The Cult of Action: The Follow Shot
Inspired by the camera work in a scene of HBO's True Detective, this week we discuss the art form known as the follow shot.
Published on February 17, 2014 | Filed under The Cult of Action
The Cult of Action

HBO’s True Detective is not an action show. Quite the opposite, actually, it’s nearly devoid of action. It’s a show about two detectives in pursuit of a serial killer, and quite possibly my favorite thing Matthew McConaughey has ever done. (Full disclosure: I’ve yet to see Killer Joe.) Since True Detective is not an action show, this column is not about True Detective.

It was, however, inspired by episode four of the show, which sees McConaughey’s character, Rust Cohle, rushing an asset out of a robbery gone awry. I’ll save the spoiler stuff for anyone who hasn’t watched the show yet, but you probably should. It’s really good. The point is, there’s a several minute long follow shot that goes across a whole neighborhood and through a few houses and has a lot of fights and some shooting, and this kind of thing always impresses me.

A follow shot, for those who didn’t go to film school for a year before dropping out, is when the camera moves, following the action without an edit for several minutes. Now, I concede that long follow shots are not the exclusive domain of action filmmaking. Paul Thomas Anderson frequently puts them to good use, and so has Quentin Tarantino (even in action films he’s made, like Kill Bill, but not in action sequences), but they’re so much more impressive in the context of action filmmaking. When you do a follow shot, you have to stage it meticulously, because if someone fucks up three minutes in, you have to reset everything and start all over. Trust me when I say this is a gigantic pain in the ass.

So, yes, no matter how great P. T. Anderson’s follow shots in Boogie Nights are, they are no match for the best action film has to offer. That’s because everything that needs to be just so and pulled of perfectly often includes complex fight choreography and certainly includes some effects (often a lot of them). I mean, in my last column, I praised Ninja II for just having fights that don’t cut away for thirty seconds. That’s aeons in modern action filmmaking. Consider that the follow shot in Hard Boiled‘s infamous hospital shootout goes unbroken for nearly three minutes. Three minutes! Unbroken by edits, star Chow Yun Fat moves through a very large set and shoots several bad guys. Everyone involved had to be exactly on point. Everyone had to know who was getting shot and when. Every effects person had to hit their mark exactly. If they don’t? Everyone go back to your trailers while we put new glass in this window.

Children of Men

The follow shot allows the viewer to witness the pure craftsmanship of action film. Sure, there are serious film snobs who will shit on particular films because the story is silly or the dialogue is hokey or the acting “isn’t that good.” But you know what? There is a craftsmanship at play in action film that you don’t see in other genres. And while, say, Children of Men is lauded for a lot of reasons (and rightfully so), watching Theo (Clive Owen) navigate the near war zone at the end to get Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey) and her baby to safety is by far the most impressive and talked about sequence in the film.

Just think about all the planning that has to go into this. Another great example, The Protector, reportedly took TEN DAYS to choreograph and rehearse before actually shooting it. This one is arguably the most impressive ever done, because it encompasses four floors of a building, numerous extras and a ton of stunts and fight choreography. People get kicked through doors, glass gets broken and guys even get thrown over balconies. Ten days is longer than I’ve had to rehearse entire plays in some cases. They spent ten days for one four minute sequence. And it’s a damn impressive one. Everyone had to be on top of their game. Star Tony Jaa, of course, but every extra, every stuntman, and especially the cameraman, as he has to not only follow Jaa, but also the rest of the action, and pans at very specific times to see the damage done to the bad guys, making the scene all the more effective.

So, good job True Detective. You’re not an action show, but you made a really damn fine action sequence. It’s not exactly Oh Dae-su wrecking dudes with a claw hammer, but it’s a great sequence all the same. And that’s just the icing on the cake of a really great detective story.

Joe is the co-creator of the Action Cast!, a biweekly podcast about action movies hosted at OnTheStick.com, along with his other podcasts. He's also a film school dropout, a former pro wrestler and a struggling actor. He moved to Washington, D.C. in 2013, and so far has spent more money in D.C. on revival screenings than first run films.
Joe Drilling