How the Masters Move: Creative Camera Play

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

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.

Take Two

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

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
be all-encompassing.


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

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.

Getting Framed

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

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 3×5 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,

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


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.


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