German cinematographer Michael Ballhaus — who passed away at 81 on Wednesday — was nominated for three Academy Awards for “Broadcast News,” “The Fabulous Baker Boys” and “Gangs of New York.” He never won, but the shot that defined his career wasn’t even in those three films: he’ll forever be best remembered for his legendary tracking shot in Martin Scorsese’s 1990 mob classic, “Goodfellas.”
Known as the “Copa Shot,” the take is one of the few shots in the history of cinema readily identifiable by name. The three-minute scene boasts no memorable dialogue in one of the most quotable films of all time — yet it’s still regarded as the signature scene of “Goodfellas.”
In it, gangster Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) leads his wife Karen (Lorraine Bracco) through the back entrance of New York’s Copacabana nightclub, as the pair walk through the kitchen to the their table for two. With the help of Steadicam operator Larry McConkey, Ballhaus pulled off a balletic shot, breathtaking in its execution, that sets the mood without calling too much attention to itself.
The sequence’s influence is felt to this day, with everyone from Quentin Tarantino to David Fincher tipping their hat to the shot with long takes that try to emulate it.
1996’s “Swingers” contains a spot-on tribute to the Copa Shot slipped in near the end, as the group of aspiring actors and big band music fanboys, led by Jon Favreau and Vince Vaughn, skip the line to get into former Los Angeles nightspot The Dresden, and instead get in through the employee entrance and the kitchen.
Four years after “Goodfellas,” Tarantino wowed with “Pulp Fiction,” a film that recalled Scorsese’s classic with its profanity-laden dialogue, and boundary pushing form. The tracking shot of Bruce Willis heading back to his apartment to retrieve a watch, announced him as a master.
Fincher used digital trickery to pull off his popular tracking shot from 2002’s “Panic Room.”
Arguably the one to pull it off best is Paul Thomas Anderson, whose three-minute one take (shot by Robert Elswit) around a pool party in 1997’s “Boogie Nights” advances the plot in hallucinatory fashion. Watch it below: