Actions Speak Louder: Storytelling with Camera Movement, Part 1
Photographic composition and acute sensibilities to the corners of the frame are a major part of the moving image art form. Films are comprised aesthetically of a moving proscenium of the camera plane. The film’s frame is comparable to a painter’s canvas, or the space of a stage. But a major element of cinematic storytelling that isn’t often analyzed is the humble camera move. Movement of the camera is as old as the moving image. Early filmmakers took hold of a camera and saw infinite possibilities for movement and storytelling.
But with the advancements in filmmaking technology we now have a much larger palate of moves and tools at our disposal to render much more story in every frame. This part of cinematic language is crucial to the audience experience and the subtlety of the static or non-static. First off, we’ll cover tripod shots.
An essential tool on any film set, the tripod can enable many photographic choices common to standard storytelling technique. While composition within the static frame can be a powerful and dynamic image, the tripod allows many possibilities for movement that can drive the story forward. Below are some options and brief descriptions of various techniques.
Panning can have subtle and overt effects on the image. One way to utilize the pan is to cue it during a key moment, as a reveal that either advances the plot or allows the frame to become more interesting in relationship to the performance. A great example of the kinetic force a good pan can provide is in Kubrick’s The Shining, where Nicholson’s Johnny attempts to break into the bathroom and kill a petrified Shelly Duvall with a fire axe. Notice how the quick panning adds pounds to the force of his blows and creates a chilling energy in the scene.
Noir made the camera tilt a staple of the genre, where the protagonist pensively walks towards the camera and as he is about hit the top of the frame, the camera tilts up with him, where an eye-light has been planted to catch his enlightened expression. While not many camera techniques can detail changes in thought without an air of camp, in subtle ways this can be used to create tension and expression in the frame and enhance a performance. In Jules Dassin’s brilliant American/French heist noir Rififi, the “Stephanie” has found himself at wit’s end and has decided to do one last job, the camera tilts with him as he comes into frame, scouting the area. (no clip available).
Dutch Angle (or Dutch tilt, German angle, canted angle)
Made famous by German expressionism and the noir movement, and iconic through Reed’s The Third Man, the Dutch angle is a sort of too distracting-it-may-work-it-may-not camera choice that creates tension like an elevator at a McDonald’s. A powerful and subtler way to handle the frame with this technique involves canting the frame during the shot, to unsettle the viewer and note a growing change in reality.
In the next post, we’ll move into dollies, steadicam and zoom shots. Stay tuned!