Camera Work: Smooth Moves

To bring off suave and liquid moving shots, film studios use equipment that can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. But you can make expert, professional camera moves without any special equipment, and the results will add interest and snap to your programs.

This month’s column looks at the “how” of camcorder movement: that is, how to achieve different types of moving shots. (Next month, we’ll consider the whys and wherefores–the aesthetic and dramatic reasons for moving the camera from one angle to another during the shot.)

Don’t Try This at Home

But first, two cautionary tales. Back when I was young enough to believe myself immortal, I did the cinematography on some films so cheap–er, I mean, independent–that we had no proper equipment for moving the camera. To get one moving shot, I hand-held from the top of an Econoline van as it careened down a dirt mountain road in a downpour. For another, I stuffed myself into the front trunk of a VW Karmann-Ghia and held the camera six inches above the asphalt while filming a high-speed car chase. (The camera car driver was laboring under a trifling handicap: since she had to drive with the trunk lid raised, she couldn’t see most of the road.)

There is a word for macho gymnastics like this: stupid.

All camera movement carries at least some degree of risk, because you’re often concentrating more on the shot than on where you’re heading. Also, many people haven’t mastered the trick of keeping their non-viewfinder eye open while shooting, so their vision is limited to whatever’s in the frame. So, for safety’s sake, follow a few common sense rules:

  • Look where you’re going to move before you make the shot.
  • For trickier moves, especially on wheels, get someone to push/guide/drive you.
  • If you can’t learn to shoot with both eyes open, at least open the off-camera eye about once every second, to check out the area outside the frame.

And don’t shoot from the trunks of moving VWs.

General Pointers

Let’s start with a few tips that apply to every kind of camera move. First, set your lens at its widest angle, if practical. The wider the angle, the less obvious any camera shake will appear. Telephoto lenses, by contrast, magnify every little jiggle and jog.

Secondly, take it sloooooowly. You can turn your head quickly or look at the side of the road from a car doing 60 mph and your brain will process the visual information for you. But a camcorder can’t do that; the results will be just an unpleasant blur. A good rule of thumb: move the camera just a bit more slowly than your most conservative instincts advise.

Next, learn to speed up and slow down. Movements that begin and/or end abruptly can look jarring. By gathering speed from the start of the move and then slowing down as you complete it, you impart a sense that the move has a beginning, a middle and an end.

Finally, try disabling both auto focus and auto exposure if your camcorder allows this. Moving shots necessarily entail changing distances and light levels; auto systems are often too slow to keep up. Suppose, for instance, you’re dollying along inside a shady colonnade as you shoot the sunlit marketplace beyond it. The problem: every time a column moves past in the foreground, the auto focus system will try to focus on it and the exposure system will try to compensate for its dark appearance. The resulting wild swings of brightness and focus will ruin the shot. It’s better to set the focus and exposure for the distant, sunny marketplace and then lock them down.

Having disposed of these generalities, let’s examine the different types of camera moves.

Moving While Standing Still

The simplest camera moves are pans and tilts. A pan rotates the camera from side to side on its vertical axis; a tilt shifts it up and down on a horizontal axis.

With a few tricks, you can improve even these simple moves:

  • When panning or tilting on a tripod, you can entangle yourself with your equipment. So if you have an external LCD screen, whether built-in or add-on, step back from the camera and pan or tilt by moving the tripod’s pan handle as you check the result on the screen. If you don’t have an external screen, you can still use some techniques for improving camera steadiness.
  • When panning, don’t stand facing the start of the shot. Instead, stand parallel to the center of the movement; then twist your upper body left or right to the start of the pan and make the pan so that you end up twisted in the opposite direction. You’ll find that you can pan a full half-circle this way. (This tip works equally well when you’re hand-holding: Plant your feet parallel to the middle of the pan and then twist your upper body to the start position.)
  • When tilting, rotate the viewfinder to compensate for the camera movement. Suppose you want to frame the flowers at the base of a tree and then tilt all the way up to the leaves overhead. To do this, grasp the pan handle in one hand and the viewfinder barrel in the other. At the beginning of the tilt, the finder will point down. As you tilt the camera, rotate the finder so that by the time the camera points upward, the finder is at right angles to the camera and you’re still comfortably looking down into it.
  • You can also make a hand-held “boom” or “crane” shot, which raises the camcorder up in the air while maintaining the subject in the frame. After pressing record grasp the camera by the sides with two hands. Starting at a low level, aim the camera at your subject while you slowly raise it high overhead. An extreme wide angle lens setting is doubly important here, because you can only point the camcorder in the general direction of the subject matter.

On Your Feet

A shot in which the camera moves along a horizontal line is called, variously, a track, truck, or dolly shot. The simplest way to make one is to walk with the camera. Trouble is, every time a foot hits the ground it jars your whole body–and the camera with it. On screen, the result is a rhythmic lurching movement that looks as if Frankenstein’s monster shot the picture.

The cure for this disease: the Groucho Lope. If you’ve ever seen a classic Marx Brothers’ comedy, you’ve seen the immortal Groucho scuttles through the action with his knees partly bent, as if to keep from shaking the ash off his cigar. A milder form of that same crook-kneed gait will greatly reduce your camera shake. Crouch slightly as you walk; focus on keeping your upper body level and smooth.

The Groucho Lope works especially well when you’re moving sideways–say, to walk along parallel to your moving subject. (Incidentally, you don’t have to worry about looking ridiculous. Folks expect camera people to act like this.)

Another good trick: remove your eye from the viewfinder, even if you don’t have an external LCD monitor. This will eliminate camera shake caused by movements of your head. With a number of full-size VHS cameras, you can flip up the viewfinder lens and watch the image directly on the tiny screen inside. Even with barrel-type finders, you can often withdraw at least a little bit.

But despite all these strategies, walking shots will still be somewhat wavery. So when possible, don’t walk, roll!

Cheap Wheels

Just about anything you can ride can serve as a camera dolly. Still, some options are smoother and/or safer than others. For example, a student of mine shot a whole program on roller blades, while an assistant did the pushing and guiding.

When making industrial videos, I often use heavy factory utility carts fitted with large rubber wheels. Library, mail room and food service carts work equally well, especially on the smooth floors in schools and offices.

Once I found a forklift operator so skilled that, after picking me and my camera up on a pallet, she rolled me down a factory aisle and then raised me up for a “crane shot” finish. The resulting shot was spectacular, if not slightly risky.

If a big-wheeled utility cart is not available, you can always use a shopping cart, though the smaller and sometimes off-round wheels provide a bumpier ride. (But don’t pinch a cart from a market in order to get one.)

With all carts, the key to mobility is four-wheel swivel. On many carts, only the front two wheels will turn; that limits the ways in which your assistant can move you and your camcorder. For many years, the workhorse Hollywood camera mover has been called a crab dolly–because you can steer all four wheels together and make it move sideways like a crab.

The classic improvised dolly is a wheelchair. Engineered for maneuverability and fold-up portability, these chairs sport very large wheels which smooth out bumps. Their one drawback: height. Since it’s impractical to stand in one, you can only shoot from low and medium camera heights.

What about using a real dolly? Bogen and other manufacturers supply moderately priced models for some of their tripods. The problem: despite the name, they’re not really dollies, but what pros call “wheeled spreaders.” Their small wheels and light construction make them impractical on all but the very smoothest surfaces. True camera dollies start at several thousand dollars each. You can make a simple model yourself quite inexpensively. (See “A Dolly all your Own,” in the November 1992 issue of Videomaker, or “The $24 Dolly” in the June 1993 issue.)

If you engage in winter sports, you can get the smoothest moves possible with no wheels at all. In many resort areas, you can now rent a tiny color video camera attached to a headband or helmet and connected by electrical umbilical to a camcorder in a fanny pack. This rig lets you tape everything from your point of view as you ski or skate.

One alternative: purchase a weatherproof camcorder bag that you can shoot through. The up side is that you can still use all your camcorder’s special features. The down side, of course, is that since you have to devote at least one hand to your camera, you’d better stay off the hairier ski runs.

Free Transportation

To continue the topic of wheel-less camera movement: take advantage of public people movers. Escalators, for instance, offer dynamic shots as you rise up into a scene or boom dramatically down on it. Many resort hotels and other high-rise buildings now feature glass elevators, both inside and out.

Moving beltways in airline terminals work well. For a humorous shot, send your spouse (burdened with most of the luggage) trudging up the walkway beside a passenger belt. Then, get on the belt and videotape the process of overtaking and leaving your spouse behind (shooting you a dirty look, perhaps). As with any panning shot, remember to align your body with the center of the arc, rather than the start or finish.

Planes, Trains and Automobiles

Perhaps the most common form of moving shot is the scene taped from a traveling car, bus, plane or train. Here are some tips to improve your results with this type of shot.

For obvious reasons, don’t touch the window you’re shooting through. Glass is a great transmitter of engine vibrations and road bumps. If you can, make sure that the glass is clean. If you focus your lens for distant scenery, the dirt will be invisible; but it will degrade picture resolution nonetheless.

You should also use a polarizing filter, if practical. You can rotate this indispensable lens accessory until glass reflections disappear. (Of course, the best way to defeat a window is to roll it down, but that works only with cars.)

Often, you capture the most dramatic views by placing the camera outside the vehicle. The problem is, this is not easy to do. You could rig a camera platform and clamp it to a fender, but the resulting vibrations would probably defeat even the world’s best image stabilizing system.

You could set the lens to wide angle, hold it out the window and hope for the best; still, it’s tough to get well-framed shots that way. Obviously you do not want to lean out a window yourself or stand up through a sun roof or sit in the back of a pickup truck (which is illegal in many states).

Once more, the answer is an external viewfinder, such as the LCD models sold by Citizen. Rig the monitor on the dash and run an RCA cable to the camcorder’s video out jack. Now you can poke the camera out the window or the sunroof in perfect safety while you aim it by watching the monitor.

Steady as She Goes

Several mechanical systems for smoothing out moving shots have debuted in the past few years. Of these, the oldest and best known is the Steadicam from Cinema Products. This ingenious appliance allows shots as steady as a granite mountain even when the camera operator runs at full tilt.

Recently, the Steadicam JR premiered. Designed for video camcorders, this system weighs less than four pounds–meaning almost all 8mm and VHS-C models. The operator holds the rig on which the camcorder’s mounted and watches the image on an external LCD monitor.

The good news: this system really works! You can find it at street prices under $500. But the Steadicam JR has some quirks and limitations that you need to consider:

  • As noted, it works only with ultralight cameras. Full-size S-VHS models such as the Panasonic AG455 are too heavy for it.
  • Mastering the system requires considerable practice (though the results are definitely worth it).
  • It takes up space. If you reflect on this, you’ll see that a videomaker hand-holding a small camera commands a circle of real estate with perhaps a three-foot radius. Adding a Steadicam JR rig will nearly double the free space you need to operate.

On the other hand, if you’re making a moving shot, you’re moving through a lot of space anyway.

Movin’ On

Whether you soar with a Steadicam JR or ooze along like ol’ Groucho, you can use professional equipment and tricks to capture dynamic and professional moving shots.

All you really need is a little practice.

Videomaker contributing editor Jim Stinson makes industrial videos, teaches professional video production and writes mystery fiction.

The Videomaker Editors are dedicated to bringing you the information you need to produce and share better video.

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