Getting Started: Camera Move Aesthetics

If you were to teach a complete stranger how to shoot video, you could boil it down to, "point the camera at your subject and press the record button." That’s functionally all it takes. Unfortunately, that simple point-and-shoot approach leads to a rather two-dimensional view of a three-dimensional world.

Just as we might turn our heads to follow the flight of a bird, we can use camera moves to provide our audiences with a sense of depth and motion. When used judiciously, camera moves not only add motion to a medium that thrives on movement; they also contribute to the overall aesthetic quality of your program by letting the viewer live vicariously through you.

We’ve discussed camera moves in the past. By way of review, however, we’ll outline them briefly:

  • Pan–to swivel the camcorder from side to side.
  • Tilt–to swivel the camcorder up and down.
  • Dolly–to physically move the camcorder forward and backward, toward or away from the subject.
  • Truck–to physically move the camcorder laterally (side to side) with relation to the subject.
  • Pedestal–to physically raise and lower the camcorder with relation to the subject, on a tripod for example.

You can combine these camera movements in an infinite number of ways to create an endless number of effects. These effects can alter the look and mood of your program, thus influencing the way the audience feels about your footage. However, when considering whether or not to make a camera move, think about the purpose of the move, and avoid moving the camera for no reason whatsoever. To illustrate, let’s look at some typical reasons to use camera moves to improve otherwise static shots.

Emphasizing Vastness or Fast-ness

One way to involve the audience in your program is to employ camera moves that are similar to head or eye movements. A slow pan can simulate the motion your viewers might make if they were actually looking at something in person, instead of on tape, and add emphasis to the sheer vastness of a scene. Pans are perfect for this purpose.

For example, suppose you are shooting footage of a wide panoramic scene like the Grand Canyon. If you were gazing at the canyon (without your camcorder), you’d likely give the view a slow scan from side to side to take it all in. A slow pan with the camcorder across the entire canyon will simulate this motion for your viewer, as well as allow you to get the entire scene onto videotape.

Panning can convey excitement, as well. What do you do when something moves past you at high speed? You turn your head rapidly to see where the object is going, of course.

Parlay this method of following high-speed movement into a camera pan–perhaps a friend riding his motorcycle. Get a wide shot of the bike some distance away, and as it speeds past you, pan the camcorder quickly to follow it as it roars past, making sure to give the cycle plenty of lead room as it passes by. Not only will your audience feel as though it is really there watching the action live, but you will inject excitement into the footage with your high-speed camera move.

Enhance Height and Depth

You can use a tilt to convey the huge size of an object. It is tempting to shoot a large object like the Statue of Liberty in a wide shot to let your viewer see the entire structure at once–and there’s nothing wrong with a shot like that. But, showing Lady Liberty a little bit at a time makes your viewer stop and say, "Whoa! Now, that’s big!" In these cases using a tilt can accomplish the task.

With really tall objects, start at the base and tilt the camera up slowly until you get to the very top of the object. Reverse the process when shooting from high above your subject (like shooting down from the top of Hoover Dam or into the Grand Canyon). The long, slow tilt will effectively communicate the sheer bulk of your subject to your audience. Tilts also add the benefit of movement to shot of otherwise static objects.

Underscore Motion and Direction

Earlier, we discussed the use of pans when shooting a subject that moves past you at a high rate of speed. But, if your subject moves past you at a more reasonable speed–one you can physically keep up with–you might want to try trucking instead. Trucking (gliding to the left or right) is physically moving the camcorder, not just changing it’s angle.

For example: your subject is walking down a quiet street. You could plant yourself at a stationary point on the sidewalk and pan the camcorder as she passes by. Or, you could truck alongside her as she walks toward her destination. A slow-moving automobile works well for this kind of shot; just put a camera operator in the passenger’s seat and have him shoot out the window. This way, the audience will be able to see your subject up close for a longer period of time.

Sometimes, when shooting a moving object, you may not be so lucky as to have your subject move past you or even come close to you. Your subject may even move away from you. What do you do in that case?

You can zoom in on your subject, of course. But remember zooming is only as effective as your camcorder’s ability to zoom. And you will eventually reach a point where your subject is too small to see. And as you zoom to a telephoto lens setting, even the smallest camera motions are magnified on the screen, making for shaky, unstable images reminiscent of the Blair Witch nausea-cam. Keep in mind that zooming is fundamentally different from camera movement, because as you zoom in, the optical properties of the lens change subtly.

You might want to try dollying instead. Dollying brings you and your camcorder physically closer to (or further away from) your subject. Dollying slowly in or out on a stationary subject can add a dramatic element to a scene; think of the slow dolly toward Jack Nicholson’s face at the end of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Add a zoom out as you dolly in (or vice versa) to draw the subject away from the background.

Dollying is also a good way to make a moving subject appear as though he or she is being followed. The movement of the foreground and the background past the periphery of your shot will add to the tension-filled feeling of such a chase. Depending upon what you are shooting, making your audience believe they are in close proximity can generate considerable tension and excitement.

Mix and Match as Needed

While all camera moves serve to make your footage more pleasing to the eye by capitalizing on motion in your shot, they can be mixed and matched in an infinite number of ways to alter moods and engage your audience.

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