As someone who has been shooting for a while, I must confess that I get it. The desire to move your camera. Never before in the history of cinema, video, motion-picture image making, whatever you want to call what we do, has it been so relatively effortless to move our cameras so fluidly. For years, the choices we had were pretty limited to tripods (really only good for lock-off shots or smooth pans and tilts from a fixed position), jib arms and/or cranes (lots of fun, but large, bulky to travel with, and a pain to balance and set up), and shoulder-mount or cradled position shooting (great for documentary or event shooting), but it becomes fatiguing and takes a lot of skill to be able to shoot smooth, usable handheld footage. Up until a few years ago, smoothly moving your camera was bulky, heavy, fatiguing, complex and/or expensive.
The Groundbreaking SteadicamThe Steadicam and Steadicam-like devices like the Glidecam and Blackbird lines of stabilizers have been around for many years, but using them effectively takes actual skill, strength and training. These devices promise what we’ve all strived to achieve—lifelike, natural, smooth movement of camera and lens, perfect for following subjects, exploring buildings and landscapes, and a myriad of other applications. But the rigs could be expensive, it was difficult and time consuming to train and condition your body to support the rig, and basically, you have to re-balance and calibrate each time the weight and/or balance of your camera, lens and rig changes. To do Steadicam right is a big commitment. Also, from a client and bystander perspective, a Steadicam rig sticks out like a sore thumb because they’re large and unusual-looking, not always the right choice for weddings, events, documentaries or stealing shots anywhere.
The past few years have seen the rise of camera gimbals of all sizes, weight capacities, features and styles. Gimbals are fun to use, giving an operator who’s unskilled and inexperienced a fighting chance at capturing relatively smooth movement with little to no training, unlike Steadicam. Gimbal movement is generally not as smooth as Steadicam, and more of the shooter’s footsteps, bobbing up and down, and other motion signatures are apparent when using a gimbal. Some innovative operators actually are using gimbals like the DJI Ronin and Freefly Systems MōVI Pro mounted on Steadicam arms and vests, giving the operator the best of both worlds. Gimbals use a lot of batteries, often have cables dangling all over them, and have limited access to high-quality monitoring, follow focus and iris control unless you can afford to have full FIZ (focus, iris and zoom) wireless controls in place with a follow-focus unit and an AC to run it.
Motion Control On A Budget
Sliders have become very popular over the past few years with models of all kinds available for cameras of almost every size and weight. The first sliders were mechanical only, but now high-quality motion-control slider rigs have become very affordable for the average shooter.
Drones, especially mainstream consumer drones like the DJI Mavic Pro, have massively increased the popularity of having epic aerial shots in your footage without spending tens of thousands of dollars. Of course, if you use drones professionally, the FAA wants you to get licensed, which is a technologically challenging endeavor that can take months to achieve. Then there are the tens of thousands of drone restrictions at national, state and local levels that must be dealt with in the U.S., not to mention that, internationally, shooting drone footage is also becoming quite a challenge, with a patchwork of contradictory laws and regulations about when and where you can legally fly your drone, depending on the country you’re shooting in. It’s always a risk shooting with drones around crew and talent, as well, and they’re far too noisy to use for shooting dialogue scenes. Drones are cool, but kind of a one-trick pony.
Make It Stop. Please!
One disturbing trend I began seeing a few years ago is sometimes referred to as the “constantly roaming camera.” There seems to be a generation of filmmakers and video makers who somehow got the impression that everything is more exciting visually if the camera never stops moving. I’m sure you’ve seen projects and pieces on the web, in theaters and on air where the concept is interesting and the talent both in front of the lens and behind it is considerable, but overall, watching it fatigues you. Never having a static point of view is exhausting. Constant camera movement diminishes, and then eliminates, the impact of moving the camera.
Cinematic Visual Vocabulary
Even though its fortunes as a worldwide mass entertainment medium are waning, Hollywood and the filmmaking community globally have over a century of establishing a visual vocabulary that the public has been conditioned to respond to. This visual vocabulary is deep and complex, and combines powerful storytelling with dynamic visuals. From its most basic beginnings, early cinematic language used static compositions, not very different than a still photograph, sometimes with static subjects but often with subjects moving within the frame. The filmmakers of the Golden Age of cinema didn’t always keep their camera on a tripod, locked off with no movement; they used dollies, jibs and cranes, mounting the camera in interesting locations, handheld or mounted on vehicles. The difference was, filmmakers, from the earliest dawn of cinema, all the way through the post-studio era of the ’60s and ’70s, seemed to understand how to contrast and pace their camera movement. A moving shot has so much more impact when it’s contrasted with a static shot. A well-composed sequence of static shots can show an incredible amount of movement, even with the camera locked off or barely moving.
What’s My Motivation?
Often regarded as a somewhat pretentious acting cliché, motivation can be of paramount importance when you, as a DP, cameraperson or director, decide to move your camera. If there’s a reason for the camera to move—a reveal of some visual information, a tightening of the frame in a dolly in to close-up, taking a walk with a character—motivated or even unexpected camera movement is one of your most powerful tools to pull the viewer deeper into your characters and story. Like almost everything in film and video creation, camera movement really all is a matter of taste, or lack of it. I encourage you to watch your mentors, the filmmakers and video makers who most influenced you, to see what they do with camera movement. My bet is that most of the image makers you’re inspired by rarely have a constantly roaming camera. If you analyze what they do, it’s probably composed moments of still frames, with effective dialogue and facial body expression, followed by the occasional dynamic movement, but usually for small amounts of time and spread over just a few shots.
Utilize Motivated Camera Movement
With all of the options for camera movement that filmmakers and video makers have at their disposal today, the most challenging thing is to use camera movement tastefully, appropriately, so that your visual story is varied and interesting, sparing your viewers from the visual monotony of the constantly roaming camera. Get to it.
Writer, producer and cinematographer Dan Brockett’s two decades of work in documentary film and behind the scenes for television and feature films have informed his writing about production technology for HDVideoPro Magazine, Digital Photo Pro Magazine and KenStone.net. Visit danbrockett.com