A good grasp on camera movement will do wonders for your productions. This article shows you how to mimic the masters.
You know you're in the presence of truly visionary camera work when you don't notice it. Recently this happened to me while watching a movie I've seen many times. A movie not noted for it's cinematography or ingenious composition: "The Birdcage."
The shot opens over the Atlantic ocean at night. The camera glides just above the water, headed towards a glistening skyline. In less than 10 seconds, we're approaching the beach, the skyline coming into focus. Now we're over the sand, then the bluffs; and now we're booming down to a bustling street scene. We cross the street, dodging the heavy traffic and head up some stairs, past some people, through doors that open at the last second, through a crowded nightclub, up the center of the stage past the drag queens, bank right and stop in front at the harried stage manager (in a perfect medium close-up) who delivers his line.
Wow. And that's the credit sequence. I'd call that a well-rehearsed series of camera moves. Using movement, composition, depth of field, and light to take us from the dark murky waters off South Beach to the bright footlights of a nightclub, a series of well-planned and expertly executed camera moves can do more than 20 pages of dialogue. Granted, the producers of this film had access to plenty of expensive machinery to move the camera around--including a helicopter and a crane--but the basic message here is the same for videographers working with hand-held camcorders: a good grasp on camera movement will do wonders for your productions.
If you're still wondering
how much impact well-rehearsed camera moves can have in your next
production, let's take a look at some methods to turn the ordinary
into the exceptional. After all, you can't break the rules until
you know them.
Stability is Key
There are a lot of reasons to keep a camera stable--or static, as the movie industry calls it. Aside from the prevention of audience nausea, a static camera shot forces viewers to focus their attention on something specific.
A classic example of letting the action within a static frame tell the story is Alfred Hitchcock's "Rear Window." A hapless photographer (Jimmy Stewart), wheelchair bound with a broken leg, looks out his apartment's rear window and across a courtyard into his neighbors' windows.
Can you see the possibilities in this setup? Taking the photographer's point of view, we watch (in static shots) people going about their typical daily routines. Parties, lovers' quarrels, loneliness, gardening and, of course, murder take place in static, lockdown, immovable shots.
Keeping the camera steady sounds easy--just put it on a tripod. However, there are instances when a tripod is not available. In this case, you have two options: human anatomy and your physical surroundings.
If you must hand-hold a static shot, remember some basic rules of comfort. The first is to stand in a position you can tolerate for at least 10 minutes. One method I've found useful is to cradle-hold the camera like a baby or football, and flip open the viewfinder, thus removing your eye from the eyepiece and dramatically reducing camera shake.
If you happen to have a built-in LCD monitor on your camcorder--even better. If your viewfinder can't flip open, stand with your legs planted firmly apart. To keep the fatigue factor low, don't lock your knees.
But why use your body when
you can use a parked car or newspaper stand? You'd be amazed at
the variety of camera supports that surround you. Stop reading
and look around the place you're in. See any potential places
on or against which to rest a camera? Trees, benches, trash cans,
walls, fences--all are great supports. When seeking out an object
on which to rest your expensive camera, use this rule: if it's
equal to your body weight, it's a good support. If it weighs more,
it's a great one.
The Shake, Rattle and Roll
It's inevitable that the static shot will wear out its welcome with you (unless you're Jim Jarmusch and the film is "Stranger Than Paradise," wherein not one shot moves). If this happens to you, great. It's a visual medium, so get visually adventurous.
By now, we've all seen the effects of a shaky camera. From "ER" to "Twister" to whatever music video on MTV, the shaky or moving camera is here to stay--and why not? Done right, a camera that takes on a life of its own can add a whole new dimension to a scene.
Camera movement can be classified into two basic categories: stationary moves, where tilts, pans and booms are performed from a fixed position; and traveling moves, where the camera operator and the camera move along a horizontal pathway.
Like anything worthwhile, executing either of these two types of camera moves requires three P's: Planning, Practice, and Patience.
The first category, stationary moves, includes zoom, tilt, pan, and boom (which is also called pedestal). Each of these camera moves call for a little time with the three P's. But they are fairly simple to master and can make a big difference in your visual storytelling.
The zoom is probably the first gadget on any camera that people learn how to operate, except for the on/off switch. Zooming in appears to bring the subject closer to the viewer. Zooming out does the opposite. Given the wide usage of more sophisticated camera moves, the zoom can sometimes feel dated. The other problem is that it moves through space in a way that's unnatural for the human eye, and makes objects appeat flat. Nonetheless, you can use it to great effect. For example, imagine a camera lens zoomed in on the face of a man snoring loudly while opera music plays in the background. Then zoom out to reveal a tuxedo and a gown-clad audience staring at him with contempt. As this example shows, it's often better to zoom out to reveal context than to zoom in.
The tilt, as it's name implies, tilts the camera to make it look up or down. This move often appears in establishing shots--shots that say, "Our story begins here." It's equally effective for interior and exterior shots, such as the tilt down from a large skyscraper to the entrance or the tilt up from a sleeping face to the moon through a window.
The pan moves the camera right to left, or vice versa. The pan can give you a nice revealing shot. It's perfect for revealing the entire scope (or panorama) of a scene (like the Grand Canyon) that's otherwise too wide to capture with a wide-angle lens.
The last stationary-position camera move is the boom or pedestal. It raises or lowers the height of the camera. While it's usually done with expensive equipment such as a crane or hydraulic dolly, you can perform the boom on the cheap with a little inventiveness. Manual-pump car jacks in the release mode, elevators with glass walls or something as simple as the movement of your arm can create effective boom shots. Boom or pedestal shots are wonderful for revealing information. For example, imagine a shot that begins with a shot of a broken Ming vase on the floor next to a ratty sneaker. Boom up slowly past dirty jeans and a jelly-smudged T-shirt to reveal a small boy's face--in shock. Not a word spoken, but plenty of information to tell you something about the boy and the kind of situation he's gotten himself into.
What's great about stationary
camera moves is that they can all be done cheaply and fairly easily.
Using the three P's, you'll find yourself performing these moves
with grace and style.
For those wanting to get a bit more adventurous with their visual style, we have the traveling moves: the truck, the dolly and the arc. The good news is, these three camera moves reek of "quality production." The bad news is that quality production can cost. But it is possible to execute quality traveling camera moves on a budget, as we'll see. They require a bit more woodshedding with the three P's, but the time spent mastering them is well worth it.
In the truck move, the camera travels some distance sideways (left or right) with respect to the subject. Sometimes referred to as a tracking shot, you often see the truck move in a scene where someone walks down the street and the camera follows from across the street, catching him in profile. Truck moves are great to capture busy scenery such as crowds and traffic jams.
The dolly shot moves the camera toward or away from an object. You often see it used in front of two people walking down a street talking. The great thing about a dolly shot is its subtlety. In a Martin Scorsese-directed music video for Bruce Springsteen, the entire video is a sloooow dolly in on The Boss as he strums his guitar and sings into the lens.
The last move in this category is the arc. I won't lie--it's a bit tricky. The camera moves in an arc around the subject while maintaining distance and focal length. Of all the moves, this one is the most difficult to perform without a dolly. (As well as a type of camera move, a dolly is a device that professionals use to mount the camera and move it smoothly across the ground.)
A great example of an arc is the opening diner scene in Quentin Tarantino's "Reservoir Dogs," where the characters discuss Madonna's lyrics while seated around a table. The camera is able to go around them--using their backs as edit points.
Some resourceful videographers have used a car with some of the air let out of the tires, or even a shopping cart, as a dolly. If you must perform a traveling shot without the aid of a dolly, practice is essential. This means learning some interesting ways to walk.
To execute a truck shot with a hand-held camera, you will have to practice walking sideways at a slow, even pace. It helps to keep your legs slightly bent to prevent the natural up and down bobbing humans tend to do when they walk.
The same applies to the hand-held dolly shot--only this time, you're moving forward or backward. As for a hand-held arc, try it a few times; you might just decide that it will work better as a pan.
The key thing to remember when executing hand-held traveling shots is to begin and end slowly. This keeps the camera from jarring, which will make a sudden movement of two inches seem like two feet on the TV screen.
With any camera move, stationary or traveling, practice can only come after you've planned the shot. This means knowing where the movement begins, when it begins, how fast it moves, and where it ends. And that's only if you plan doing one movement.
The patience part should
Dealing with lenses, focal lengths and irises can sound pretty complicated, especially when it involves math. Let's avoid the math altogether and settle for simple explanations.
Camcorder lenses come in all shapes and sizes, and are capable of creating a variety of interesting effects. Most camcorders have zoom lenses that can cover a wide range of focal-length settings, from wide angle to telephoto. Like camera moves, deciding on the right focal length to use depends on what you want from the scene you're about to shoot.
The wide-angle setting on your zoom lens gives the illusion of objects being further away than they are. It's perfect for landscape shots, such as the famous scene from "Giant" where James Dean sits in a car parked in front of a mansion off in the distant horizon. The wide-angle setting on some camcorders is so wide that it makes images look slightly distorted, like a fun-house mirror.
The normal-angle setting is just that. It captures images much like our naked eyes do (though it's not nearly as sensitive to light). There's very little distortion with the normal-angle setting, thus allowing you the greatest mobility with camera moves.
The telephoto settings magnify the image, but magnify vibration as well. At the extreme telephoto setting, a slight breeze or bump can make the scene look like an earthquake. Telephoto settings also introduce a type of distortion called compression that makes everything look flat.
When you change your zoom lens settings, you're not only changing the apparent distance to the subject; you're changing the way the whole shot looks. Having a variety of zoom settings gives you flexibility in choosing the effect you want to achieve in a particular scene. Try shooting someone in a closeup with a normal lens ten inches from her face and the same shot with a telephoto lens from one hundred feet. You will notice the change in light, texture, and background.
Experiment! Play mix and
match with lens settings. Shoot a narrow alley in the wide-angle
lens setting. Zoom out from a twig out to the entire rim of a
canyon. Once you're clear on what each lens setting can do, spice
things up with a few camera movements. This is where you'll find
all kinds of new territory to explore with image distortion. You'll
be surprised to learn that the oddest of combinations will sometimes
produce the most entertaining visuals.
It's called many things--composition, mise en scene, the fluid canvas. But arranging what you see in the video frame all boils down to one question: why do you want to shoot it the way you're shooting it? When composing a shot--be it static, a boom, a dolly in with a tilt up--ask yourself why you're doing these things and what you hope to convey visually. For example, a shaky camera can mean many things, from a tense scene between two people (as in Woody Allen's "Husbands and Wives") to an earthquake.
A basic rule of composition is the rule of thirds. To use the rule of thirds, begin by dividing the TV screen into thirds with four imaginary lines: two vertical and two horizontal, much like a tic-tac-toe game. These imaginary lines intersect at four points. The idea is to place your subject and other objects of interest at or near one of the four intersections. This makes for a visually pleasing composition. Also, it prevents you from placing your subject in the dead center of the frame, or too far to the left or right.
Just as there are rules for composition, there are also rules for camera movement. One of the most important rules for camera movement is the axis of motion. Break this one, and you'll have your audience disoriented and baffled.
The axis of motion is an imaginary line of movement that the subject follows in a scene. For example, a subject entering the frame from the left and exiting it at the right follows a path--an imaginary line. The camera (and therefore, the audience's view of this action) remains on one side of this line. If you cut to the view from another camera placed on the opposite side of the line, your audience will see the subject suddenly walking in the opposite direction, which is disorienting. As long as you stay on one side of the line for the entire sequence of action, you can pretty much do anything with camera movement--and even cut away from the action. Just remember to cut back on the same side of the line.
If you want to see just how
effective these simple rules can be, go out and break them. You'll
see two things: one, how bad it looks when you frame your subject
dead center, or barely in the frame at all; and two, how disorienting
it can be to cross the axis of motion.
When The Camera Eye Blinks
On many sets, you might hear famous last words such as "I can't save this script," or, even worse, "we'll fix it in post." That's usually a reference to an ill-prepared shot and the hope that the editor can save the footage in post-production editing. Forget about it. If you don't plan your shots well, you'll simply end up with shots that look like they weren't planned well.
The good news is that many manufacturers are equipping their camcorders with great scene-transition features, such as pixelation, curtain fade and barn-door fade. These built-in transitions allow the videographer to edit in-camera (recording the entire program from beginning to end without re-recording selected shots later), and to plan scene transitions and camera moves around these handy little tricks.
If you plan to do in-camera editing, you'll need to spend a little time lining up your shots to make sure they will cut together. Take a stack of 3x5 index cards and write brief descriptions of various scenes on them. Next, arrange the scenes in the order in which they will appear as a finished production. At the bottom of each card describe how the scene begins and ends. For example, a slow fade to black placed next to a scene that begins with a swish pan (a rapid turning of the camera from right to left or vice versa) won't cut was well as a fade to black cut with a fade in. Essentially, with this method you're editing your production on paper before anything's been shot.
If you're lucky enough to have access to a fully-equipped editing suite, be prepared for too many choices. You'll likely have the choice of adding digital video effects, cross-fading scenes, laying down music and narration tracks--you could spend days on this stuff.
Be creative in planning your
scene transitions. Alfred Hitchcock shot the entire script of
"Rope," as a play, with the camera rolling continuously.
The only problem was that, back then, film rolls ran only 10 minutes
in length. What to do? When each 10-minute roll was nearly spent,
Hitchcock would direct the cameraman to dolly in on the back of
one of the actors, then stop rolling and freeze the action so
the cameraman could reload the camera. The cameraman could then
begin shooting where he left off, dolly out and continue on.
Pay Homage (Plagiarize!)
When creating a unique camera movement, why not borrow a little something from the masters and simply call it paying homage? Brian De Palma did it in "The Untouchables" (paying homage to "Battleship Potemkin's" famous baby-stroller-on-a- staircase scene). You should do it, too.
Taking your cues from the experts will help you to create your own visual style of storytelling. Go ahead, be a film nut--constantly looking for inspiration from the way directors place a camera or move it. If your confidence level is high, try and duplicate it.
Put yourself in their shoes and ask why, for instance, there's a red balloon that flies up behind a speeding getaway car in "Reservoir Dogs." Why do the characters talk directly into the lens in "Silence of the Lambs," even though we know they're addressing someone opposite them--and not us?
And while you're at it, work
on the three P's. Planning and Practice will pay off in how you
move the camera and execute that perfect arc, or use the wide-angle
lens setting for the city-street shot. The Patience will pay off
when you hit play and realize the hard hours spent planning and
practicing have delivered a quality production.
Larry Burke-Weiner is a
photo-illustrator who went from video to print, then back to video.
Inspiration for Rent
The video rental shop has become the new film school. This makes sense if you think about all it has to offer. One particularly interesting thing to do is to throw your own video festival, featuring one director or even one cinematographer. It's a great way to see how they started forming their visual styles and what tricks they incorporate to achieve them. Here are a few festival suggestions.
Start with "Mean Streets," a movie with tons of handheld camera work. Then go directly to "Raging Bull," with its gorgeous black and white slow-motion booms, pans and tilts. From there, "Goodfellas," with a return to hand-held and realistic movement. Finish with "Age of Innocence" for exquisite frame composition.
He's the master of static shots. Start with "Stranger Than Paradise," which he shot without a single dolly or truck move. Next, show "Night on Earth" for a study in shooting in tight spaces--namely, taxi cabs. Then show "Dead Man," with its Matthew Brady-like, 1800's-portraiture compositions.
The Woodman works with the best: Gordon Willis, Sven Nyqvist. He's done everything from intimate jerky hand-held ("Husbands and Wives", "Manhattan Murder Mystery") to achingly perfect composition ("Manhattan," "September," "Shadows and Fog"). A great study in contrasts.
He started out lensing such movies as "Raising Arizona" and "Big," before going on to direct "The Addams Family," and of late, "Get Shorty." It's easy to see how the irony of the cartoony action sequences in "Raising Arizona" and "The Addams Family" were used to a more subtle effect in "Get Shorty."
He shot "El Mariachi" for around $7,000 (we're talking feature length). It uses about every hand-held and made-from-scratch camera technique known. His dolly shots were done with a wheelchair. "Desperado" is a great example of inventive editing and kinetic camera moves. The same goes for "From Dusk To Dawn." Pay attention to his style with no-budget versus having money thrown at him.