This is a real pet-peeve of mine, something I’ve hinted at in past blog posts, but wanted to occasionally riff on. Most of the rants I’ll issue will highlight what I find so annoying about the camerawork, but to start it off, I wanted to illustrate a rare modern movie that does it “right”, and it’s no surprise that it would come from a veteran filmmaker like Martin Scorcese.
So here is the trailer for Silence, a film that he had been working up to make for over 20 years. I want you to look very carefully to how shots are framed and how the camera is moved, or more importantly, how it ISN’T moved.
This film exhibits what I’d consider to be “classic” cinematography, which is dominanted by the use of a camera mounted to a tripod. Yes, the camera occasionally pans and tilts, and sometimes it’s put on a dolly track (like the opening shot). But the use of a handheld or stedicam is almost nonexistent and there’s no deliberate “shaky-cam” effect on closeups. That shaky-cam has been a growing trend ever since Homocide: Life on the Streets pioneered it in the late 80s. Ever since then everything from big-budget movies to commercials has adopted it as a sort of faux cinema-verite. But now since feature film cameras are tiny little digital affairs, it’s that much easier to just have the cameraman be almost an active participant in the drama, walking around the actors and sort of documenting it rather than any notion of a “composed” shot. The effect is similar to evening news video footage, or more appropriately, the first-person perspective of a videogame.
Just because you can technically pull off a type of a shot doesn’t mean you should. The industry has become so intoxicated with the newfound freedom of being able to juggle light cameras around and not have to worry about the cost of chemical film that it has all but abandoned the art of composing an actual shot. Not only that, perhaps due to the influence of videogames and a need to deliver an immediate, kinetic, immersive feel, the go-to approach is always jiggly hand-held. So what used to be a valid technique to employ some of the time has now become the ONLY technique, a case where a fashion-trend has all but destroyed an art-form.
To best illustrate the idea that handheld/steadicam is a choice, witness the fact that Scorecese himself has used it famously, like this long shot from Goodfellas.
Sorceses was actually not the true pioneer of the technique. It was actually Stanley Kubrick who is otherwise best known for painterly static shots, who pretty much wrote the book on Steadicam with The Shining.
During this early period, the cameras used were still bulky and it was just not practical to use it for every shot. They had to be mounted on a durable gimbal-like rig. Today, the ease in which to use a handheld shot and how quickly a shoot can proceed when actors merely perform scenes like a play with the cameraman weaving around them has led to such lazy abuse.
This has now become the norm rather than the exception such that I hardly have to cite any examples. This has been going on for so long now that I feel audiences have grown accustomed to this new jiggly/wiggly style. I don’t think they’re really conscious anymore that things have ever been different. The only way to really drive my point home is to use reboots as a way to illustrate how shots were framed then vs. now. Hopefully those of you who feel I’m overstating my point will have an “aha” moment.
The best recent example I can think of is the recent totally-unnecessary and failed remake of Ben-Hur. I suggest you watch this trailer with the audio muted. Pay close attention to the background, especally during closeups. There’s really never a point during the entire trailer where the background stands still, indicating that the camera is in constant motion. This motion is most annoying in closeups. You’re trying to focus on the characters’ faces and the constantly shifting backgrounds only distracts the eye.
During the race scene, another gimmicky and cliche’ effect is shown twice, which is the rack zoom. Rack zooms used to be corny tricks used in chop-socky films from Asia. This was because the zoom lens was a new device in the late 60s and people used them just for the novelty of it. The rack zoom is used now in order to mimic a news-gathering effect. It’s meant to scream “Hey look, we’re capturing something unexpected! Let’s zoom in on it!” What it does, however, is call attention not to the subject, but the presence of the camera itself, as the zoom happens only because a cameraman puts his hands on the lens or pushes a zoom button. This has also been heavily abused with special effects shots. Where I really started to see it crop up was the Battlestar Galactica reboot but I think it was used now and then as far back as Babylon 5. The problem is it’s just gratuitous. It’s thrown in for the sake of throwing it in, sort of like JJ Abrams lens-flares. It really doesn’t accomplish anything but to maintain the feeling of visual change in the frame, action for the sake of action.
Now here is a (modern) trailer for the original 1959 Ben-Hur. Yes, there is camera movement. As the camera follows the race, it has to be a little herky/jerky. That’s unavoidable. But for closeups, the movement is very sparse. The camera occasionally turns to follow actors in closeups. It does not intentionally jiggle around. Since the subjectmatter of Ben-Hur is sword and sandals, having “painterly” framing makes sense. Oftentimes the frame encompasses classic sculptures. It seems to be of the period, whereas the remake takes the original era and tries to make it “hip” to modern audiences in a way that is anachronistic and rather pandering. It is essentially Fast and the Furious in ancient times.
There’s really no end to the list of films on my sh*t-list for employing gratuitous camera movement and shaking.
We can only be grateful that a few old-timers like Scorcese are still out there employing the classical techniques. They are, unfortunately, a dying breed. After they’re gone, the tripod will probably be relegated to the dustbin of history.