Since the birth of cinema, filmmakers have been making innovations in the ways to move cameras. There are countless methods of moving the camera: handheld, dollies, steadicams, sliders, drones, and programmable telescopic technocranes—to name a few. As technology advances, we will continue to break barriers until the only limits in camera movements will be our imaginations. All of this technology is undeniably awesome, but that doesn’t always mean it’s always the best choice for a given story. In order for a camera move to be truly effective, it must be motivated in some way. The motivation can be because of the scene’s action, a way of getting into the state of mind of the characters, or simply to add a particular kind of energy. I like the comparison of movement to music. Camera movement can have a huge influence in how you perceive a scene, much in the same way that a soundtrack can—you can have a similar impact with a soaring crane shot or a soaring orchestra. Here is some work from five filmmakers who have found particularly creative and innovative ways of moving the camera, despite the technological (and budgetary) limitations they were faced with. (SPOILER WARNING for the following films)
The “double-dolly” or “ride-along” is one of Spike Lee’s signature moves, and can be seen throughout his work to varying degrees of success. In my opinion, 25th Hour showcases the most effective use of this technique. The move involves having an actor stand in front of the camera, usually on a dolly (but sometimes on a crane or other rig), and moving the camera so that they move with it. This creates a very surreal effect and feels like the character is floating through the scene. I wonder if one of the reasons it’s so unsettling (and this is just a loose theory) is because it feels both objective and subjective. It feels a bit subjective because when we are walking, our brain does a decent job of nullifying the movements to give us the illusion of floating, and at the same time, we are seeing that character floating as well, so it feels almost like an out of body experience. The reason it works so well in 25th Hour is because when it is used, it is motivated by the state of mind of the characters. The character above is feeling euphoric on ecstasy. When another character does something unspeakable later in the film, we see the same type of movement. So an out of body experience for both of the situations makes sense.
REQUIEM FOR A DREAM
Darren Arronosfky has experimented with the use of Snorricam since his first film, Pi. A Snorricam is a fascinating device that attaches the camera to the actor, pointed at their upper body. It is a similar concept to the double-dolly, as the camera is attached to the actor and moves with them, but because of the nature of how humans move it has almost the opposite effect. While the actor is fixed in the frame, because the camera is tied to their movements, the background and horizon are dependent on their movements as well. So every micro-shake is amplified in the background. This can be incredibly sickening, but it can also be a brilliant effect when used at the right times. During Requiem for a Dream, it’s often used during intense moments of anxiety and panic. You can almost feel the adrenaline running through your veins as you watch these shots, proving just how effective the choice is.
The evil Dead
While in production of 1981’s The Evil Dead, director Sam Raimi and the crew came up with countless innovations not only in special effects, but in creative ways of moving the camera. The extremely limited budget of $350,000 forced them to come up with inventive ways of moving the camera. Raimi loves an active camera, which is in full force during the Evil Dead series. One of the most iconic movements is the POV of the demon speeding through the forest. Raimi’s team came up with what’s called a Shaky-Cam to bring this vision to life. It is essentially a 2x4 piece of wood with the camera bolted onto it. To operate the Shaky-Cam, two people run on either side of the piece of wood, “flying” the camera between them. This cheap rig gave the camera a special shaky, aggressive energy that perfectly embodied the demonic spirit.
ENTER THE VOID
Similar to The Evil Dead, Enter the Void also seeks to recreate the POV of a spirit. But rather than a demonic presence, its goal is to show a human spirit both inside of a living body and after it has parted ways. It’s a wonderful challenge for a film, and despite its flaws, Enter the Void handles this task magnificently. The beginning part of the film is inside a person’s physical perspective. So we see everything he sees, including blinking, and even hallucinations as the character does drugs. But the real fascinating part of the film comes later on when the character dies and the spirit departs from the body and begins flying around going into objects and experiencing memories. Gaspar Noe makes wonderful use of physical crane movements, blended and stitched together with CGI, to create the hypnotic and fluid movements of the spirit.
CHILDREN OF MEN
One challenge that many filmmakers often face is how to keep the camera interesting and dynamic within the confines of a car. There have been a multitude of solutions for this problem and there are even films like 2013’s Locke, which takes place entirely in a car. But the film that has the most outstanding car sequence I’ve ever seen is Alfonso Cauron’s Children of Men (which contains some of the best scenes in recent cinema--not just in cars). Cauron and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki had a special car built that allowed them to move the camera freely around the interior of the car. In keeping this all one fluid shot, it places you in the car with the characters and lets you experience the action with them, as it develops in real time.
All of these filmmakers are masters at moving the camera and have found truly unique ways in which to implement their envisioned movements into their films. It’s an important takeaway that all of these movements were strongly motivated by the action, the character’s emotional state, and the intended energy. The reason that these filmmakers are master visual-storytellers is not because of the movements or the tactics they use, but because they know exactly which movements to use for the right parts of their story. It’s also interesting to see that each of these filmmakers have been almost obsessively experimenting with similar movements throughout their careers. As their craft improves, they are able to refine the exact movements they want, and as technology improves, it’s easier for them to achieve it precisely. These movements are just one aspect of what has become their visual language and voices as filmmakers. I will be exploring other techniques that filmmakers use in the future so please keep an eye out for them!