Great television moments are often lost in Netflix’s “all-at-once” release model. The discussions around even the streaming site’s best shows often come and go too fast to highlight every noteworthy accomplishment from a series. That issue is especially true of Mike Flanagan shows. The richness of his stories are perfect for a weekly episode release schedule, which lends itself to more in-depth analysis. And had the series been aired that way more people would realize Midnight Mass had arguably the single most impressive scene of any show in 2021. Episode two opened with a nearly seven-and-a-half minute tracking shot. A dizzying, engrossing sequence with a degree of difficulty only matched in scope by how much it accomplished as a narrative device.
From a technical standpoint alone the opening of “Book II: Psalms” is a marvel. The shot opens on a beach covered with seagulls feasting like vultures on hundreds of dead cats. The peaceful crashing of waves and serene sounds of the ocean we heard before the episode faded up from black belie the nightmare that has begun to unfold on this small island.
What follows is a choreography of movement that resembles an intricate dance routine more than it does a television production. Rahul Kohli’s Sheriff Hassan begins the action as he tries to control the beach. The mayor and dozens of island denizens thwart his efforts to keep people away though. The shore is awash with people, which is now a cacophony of hungry seagulls that swarm above and into the action for the entirely of the lengthy shot. Many of the residents only appear in the distance at first. Some nearby, others hardly blips on the other side of the beach. As though mere background fodder to the main action which follows the relative newcomer to Crockett Island getting an unwanted earful from the Mayor as the walk down the shore.
As the scene progresses though those in the background become more important. They’re more than just passive participants; they’re integral parts of this sequence. And if any of the actors make a mistake, miss their mark, or accidentally trip the whole thing falls apart. Because even when they walk away from the main action of the scene they remain relevant. They continue to pop up in the background as reminders of how little control Sheriff Hassan has over what’s happening and what will happen.
Between all the seagulls and countless actors, this shot would have a high degree of difficulty if it had been filmed with a static camera. Or if it merely moved along on a dolly. Instead, Flanagan ups the stakes by constantly moving his camera in three dimensions. It doesn’t follow alongside Hassan and then Riley when the scene switches to him. The handheld camera consistently circles the actors in 360-degree moves.
It also spins to show newcomers the way you might turn to see who walked into a room. The camera is an active participant in this horror. And that makes the viewer one too. The dynamic visual also adds to the terror of the scene. The spinning is disorienting yet absorbing. It highlights exactly how isolated the people of Crockett Island truly are, by reminding us they’re encircled by water and cut off from the world. And it serves as a reminder that all of them are now engulfed in the evil that awaits them.
The more you focus on the way the camera moves throughout this scene the more impressive it gets. (Especially when you realize it ends back on the other side of the beach where it started.) And that’s without even factoring in that each actor must be fully aware of the camera operator’s every step without letting the audience realize they’re anticipate the operator’s movements. This truly is a dance routine, only with every actor and crew member a part of the stage production.
Oh yeah, and they filmed the whole thing outdoors on the sand in natural sunlight. Productions take forever to get lighting exactly right inside carefully curated studios. Using nothing but the ever-changing, unpredictable Sun to light your long tracking shot is like saying, “This tightrope is too thick. Do we have dental floss we can use instead?”
Flangan created almost every possible pitfall he could have for both him and his actors in this shot. That’s why from a technical standpoint alone the sequence is so impressive. And yet, that’s far from what makes it great. The very best tracking shots are more than an impressive feats of choreography and planning. They also enhance the story in a meaningful way. Like how Goodfellas iconic “Copa Shot” through the nightclub showed just how much the world bent to the whims and desires of Henry Hill and his friends. (A tracking shot that isn’t even half as long as Midnight Mass‘s.)
What Midnight Mass‘s tracking shot accomplishes for the show’s narrative is just as impressive as its technical achievement. It provides important characterization and exposition with a deft hand. The scene teaches us about the Sheriff, the Mayor, Riley, Erin, the island’s existential issues, and the role of the Catholic Church on Crockett. But without feeling preachy or overwrought. It also also moves the main plot forward. This is a major development in the primary story. Something sinister did this, and it’s coming for everyone on this island. All of those characters wandering around in the background contribute to the purpose of the scene, one that goes well beyond this one moment. This island and its people are in this together. Whether or not they want to be.
The unbroken sequence, with characters entering and departing the main action, also creates a Waiting for Godot-like environment. The kind of subtle touch that makes Flanagan’s shows so layered. That’s exactly who the people of this broken down island were waiting on. They’re waiting and praying for salvation that might never come. As every element of this scene contributes to both the plot and the show’s themes.
There’s a special kind of rush that comes with seeing a great tracking shot for the first time. I remember exactly how I felt during my initial viewing of this sequence. After a few minutes I realized what was going on and got excited. And yet, it didn’t seem possible it was actually happening. Was this really something you could do outside with all these birds and actors? And could they really film it while moving the camera around so much? Fittingly for a show about faith, I questioned myself and what I thought was happening because it seemed too good to be true. Only when I went back and watched it again did I accept the truth of what I saw.
I’ve watched it numerous times since then. Yet I’ve avoided learning more about how Mike Flanagan pulled it all off. Like a kid who wants to believe the magician is real. I don’t know how many takes it required. Or how long they planned and rehearsed it. I don’t even know if they use real seagulls or CGI’ed all those birds? The fact I don’t know makes me unsure which answer is more impressive. And that’s just another reason to love Midnight Mass‘s tracking shot. It feels like a miracle unto itself.
The only thing I don’t love about it is that we didn’t get a chance to appreciate it fully when it first aired.
Mikey Walsh is a staff writer at Nerdist. You can follow him on Twitter at @burgermike. And also anywhere someone is ranking the Targaryen kings.