The Follow Shot

Creator's Statement

Increasingly popular in both Hollywood and global art cinema within the last twenty years, a “follow shot” is a camera movement technique that follows a human figure on foot from behind. Such shots can be found across a range of individual films and filmmakers, from Martin Scorsese and Stanley Kubrick, to the Dardenne brothers and Bela Tarr, to Darren Aronofsky and Barry Jenkins. My video essay considers two films in particular that conspicuously explore the aesthetic possibilities of the follow shot: Alan Clarke’s TV film Elephant (1989) and Gus Van Sant’s 2003 feature film of the same title, clearly an homage to its predecessor. Unlike the host of recent films that feature the technique, these two films make the follow shot a core structuring principle, creating what might be called a follow-shot aesthetic. Though neither film is composed entirely of these shots, and even the follow shots themselves are subject to variation (such as moments in which the camera abandons its rear position), both films exhibit a uniquely sustained interest in the follow shot. At the heart of my project is a question about how the follow-shot aesthetic informs each film’s politically charged reenactment of real-life instances of violence. Viewed as companion pieces, these two films together present a mystery at the intersection of content and form: what does the follow shot have to do with each film’s reflection on problems of violence and representation?

The aim of my video essay is not so much to solve this mystery but to dwell within it. Before making the piece, I had written an article-length essay that tried to provide a step-by-step account of what “solving” that mystery might look like. There, I examined how the formal properties of the follow shot—the camera’s forward movement, its denial of the subject’s face, and its sense of being tethered to its subject—are crucial to each film’s meditation on violence and human agency. I argued that by visually emphasizing the forward movement of its subjects while denying access to their interiorities (via the face), the follow shot attunes its viewers to the subject’s agency as a sense of pure towardness devoid of psychological insight, an effect I called “trajectivity” (borrowing the neologism from Paul Virilio). As distinct from “trajectory”—the path taken by an object in space—trajectivity is precisely the sense of being oriented toward a direction. It is a being-toward rather than a subject in pursuit of an object. Motivated by nothing else but the forward movement of the subject that pulls us along, the follow shot has the unique capacity to heighten our attunement to the purely trajective aspect of human agency that is prior to psychological motivation. Thus, what countless critics recognized as each film’s stance on the human atrocities they reenact—that the cause or motivation of such atrocities cannot be pinpointed, explained, or rationalized—was in fact directly manifested in the follow shot’s trajective aesthetic: the way the camera follows behind violent agents grants us a depiction of violent actions without articulating etiological insights, revealing psychological motivations, or producing narrative pleasures.

While the video essay partly reproduces the key questions and terms of these arguments, my aim was to use the possibilities of videographic criticism to create an experience that would capture the mood and feeling of trajectivity without merely rehearsing the philosophical concepts that undergird it. Much of this mood was created not only through the steady, plodding arpeggios of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata”—a piece of music featured prominently in Van Sant’s film—but also through the use of multiple screens depicting different iterations of the follow shot. When a surfeit of such shots overloads the screen, what emerges is a heightened awareness of the shared structures underlying the technique on display. (Such a reflexive effect is similar to but distinct from the trancelike effect of stitching together a montage of follow shots, as is perhaps best demonstrated by Brian Carroll’s hypnotic supercut “Keep on Walking.”) Instead of particular characters within particular narrative situations, what we become attuned to as our attention scatters across multiple screens are the phenomenological properties of the follow shot as a visual form: a general forwardness, towardness, and tetheredness.

My use of the arrow (e.g. “A-->B”) as a typographic motif further encapsulates the generality of forwardness and towardness. In each film, we are made to suspend the expectation—so ingrained through classical Hollywood narration—that if the protagonist must get from location A to B as part of the narrative action, it would be unthinkable to show the character making the entire journey. What matters in classical narration are events and actions, the endpoints of the journeys rather than the integrity of the space and time between those points. The trajective aesthetic of the follow shot reverses this expectation. A and B drop out in favor of the arrow—that is, the propulsive force, the sense of towardness—that bridges them.

In striving to make palpable these fundamental aspects of Clarke and Van Sant’s follow-shot aesthetic, my interest is not to perform a “close reading” of the shots that I examine—that is, to identify meanings corresponding to the formal details of mise-en-scene, camera placement, and performance in each of the shots —but rather to visually convey the general phenomenological structures shared across the distinct iterations of the technique. As such, one consequence of this mode of inquiry is a lack of attention to the formal and contextual particularities that distinguish each film’s use of the follow shot as well as each instance of the follow shot. What I’m attempting, then, is to distill the most basic elements of the follow shot: what it feels like to move through the world of a film while anchored to a subject’s forward movement and yet be restricted to a view behind them. Only by first feeling these properties of the follow shot can we begin to attend to the difficult questions about the technique’s relation to violence, human agency, and cinematic form that are investigated across these companion films.

- Jordan Schonig


Antunes, Luis Rocha. “The vestibular in film: orientation and balance in Gus Van Sant’s cinema of walking.” Essays in Philosophy 13, no. 2 (2012): 10.

Barker, Jennifer M. and Adam Cottrel. 2015. “Eyes at the Back of His Head: Precarious Masculinity and the Modern Tracking Shot.” Paragraph 38, no. 1: 86-100.

Bordwell, David. 1977. “Camera Movement and Cinematic Space.” Cine-Tracts 1 (2): 19–25.

Johnson, Kenneth. 1993. “The Point of View of the Wandering Camera.” Cinema Journal 32 (2): 49–56.

Seitz, Matt Zoller. 2009. “On the Creepy Alluring Art of the Follow Shot.” The L Magazine. Last accessed March 3 2017.

Sobchack, Vivian. 1982. “Toward Inhabited Space: The Semiotic Structure of Camera Movement in the Cinema.” Semiotica 41: 317–335.

Thomson, David. 1993. “Walkers in the world: Alan Clarke.” Film Comment, 29:3, 78–83.

Virilio, Paul. 1997. Open Sky. Translated by Julie Rose. New York: Verso.

Jordan Schonig’s “The Follow Shot” is an impressive achievement, using split screen, text, and music to generate fresh understanding about an under-studied camera technique. 

The subject of the essay is the “follow shot,” a type of tracking shot where the camera, often mounted on a Steadicam, keeps pace with a walking figure while recording that figure from behind. As Schonig argues, the follow shot differs from superficially similar techniques, such as the shot where the camera moves laterally to keep pace with a walking figure or the shot where the camera moves backward, preceding the figure walking through space. Unlike these alternatives, the follow shot shows where the character is (apparently) heading. At the same time, the follow shot refuses to show us the character’s face, thereby making it difficult for us to understand the character’s motivations. This unusual mixture gives the follow shot an unusual status, “between subjective and objective.” 

The essay shows total command of the split screen technique. For instance, one section shows nine different follow shots. Seven of the examples are in widescreen; two employ a 4:3 ratio. Without being told, we see at a glance that all of the shots are doing something similar, and yet that these two shots are somehow different. This is excellent videographic work, using visual cues to make scholarly claims. 

Rather than rely on the voice-over, Schonig introduces his ideas via the skillful handling of titles and effects. I really like the clear, bold font, and the brisk pace of the titles. One second faster, and I would say that the titles go by too quickly, but I think that the present pacing keeps us alert from beginning to end. The use of effects is equally on-point, as when Schonig blacks out a large portion of the frame to focus our attention on a hallway where a character seems to be heading. The effect does not seem like a trick; it simply develops the argument, visually and logically.  

In his accompanying statement, Schonig writes that his goal is not to offer a “close reading” of the two films; rather, he seeks to convey the “general phenomenological structures shared across distinct iterations of the technique.” When I saw the first draft of this essay, I wrote some remarks urging Schonig to devote a little more attention to close reading, on the grounds that the meaning of the follow shot may change depending on the context. In Clarke’s Elephant, the camera may follow a killer or a victim; the resulting uncertainty amplifies our sense of the characters’ opacity. In Van Sant’s Elephant, our response to any given follow shot may vary, depending on whether or not we are familiar with a character’s backstory. In both cases, the films build patterns of repetition and variation that develop (or undermine) our expectations about what the characters want and where they are going. 

Since then, Schonig has expanded the essay by several minutes, amplifying his analysis of the two films. I am very pleased with these additions, which add nuance to an already bold argument. At the same time, I am pleased that Schonig has held his ground. Rather than dial back his theoretical claims, the second cut uses close analysis to bolster them, situating the examples within the broader argument that the follow shot has a characteristic feeling, not just in these two films, but at a basic, phenomenological level. Schonig’s goal is ambitious: to “distill the basic elements of the follow shot.” In this remarkable video, Schonig accomplishes that goal with precision, creativity, and insight. 

Jordan Schonig’s video-essay “The Follow Shot” is a contemplation of movement and motion, and the phenomenological implications of the use of the “follow-shot” in Alan Clarke’s Elephant (1989) and Gus Van Sant’s homonymous film from 2003.

Schonig bases his approach on the concept of trajectivity – or the idea that the follow-shot, by emphasizing “the camera’s forward movement, its denial of the subject’s face, and its sense of being tethered to its subject” creates a lack of psychological indexing, and, in some sense, an emotional void in long tracking shots filmed from behind characters. The follow-shot becomes the center of the cinematic experience, it become the cinematic experience itself, in alternative to the typical phenomenal focus of the conventional narrative film, where what matters are mainly causes and effects. In other words, while for conventional narrative comprehension what matters is what motivates a certain action and the consequences of that action, the Elephant-films bring forth another level of experience, namely, the in-betweeness of causes and effects, the pathways, the trajectories, the actual, physical walking between causes and effects.

Schonig’s video-essay made me reflect on film phenomenology and its methods, on the “form” and “content” of film phenomenology itself. I have given much thought to the nature of film phenomenology and what tools can be used to “think-experience” and to “describe-experience”. My main detraction from film phenomenology has always been connected with what to me is an unsolved dilemma. If experience is the object of phenomenology and experience is private and subjective, doesn’t any account of experience by verbal means (even offered by a direct experiencer) always become a second-hand experience? What sense of truth can there be in one’s description of one’s own experience? Can we be certain that we know the truth of our own experiences? Or perhaps, can we be certain that what we describe when we describe our own experience is our own experience? Or could it possibly be that the explanatory power of words results in a lack of indexicality between phenomenological descriptions and the source experiences behind those descriptions? This sense of inaccessibility of our own experiences in the current form or methods of phenomenology has been a reason of detraction for me.

Watching Schonig’s video-essay, I felt that the phenomenal power of a direct, first-hand experience of the two films was closer than ever to the methodological essence of film phenomenology. I felt that his essay not only successfully dealt with the conceptual and cinematic issues surrounding the two films but, most importantly, it did that in an experiential form. It seems then that Schonig’s video-essay opened up room for a discussion on the ways to use experience to think and describe experience itself, in a more direct, first-hand use of phenomenology’s own nature than the traditional, verbal ways in which film phenomenology usually takes places. Schonig's essay uses the essential materials of experience (the actual images of the Elephant-films) to provide another level of comprehension that is phenomenal in itself. In that sense, I would consider that the underlying and far-reaching theoretical implications of Schonig’s essay are of a meta-phenomenological level. The question becomes, can film phenomenology ever use experience to describe experience itself? Can experience, rather than verbal language alone and meta-thought or reflection, be a new field for understanding film through film?