A Brief History of Camera Movement
In the Beginning…
Since the earliest days of cinema there have been camera conventions, which supposedly could never be broken.
Originally it was thought that all actors should be shot from head to toe only. Any thought of cutting off people’s feet or legs, let alone their whole body, was thought to be impossible without seriously disturbing the audience.
It’s not the greatest panning shot…but like all technology, it takes a while to perfect it.
When we think of camera movement today we think of the camera actually travelling specifically. Here is the first example that I can find of a camera being used for dramatic emphasis using a dolly shot. It’s from “The Passer-By”, 1912.
This kind of shot is a no-brainer today with the advent of the Steadicam, the Ronin rig and the like, or even Drones. But back then this was huge deal. The cameras were huge, the dollies were even bigger. You can see Kubrick in his ushanka hat. He doesn’t look too happy but I probably wouldn’t be either after spending days down in a muddy trench. If you look carefully at the clip, you can see the dolly track “art-directed” into the shot.
This forward-motion moving shot seems to have a very powerful emotional effect, and it made a great impression on me as a kid. It’s used today in its latest iteration in GoPro footage. We never seem to grow tired of watching this Point Of View footage. Kubrick used it again in 1968 in the Slit-Scan sequence in “2001 A Space Odyssey“.
And if you’re interested in how Slit-Scan works, the first half of this video will tell you more than you ever wanted to know.
Here’s an early Polaroid test I shot on the animation stand while the process was being developed.
But we digress…
Why do we Move the Camera?
So, with a little history under our belt…now let’s talk about camera movement, how it enhances the dramatic performances and the emotional involvement of the audience.
(Of course that’s not always what camera movement is used for. Sometimes it’s used to Keep a Frame Alive. This is slow, usually lateral, camera movement which defines the three dimensional space of the set you are working in. It’s often preferable during a long wide master than just on a locked off master. But I think it’s over used, especially in action movies, when it just seems to be unacceptable to have the camera static.)
The camera movement which I find the most challenging and exciting is the dance that the camera does with the actors to enhance a scene.
Now the danger here is that I never really want the audience to be aware that they are watching a movie and very often if I make the camera move when it’s not motivated by the actors moving in the scene, that’s exactly what happens. I watch this kind of ‘unmotivated’ camera movement and I just sit there in the cinema and ask myself Why is the camera moving? Oh right, I’m watching a movie.
So before I move the camera, I must have a visual or dramatic cue to do so. And that camera move should take me into a new and hopefully exquisite composition. Very often if the dolly grip is inexperienced he will begin a dolly move before or way after the actor motivates the move.
Here’s an example of a dolly shot I did many years ago on a picture called “Big Bad Mama” in 1974. It remains one the most effective dolly shots I have ever done. It sets up the geography of the actors at the beach and brings two characters together into an intimate dramatic scene.
And, as a counter…my least favorite camera move…I see this all the time in big feature films and cheap TV shows alike. It’s when a lazy director decides to do a long tracking Two Shot of two people doing dialogue on the move (usually with a Steadicam). Sometimes it’s organic to the story, but more often than not it’s a weak attempt to keep the movie interesting without very much effort. It’s often proceeded by one of the actors saying “Walk with me.” I never really know whether this line is in the original script or added to motivate the walk. Either way, I hate it.
Camera movement could probably be the subject for an entire book… certainly a couple of chapters. But that’s all I have space for today. Maybe I’ll talk about more next time.
Let me know if there’s something specific you would like me to talk about.
Keep those cameras rolling.
You can start editing here.