The Graduate (Mike Nichols 1967)





The Graduate (Mike Nichols 1967)


The Graduate is a Mike Nichols comedy-drama film that was released in 1967. Deemed to be of significant aesthetic and cultural influence, the film follows the exploits of a recent college graduate who is seduced by an older woman that happens to be a friend of his family’s, as he is trying to figure out what to do with his life. The film was released to a positive reception from critics and viewers because of excellent performances from Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft as well as Nichol’s directorial prowess. Many critics particularly found the film’s cinematography to be revolutionary as Nichols used techniques that were new to most viewers and that other directors came to adopt in their films. One technique that is predominant in The Graduate is the tracking shot. Used in combination with zooming and dollying, the technique helps to emphasize the fact that Benjamin is the primary focus of the film, while also helping the viewer understand the different issues that he has to deal with.

Use of the Tracking Shot in The Graduate

Purpose and Function of the Technique

The tracking shot is a visual technique used in film where the camera follows a specific subject through a scene or sequence. Also called a dolly shot, the technique sometimes involves the zooming (or dollying) in and out on a subject to achieve different thematic and narrative effects. In tracking, the camera moves in front, behind or sideways along with the subject of its focus. The camera then adds emphasis on the subject by zooming in on it or introduces other elements by zooming out.

One of the key purposes of this technique is the way that it points out key elements of a film that the audience should be focusing on. The technique also gives the viewer a chance to pick out key issues regarding the subject such as the way that other elements of the film relate to it. When the subject is a certain role in the film, the technique can help build the character by revealing various traits and aspects that concern it. Nichols’ The Graduate is a good example of a film that uses purpose to point out the key subject in a film. The film revolves around a recent college graduate and the confusion surrounding his post-graduate life. The fact that Benjamin is the film’s primary focus is brought out through the techniques used in the opening sequence. In the beginning of the film, a close up of Benjamin’s face is shown for a while before the camera zooms out to show him seating in a plane with other people. This exemplifies the fact that other characters in the film are mostly peripheral in comparison to Benjamin.

The film’s focus on Benjamin is further accentuated in the rest of the opening sequence as the tracking technique is used for the first time. In the shot, the camera follows Benjamin from the side as he moves along on an automated sidewalk. The camera is stable through this shot and does not focus on anything else around Benjamin, even as other people in the airport move around. The fact that the other people pass between Benjamin and the camera while remaining out of focus, emphasizes his centrality in the film’s story.

As an expressive function, directors can use the tracking shot to expose the issues that various subjects are going through. This is achieved by showing the subjects of the shot in relation to other characters. In The Graduate, the tracking shot helps the viewer understand the feelings of isolation and alienation that Benjamin is going through. This is achieved by showing him moving alone on the automated walk, while all other characters are out of focus. Through this shot, the viewer recognizes that there is a disconnection between Benjamin and other people around him, a central theme in the film.

Functions of the Tracking Technique

The tracking technique carries out a key function in the film by forming a motif that emphasizes Benjamin’s alienation through most of the film. In most scenes where Nichols applies the technique, the camera follows Benjamin while keeping other characters in the periphery. A good example of this application is the scene in the airport during the opening sequence. The repeated use of this technique shows how Benjamin feels isolated, particularly when surrounded by other people. This motif also helps to create the narrative structure of the film. The use of the tracking technique to keep Benjamin in focus in various scenes helps to emphasize the fact that he is the central character in the story and the narration is occurring from his perspective.

By changing roles, the tracking technique also helps show the story from varying perspectives. Normally, the perspectives vary from that of certain subjects in the film or from a third person point of view depending on the way that the director applies the technique. In The Graduate, the first scene of Mrs. Robinson’s seduction of Benjamin exemplifies the use of the tracking shot as an expressive function. The shot is first used when following Mrs. Robinson and Benjamin as they walk down the hallway in the former’s house after the Benjamin has driven her home. In this scene, Mrs. Robinson is walking behind Benjamin while keeps glancing behind seeming unsure of himself. The use of the tracking shot in to follow both characters in this situation gives the viewer a third person perspective. From this point of view, the viewer notices that the situation is similar to that of a predator stalking its prey, with Mrs. Robinson walking behind Benjamin while he keeps on glancing behind nervously.

Nichols also used the tracking shot to show the way events are unfolding from Benjamin’s point of view. The shot begins when Benjamin becomes suspicious of Mrs. Robinson’s actions, moves away from his seat and starts pacing around nervously as he makes inferences regarding her notice. The camera first leads Benjamin from the front as he moves away from his seat then starts tracking him from behind as he paces in the room. At this point, Benjamin is out of focus in the shot, but the viewer is able to see Mrs. Robinson from his perspective (Turman). The application of the technique in this manner switches the perspective in the scene from that of a third person, to Benjamin’s.

Influence of the Technique on Mise-en-Scene in The Graduate

With isolation and alienation being central themes in the film, the tracking technique helps to influence the viewer’s understanding of mise-en-scene by pointing out various contrasts between Benjamin and other characters in the film. The key difference between Benjamin and his parents’ friends is the fact that he is less enthusiastic about his future than they are. This lack of enthusiasm is borne out of the confusion and isolation that Benjamin is experiencing, both of which are exemplified using the tracking shot in the party that his parents held for him. During the party, Benjamin is trying to avoid some of his parents’ friends as he heads towards his room.

This scene sees Benjamin walk past several of his guests as they all make different congratulatory gestures towards him. The tracking shot is used to follow Benjamin from the side in a manner that captures his lack of enthusiasm that is in sharp contrast to the guests’ delight and excitement at his achievements. This shot emphasizes the parallels that are there between Benjamin and the people around him. The use of the tracking shot also helps the director hint at future occurrences in the film when it shows Mrs. Robinson seated in the background watching Benjamin. The use of this shot to hint at the future is a technique that many directors use as they give clues on events that later unfold in their films (Bordwell and Thompson 64).

Effect of the Technique on the Themes of the Film

One of the central themes in The Graduate is Benjamin’s alienation from his family and the feelings of isolation that he is going through. After completing college, Benjamin is not sure what he wants to do with his life, an issue that contrasts sharply with the optimism that his family has for him. The use of the tracking technique helps to emphasize the issue of Benjamin’s isolation in various scenes in the movie. One good example is the scene where Benjamin is unveiling the scuba diving suit that he received from his father as a gift. As Benjamin approaches the pool in the suit, the camera switches to a first person perspective that applies the tracking technique to assume Benjamin’s movement and view of things (Turman). In this shot, Benjamin seems enclosed because of the effect that the diving glasses create. The combination of the tracking shot and the scuba diving gear creates the impression that there is a disconnection between Benjamin and everybody else.


The tracking shot is a popular technique that filmmaker use to focus on specific subjects as they move through scenes and sequences. Though the technique appears to be basic in its nature, its application can have varying effects on a film as exemplified through the way that Nichols applied it in The Graduate. The use of the tracking shot in The Graduate affects the films in numerous ways such as hinting at future events, introducing themes and concepts, drawing parallels between characters and showing events from varying perspectives. Through the effective use of the tracking shot in The Graduate, Nichols showed that the cinematography in a film is a key element of the production as it serves various purposes in the storytelling.

Instances When the Tracking Shot was Used in The Graduate

  1. The tracking shot is first used in the opening sequence as it follows Benjamin moving on an automated walk in the airport.
  2. The technique is used in the party when the camera shows Benjamin approaching the swimming pool in his scuba diving gear from a first person perspective.
  3. The tracking shot is used to follow Benjamin when he walks through the guests in his party on the way to his room.
  4. Nichols uses the technique to follow Mrs. Robinson and Benjamin when they first arrive at her house.
  5. The film applies the technique in the scene a second time when it follows Benjamin when he first gets up from his seat and then from the side as he paces through the room.


Works Cited:

Bordwell, David, and Kristin Thompson. Film Art: An Introduction. New York, N.Y: McGraw-Hill, 2013. Print.

Turman, Lawrence, Calder Willingham, Buck Henry, Mike Nichols, Anne Bancroft, Dustin Hoffman, Katharine Ross, William Daniels, Murray Hamilton, Robert Surtees, Sam O’Steen, Paul Simon, Dave Grusin, and Charles R. Webb. The Graduate. Santa Monica, CA: MGM Home Entertainment, 1999.


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