Actions Speak Louder: Storytelling with Camera Movement, Part 3

Posted in Adorama Rentals by Nathan Lee Bush on March 11, 2011

In our first two posts, we covered tripod techniques and dollies/zooms. In this post we’ll cover a technique to inject a visceral, documentary vibe into your storytelling.

Handheld filmmaking is a documentary technique that comes in many varieties for various storytelling needs. From lens choice to camera model, even down to the weight of the camera body itself and the physicality of the camera operator, there are a lot of options available to the avid storyteller. In terms of basic operation, most handheld shots employ a prime lens, usually normal to wide, and almost always at eye level with the performers, giving the added element of the narrative as a faux document.

Handheld on a long zoom lens can create great tension and release when used properly. Let’s look at how this is employed in two polarized genres, the action film and the mockumentary.  Case in point, The Bourne Ultimatum and The Office (USA). In both we have the use of zoom and handheld, but in Ultimatum, we see clearly how timed zooming and jerky movement within tight compositions on a long lens makes for a very intense scene. This, coupled with the use of expert editing and choreography, makes the handheld language respond directly to the action happening on screen, even though the camera is invisible or not present in the environment of the narrative. By having the camera become reactive to the action onscreen we further blur the line between manipulation and reality in the film. We know it isn’t real, but we want to believe it is.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Now look at The Office, where the camera is actually a character within the narrative, and therefore a powerful dose of timing and choreography yields an entirely different feeling in the audience, what was once a wrought, kinetic scene is a ridiculous, comical one. On a subconscious level it seems that the handheld technique is capable of providing a subtle level of anxiety in the viewer, where you don’t quite know what’s going to happen in the frame and therefore can’t trust it.

Another example of handheld language is that of the wide-angle handheld or prime technique. Using prime lenses, specifically normal-to-wide, yet another entirely different result is rendered. Let’s look at a famous sequence in the sci-fi drama Children Of Men. Cuaron’s dystopian odyssey follows Theo (Clive Owen) as he traverses a battlefield in order to find the hope for humanity’s survival. This bravura moment in the film is done on a 43mm lens, as most of the film is done, to mimic the fact that war photographers didn’t have time to change lenses all the time during battle and instead stuck on a normal to get the most range out of what they had.  (No clip available).

A major note on the use of handheld with HDSLR and digital prosumer cameras in general. The big difference on screen between 35mm film’s movement and that of digital is an often overlooked issue of the placement of the film plane (in this case, the digital sensor) as well as the size and weight of the camera on the operator. Most digital indie filmmakers use the HDSLR camera by holding the camera out in front of them to look at the screen poorly located on the back of the camera body, this design element means that the center of the camera’s movement is occurring well behind the plane of exposure, so the resulting image looks as if filmed slightly on front of the viewer instead of inside the camera’s “head.” This is an abstract idea but to make sense of it, think of a film camera’s handheld setup. The camera operator is either looking through a viewfinder or an external monitor and the film gate is literally located either right on his/her shoulder or slightly in front or behind. This subtle difference makes the overall composition and movement much more relatable and can hide any oddities from the digital signal’s compression.

Digital cameras are also relatively light compared to film cameras. And although seemingly a good thing, it yields a very different look in the resulting image versus a heavier camera unit. This comes down to the jerkiness of the frame, take for instance the use of film handheld in the scene from Children of Men. The camera feels like it’s a participant in the scene, and the image feels much more hefty in its movements, like it requires some effort to move. Now take a look at this clip I photographed while on a shoot in West Virginia, it was shot with just the 5D mark 2 and available light, no equipment.

Notice how the handheld is a lot more jerky and how the sensor begins to jello like that? The camera is not weighted down, so it’s remarkably more sensitive to any hand movement during the shot. This can be utilized for a special look one is after, but if you are going for a more cinematic approach it is wise to consider weighing down the kit considerably.

Two great combinations to try:

Tripod with a loose head: A signature style for shooting coverage, the loose head allows the camera the freedom to follow the performer throughout the set, as well as the performer the ability to utilize the entire set for performance. (See Moon, 2010)

Steadicam with loose head and zoom lens: A triple whammy of both the fluidity of the steadycam and the uneasiness of handheld with the combined confidence of the zoom, this technique makes for what can only be called a floating eeriness. In respect to the scene below, it allows the characters in The Messenger to feel the oncoming anxiety of their next mission break them into drunken mayhem.

By now you probably see that the art of camera movement is a vast field that encompasses the entire range of cinematic experience. The film medium is a directly effective and never passive canvas that is always working to render story and content within its very form. If you are interested in learning more, the local bookstore will help, but most importantly, watch more movies!


Atif Hashmi is a filmmaker based in New York City.

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  1. […] three part series starting with tripod shots, moving on to dollies and zooms, and finishing with handheld techniques; And I take a moment to marvel at the incredible shrinking costs of digital storage […]

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