This video essay by Kevin B. Lee traces the evolution of Paul Thomas Anderson’s style across his early career through five examples of his famed use of Steadicam-shot long takes. Lee pays special attention to the movement and speed of the camera, the composition of the shots, and the staging of the scene in trying to isolate and describe the essence at the core of each shot. In the first example, for instance, from Hard Eight (1996), the long-take tracking shot under examination follows a swaggering, dynamic protagonist through rows of “zombie-like” gamblers sitting in front of slot machines. This is a shot meant to tell us about what separates our main character from most other people in the world of the film. Across his early career—including in such classic films as Boogie Nights (1997) and its famous introductory shot—Anderson slowly discards the flashiness of the hectic and highly mobile long-take tracking shot and instead gravitates toward subtler and perhaps more sophisticated camera movement. In There Will Be Blood (2007), for example, the tracking shot Lee offers for examination contains remarkably little camera movement, but its ensemble staging and elegantly minimalist tracking toward the characters and lateral pans draws out and builds the tension in the scene. Lee does excellent work to illustrate the power of the long take to situate the audience within the world of a film, making them feel surrounded, in the case of Boogie Nights, say, by the exuberance of 1970s Southern California. More importantly, Lee clues us in on something that Anderson does with perhaps singular skill: pairing camera movement with character movement and positioning to consciously and unconsciously clue us in on the mental state of a film’s characters.


As a work of videographic criticism, this piece is engagingly and effectively rendered, but it falls short, particularly in its conclusion. This essay claims to sum up “the Career of Paul Thomas Anderson in Five Shots,” but really only presents five shots with insightful analysis and cursory comparison. There is no genuine attempt to summarize or hypothesize the evolution he puts on display. He’s made a wonderful essay looking at five distinct scenes, but I’m interested in hearing what the broader takeaway is from Lee’s point of view. What might have prompted the evolution seen in these shots? Is Anderson’s development wholly positive, or has he left something important behind? What does this change in Anderson’s career portend for those films he’s yet to make, or for those who look to his work for inspiration? What’s frustrating is that Lee gives the impression that he has some “big-picture takeaways” from these shots that he expects the audience to draw. This might be a misreading on my part, but in any case this essay would benefit from a larger thematic discussion than “here’s some film school analysis of great shots. PTA is a genius.”