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6 Reasons To Go Hand-Held

girl shooting video with a camera

Hand-held camerawork has become a staple of modern film/video production.  It's time to ditch the tripod and get your hands dirty.

Camerawork is one of the most powerful tools a filmmaker has to communicate with his/her audience. The visual aesthetic of a project is usually planned out very early in the filmmaking process, and is one of the main collaborative efforts between Director and Director of Photography. Hand-held camera boasts a long and stormy history in The Biz, but remains one of the most popular filming techniques used today. Let's look at six reasons to go au naturel.

1. Cost.

Budget is the single biggest factor that affects a project's production value, so it makes sense to go with a visual style that will create the proper mood while also fitting within the necessary budget. Hand-held camera technique allows the omission of certain equipment such as a professional quality tripod and fluid head, and frees up valuable real estate in the camera truck that's also doubling as the G+E truck, art department truck, and craft service storage. There are plenty of tutorials out there for DIY hand-held rigs, so the budget-conscious filmmaker has many options to go hand-held on the cheap.

2. Efficiency.

Horror movies love to take us places we shouldn't go, such as deep into the woods, or even dingy public restrooms at night. It's hardly surprising then, that the horror genre is one of hand-held camera's most vocal supporters. Logistically, it's much easier to have a camera that can fit into small places or can be moved over long distances on foot rather than a full rig encumbered by weight and size. Also, documentaries such as La Source (2012) greatly benefit from the lesser carrying weight and improved accessibility afforded by a smaller camera rig, making hand-held camera a mainstay of documentary film production as well. Additionally, reality TV widely uses hand-held camera techniques on shows that require constant movement, such as The Amazing Race and COPS.

3. Effect.

If there's one thing Paul Greengrass taught us with his Bourne movies, it's hand-held camera = intensity. Although filmmakers have been experimenting with hand-held camera since the dawn of cinema, the use of hand-held camera as an intentional aesthetic choice developed during the cinéma vérité style of the 60's French New Wave movement in films such as Godard's Breathless (1960). Since then, the technique has been used to heighten tension and give realism to countless films and television programs. Some of which, have become synonymous with the camerawork itself, such as the much-imitated Fox serial drama 24.

4. Lower Profile.

Oftentimes lifeguards, apartment managers, mall security guards, etc., are willing to look the other way when you're stealing a shot in public with a hand-held camera (especially DSLRs). Yet these same authority figures may shut you down the moment a tripod pops out (speaking from experience, unfortunately). So in certain cases, hand-held is the best way to go to get your public shot on the down low. The permanent mobility of hand-held camera makes it perfect for micro-budget filmmaking where permits are often a luxury and an unexpected visit from local 5-O makes an easily hidden camera a valuable commodity.

5. Surprise.

TMZ on TV, as sensationalistic as it is, definitely does one thing really well: breaks stories first. TMZ employs a veritable army of independent camera people who get paid to haunt well-known celeb hangouts and buzz outside stars' mansions hoping for a glimpse of something tabloid-worthy. Naturally, if camera people went running up to celebs with a heavy and cumbersome tripod and head assembly, they'd probably end up with little more than a shot of celebs outrunning them. Thus, hand-held camera serves as makeshift stealth mode for video paparazzi in search of their next rent checks.

6. Time.

One of the biggest motivators to leave the tripod at home is speed. Traditionally, hand-held camera is much quicker to setup, as there is no need for time-consuming duties such as leveling the fluid head or making sure sticks are placed on the proper mark. A supreme benefit of a hand-held camera is that it is in a constant state of adjustment, so even if your operator misses the framing you wanted for a second or two, a quick turn of his waist can make it better in no time. Indie productions employing hand-held camera also benefit from fleeter travel time between company moves thanks to less equipment to pack up and unload.

Hand-held camerawork is a great option for filmmakers looking to cut costs, reduce set up time, lessen equipment, and create an authentic, intense atmosphere. Additionally, the technique works well in non-narrative projects such as documentary filmmaking and reality TV. Although hand-held camera has been around the industry for decades, it remains one of the most popular filming techniques used today.

Rory Walsh is an independent writer/director based in Los Angeles.

Tags:  December 2012
Rory
Walsh
Mon, 11/12/2012 - 9:40am

Comments

ad101867's picture

> It’s time to ditch the tripod and get your hands dirty.

In my estimation, right off the bat you’ve gone awry.  In more “old-style” filmmaking, “getting one’s hands dirty” means actually taking the time to block out a scene, plan the shots, and, if doing an action scene, involving choreography of specific movements by actors and props.  That is more work and is more artful than just running around with a handheld camera to produce a quickly-shot—yet poorly captured for the viewer—scene with your actors (or whatever you’re shooting).

 

 

This is especially the case with action films: handheld shooting, which is shaky and which usually also goes along with quick-cut editing, requires less time and less choreography—hence is less work, less artful, and not equivalent to “getting your hands dirty.”  It’s a way of telegraphing to the discerning reader: “I want you to pay money for this but I was too lazy to carefully plan and choreograph the action.”  Old-fashioned martial arts films from Asia were beautifully choreographed and shot—viewers got an ample look at the skill of both the fighters and the choreographers—but sadly we don’t see that approach anymore.

 

< Camerawork is one of the most powerful tools a filmmaker has to communicate with his/her audience. >
 

 

Precisely—and the less smoothly and consistently a given scene or action is captured, the less “communication” there is taking place.  Handheld shooting prevents the viewer from registering as much visual information as does steady-cam or mounted cam.

 

< Hand-held camera boasts a long and stormy history in The Biz, but remains one of the most popular filming techniques used today. >

 

Of course—because it requires less work.  It caters to the lazy side of human nature.  Whatever is easier is always going to be “most popular.”

 

> Cost.

 

I understand the need for restrained budgeting, yet it should be obvious that this has nothing to do with art or effectiveness.  Moreover, there are now quite a number of small-scale, relatively inexpensive steady-cam rigs, even for small cameras.  I’m just an ordinary middle-income guy who’s interested in this purely as a hobby—yet even I could spring for such a rig if I wanted to.  Therefore anyone who actually wants to make films professionally has no excuse for persistently using handheld.

 

< Efficiency. . . . Logistically, it’s much easier to have a camera that can fit into small places or can be moved over long distances on foot rather than a full rig encumbered by weight and size. >

 

I note that your mention of “efficiency”—a positive word—shades into what is simply “much easier”—a pro-laziness word.  And yes, I get that for some shots you might want a unique closeup of something small or an object that’s at the bottom of a hole or is ensconced among other objects, and you can’t “reach” it with the camera if you’re using a mount or a rig.  But it’s just as obvious that the bulk of any given film isn’t likely going to consist of those kinds of shots.  In other words, handheld has its place, but it’s so, so easily overused and abused when applied to shots that would be better-served by mounted or steady-cams.

 

< If there’s one thing Paul Greengrass taught us with his Bourne movies, it’s hand-held camera = intensity. >

 

False.  Other factors—most notably the story itself, the performances, and the soundtrack—can produce a feeling of intensity for the viewer (haven’t any of, say, Spielberg’s films had any intensity???), but the shakiness itself produces only confusion due to a lack of visual information.  The Bourne movies were intense because they were fast-paced, well-written stories, and viewers actually cared about Bourne as a character.  It had nothing to do with the shaky-cam of instalments 1 and 2.  Ironically, I’d say Greengrass got away with it in The Bourne Ultimatum, which I quite enjoyed; for some reason I didn’t find his camera-work unsettling that time around.  However, he also directed The Bourne Supremacy, and my wife and I walked out early because of the shaky-cam.  The overall best-directed of the original trilogy (The Bourne Legacy’s style was Greengrass mimicry that was even worse than TBS) was easily The Bourne Identity; nobody ever complained that it “wasn’t intense enough because it lacked shaky-cam.”

 

I’m sorry, but “handheld = intensity” is probably the most lame excuse for shaky-cam ever imagined.  It’s simply not true, and is easily shown to be false by pointing out other movies that had intense scenes without shaky-cam.  The intensity is due in part to the camera-work (such as how often closeups are used vs. how much wide view)—yet without requiring handheld—and even more to the story itself, to the emotional investment viewers make in the characters and what they’re going through on screen.

 

< Since [ Godard’s Breathless in 1960], the technique has been used to heighten tension and give realism to countless films and television programs. >

 

 

This goes along with “handheld = intensity”: it’s just not true.  As to realism specifically, I’m assuming that by “realism” you don’t mean that all filmmakers want to make their films look as if they were shot by amateurs on their cellphones.  Sure, if that’s the effect you’re going for, then yeah, shaky-cam will be “realistic.”

 

 

But it’s not realistic if we’re talking about (a) the story itself, or (b) how the human eye functions.  Right now as you read this email, is your monitor shaking in front of you?  Of course not; the eye steadies whatever it looks at.  The POV of handheld cameras do not equate to the effect of actually watching something in person.  Handheld doesn’t make a story better, characters more engaging, or the visuals equivalent to how the eye works.

 

 

< Time. . . . [H]and-held camera is much quicker to setup, as there is no need for time-consuming duties such as leveling the fluid head or making sure sticks are placed on the proper mark. >

 

 

Again: this caters to laziness.  (Of course, I have in mind primarily professional movies that filmmakers ask us to pay to watch.)  And if a filmmaker is using handheld because s/he’s in a hurry—and merely ends up producing subpar, annoying visuals, then what was the point . . . ?

 

 

< Hand-held camerawork is a great option for filmmakers looking to cut costs, reduce set up time, lessen equipment, and create an authentic, intense atmosphere. >

 

 

Or—since you’re interested in “realism”—we could translate that as: Handheld camerawork is a great option for filmmakers too lazy or lacking in talent to plan and choreograph scenes and provide ample visual information for viewers.  (Or for filmmakers who are a bit unhinged and actually want to confuse and frustrate viewers.)

 

 

We’re in a dark time for cinema, in which filmmakers are, in fact, lazy and talentless; and who have seemingly no clue how to shoot effective action scenes.

 

 

Bottom line: When the basics of filmmaking are in fine form—scripting, acting, directing, and editing—but there’s no shaky-cam, you’ll get viewers raving about your movie.  And although some viewers will likewise rave about films that used shaky-cam, other viewers will just be annoyed (or, in worst-case scenarios, literally nauseous).  In other words, where handheld dominates a film, you’ll turn off viewers who dislike the shakiness—but you never hear people complaining that they didn’t like a film because it lacked shaky-cam!

Achim's picture

Great article! I've been working with the handheld look for a while(mostly for adding some more motion to my shots). There are a few techniques to get the handheld look when filming yourself(basically, it gets the raw look without someone actually holding the camera). Wrote an article about my techniques for doing this http://thevrincent.blogspot.com/2013/09/how-to-get-handheld-look-when-fi...