual meaning for you, you ought to read this post very carefully and do the exercises suggested there.
Deciding whether to do a track-in shot with a lens of short, medium or long focal length is ultimately a matter for your artistic judgement. With a lot of thought and practice, you will begin to see the world as a filmmaker and you will instinctively know which lens you want for a particular shot in a particular scene.
The point here is that the track-in shot will have a different mood depending on which focal length you use and how fast the movement is.
Once you develop a feel for the mood used by different techniques, you will be in a strong position to achieve extraordinary results with your films.
A few more words on the speed of track-in shots
There is no perfect speed – it all depends on what idea or emotion you are trying to communicate as a filmmaker.
Fast track-in shots tend to communicate a sense of action, urgency and tension. By virtue of the need for a highly kinetic feeling, fast track-in shots tend to work best with wide lenses.
Other track-in shots can be slow – so slow that they are almost imperceptible, and only viewers who are making a conscious effort will notice that it is happening at all. Nevertheless, despite their imperceptibility, these track-in shots have a considerable emotional effect on the audience, even though most viewers do not have an explicit understanding of filmmaking techniques.
These slow track-in shots – which work best with medium or long focal lengths – tend to be suitable for delicate moments, although they can also be used in more dynamic contexts.
These are approximate rules of thumb and, as I wrote above, you really need to use your sensitivity and judgement – there is no rigid protocol to be followed. All of these tips are reverse-engineered from my observation of what actually works.
I should also mention that with very long focal lengths you can’t usually track in directly into the subject, because the visual planes are too compressed and the feeling of motion will be insufficient. However, you can move the camera with a long focal length, as long as the movement is mostly sideways rather than forwards.
Specifically, you can frame someone or something with a long lens, track sideways and pan to keep them in the frame – it is a very distinctive look. Again, you will have to decide when this technique serves your vision and aim for a scene. It might be several projects before it is appropriate to use it, but when the time arises, you will be aware of it! As always, the way to become an expert in these techniques is to practice with your camcorder.
If this post does not make complete sense to you now, I promise that if you follow the exercises suggested in my post on learning camerawork and watch Steven Spielberg’s films, eventually it will make a lot of sense to you and will save you a lot of time.
I hope you found this useful!