Audiences have complained for years about some camera shaking to be a distraction rather than artistic. They can tell when the device pulls them out of the story, making them very cognizant of sitting in a theater our staring at the HD screen that accentuates the movement. The artistic value has been questioned for years due to the equal number of successes and failures the technique achieved.
I believe that the key to its success is directly related to the emotions of the storyline. It typically won’t be effective if a first time filmmaker wants to use the technique because it’s cool, rather than knowing if it fits the story. Even the experts struggle with when to use the device, but those who have mastered it are the ones that understand how to build emotions within an image.
My dad shot film before I was ever born and by my Jr. high years he suggested how I could improve my filmmaking. He told me the simplest thing: Motion pictures is all about motion. He further explained that if the actors aren’t moving, the camera should be.
If we take this simple lesson to it’s obvious conclusion, we must determine what will be happening in the shot and to what degree or level the added movement must be at. In stage shows the actor moving toward the audience is comparable to a close up, just as the actor moving up stage is similar to a long shot. Each relative position sets a different parameter of emotional values.
When an actor gently whispers in a close up, the audience feels pulled into intimacy. And, obviously stated, the actor shouting across the room demands a wider shot to capture the space needed for the appropriate volume.
Camera movement is similar. If the handheld is shooting an intimate scene, having the camera bouncing more vigorously makes no sense. Likewise, if the scene is fast paced with lots of movement, keeping the camera moving at the same tempo increases the emotional pull on the audience.
Picture a man and a woman sharing an intimate conversation. The camera is in close and the words are just above a whisper. Having the camera off of the tripod but barely moving gives the audience a sense of freedom and love.
Suddenly the man wakes up from his dream. He jolts to look around the room with the camera following the same intense pattern. Then he sees him – the antagonist with exposed bombs strapped to his chest. The whacko raises the detonator button and laughs. The camera jerks around from the laughter, to the bombs, to the detonator, to our hero who scrambles down the hallway to get away from the lunatic.
The key is to fit the handheld movement to the emotional level, in conjunction with the pacing of the scene. What makes it difficult is the fine line of error that pulls the audience out of the story if it isn’t executed properly. For instance, what if the camera suggests intimacy, but the actor fails to draw the audience into the intimate moment. Or, in a chase scene the actor isn’t running at full speed and the audience can tell, but the camera is frantically moving to preserve some form of tension – It will look silly.
The test to the handheld’s movement success is directly correlated to the audience being pulled deeper into story or noticing the camera movement and losing track of the story in any specific moment.
I’ve seen shows where the camera movement is so well articulated around the emotions of the scene that I found myself physically leaning, subconsciously trying to shift the camera’s perspective without being pulled out of the story. I was shifting with the camera, as if I could somehow help the hero make his way through the perplexing situation unharmed. I’ve also seen films where the camera movements made me feel sick and I willingly turned from the film.
It takes great communication between the director, cinematographer and actor to pull off the shaky camera effect and when done properly it saves time, budget and builds great emotions into a scene.