Filmic tracking shots resemble the reading of a long sentence.
Like reading a long sentence, a tracking shot requires the eye to follow an unbroken path, gathering bits of information along the way, and when it arrives at its end, it’s as if the eye has followed a langorous, 19th century sentence to an overwhelming conclusion, and you feel as if you have arrived on some new shore of meaning.
I think that the following clip from Citizen Kane illustrates what I am trying to say. Notice that the camara literally tracks over words on a page, and then, after a brief cut, eases into two linked tracking shots of about two minutes each:
If we extend the analogy a bit, I think that there are some lessons from writing that can be applied to a tracking shot. Like good writing, a good tracking shot should have a clear subject, human or otherwise, that builds up to a revelation about the subject.
Writing that simply moves about without a subject is usually unsatisfying, as is a tracking shot that, for example, scatters its attention, moving from one human subject to the next, picking up one person, then quickly dropping him or her for another, as in this example:
The fluidity of the above tracking shot is admirable, and it may be effective if its purpose is to establish a link between various characters in a longer film—but as in writing, if you introduce a subject, you set up an expectation that you will develop it, and not just jump around.
Here’s an example of an extraordinary tracking scene from Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas. For me, the corridors and narrow paths for movement through the club function like the written lines of a page, inviting focus, calling the eye to vacuum up information and visual metaphors along the way, and delivering us, in the end, to a powerful revelation concerning the lead character:
Watching film is not reading, but it is a language suffused with conceptual and visual metaphors, and the tracking shot is its long sentence.