THE MOVING CAMERA
By Garrett Brown
I have always been a moving-camera junkie, variously trying to push the communal eyeball deep into that two-dimensional screen. After 35 years of striving, however, it has become clear that some of my efforts were more impressive than others (and not only because of the content!). I have lately been trying to understand why:
Our lens now moves so easily, so pervasively, so incessantly that the result can be a new form of dynamic wallpaper—unmemorable, unnoticeable, the pictorial equivalent of elevator music. Hell, I even contributed to this facility, but as Steadicams numbly circle walk-and-talks, cranes identically swoop above crowds, digital artists wax excessive and the collective heart-rate of the audience remains flat-lined, much of our flash and dazzle is unproductive.
Yet now and then a great camera-move sneaks up on us, draws us in and advances the story in ways so subtle and complex that they are difficult to unravel.
Why is one moving-camera shot so much more moving than another?
I have some tentative answers. I have been collecting video examples, good and bad, to show at film schools and festivals; but since words are still highly regarded behind the camera, and Zerb remains one of the most literate publications in our industry, I am happy to have a go in print, with the intent to help move film and video cameras (real or virtual!) more effectively for movie, concert, game show, news, sports, documentary and commercial audiences.
Don’t get me wrong. The more I look into this, the more humble I feel. It’s deep and fascinating and bears on our most primitive responses to visual stimuli, and illusions that first came to life when cave paintings flickered in torchlight. I consider myself just another would-be shaman here, an experimenter, not nearly as expert as I once imagined, but more and more eager!
The principles involved, moving-camera-wise, seem universal, yet are surprisingly unexamined or misapplied.
Why Move the Camera?
The reasons range from the very most primitive (the simple 3D effect), to the most absurdly complex (intersecting dramatic, kinetic, psychological and optical possibilities), which ultimately suggest that the important thing to know is when to stop!
The 3-D Effect:
My friend Nicola Pecorini, blind in one eye since childhood, drives at 170 kph down the Autostrada, passing and ducking back in line with tighter clearances than I would attempt with my full inventory of eyes. It occurs to me that Nicola actually does see a form of stereovision—when he moves through space his one eye, in fact, is sequentially passing through sets of “right-eye, left-eye” positions, which our two eyes apprehend when we’re stationary. But even our binocular depth perception is a learned ability. We understand the appearance of things in the real world because we have long circled around similar objects and taught ourselves how they look from every angle and distance. In the movies, when the camera begins to move, we are suddenly given the missing information as to shape and layout and size. We are there. The two-dimensional image acquires the illusion of three-dimensionality and we are carried across the divide of the screen, deeper and deeper into a world that is not contiguous to our own.
I confess that this can be intoxicating. It is certainly responsible for many excesses, mine and other people’s, and is the only possible explanation for all those cut-up fragments of stupid ‘flying-over-crowd’ shots that infest concert videos. In saner moments, it is clear that restraint is worth gold. A judicious flight over a crowd, reserved for a moment of importance can be an unequalled thrill. The best one ever may have been Jerry Holway’s ‘Skyman’ shot in the movie Pure Country. Skyman is a our little cable car for Steadicam operators and Jerry was aboard, headed for George Strait at 35mph from the back of the hall, slamming on the footbrake at the last instant and elegantly stopping the lens a foot from George’s guitar at the final chord. It was not only spectacular it was singular—and thus memorable.
Of course concert shooters aren’t going to use their expensive Technocranes just once. But when director, cameramen, artists, et al have done their homework, and hurtling through space actually syncs up with an emotional spike it really pays off. Otherwise all soon splutters away into that void where overused traveling shots flatulently expire...
Like the late Mathew Allwork, I particularly enjoy the 3D effect in unusual places, where the explication of shape and distance and athletic form can be revelatory; and I have also contrived a few examples. At the Atlanta Olympics, for example, Skycam flew wide-angled above the young men and women executing the vault, as they soared up right at the lens. Skycam edged in just over the 10 meter platform, its height made heart-stoppingly apparent, as the divers dropped away toward the water, and the Divecam plummeted in its glass-windowed tube alongside, staying with them as they broke the surface, revealing not only the amplitude of the plunge and how it might feel, but also an unprecedented angle on technique. And the little Mobycam submarine pulled back quickly enough to catch the unruffled, mirror-smooth water ahead of the entering swimmers and discover their inverted mirror-selves optically rejoining their real selves as if painted by Dali!
Lemmings must love the 3D effect. I have some visual empathy for that cliff-jumping urge and it gets me in trouble now and then—witness our recent embarrassment at Aintree. An unprecedented 3800 foot Flycam shot, on a wire over the entire span of the Grand National racecourse was a success in all ways except that we couldn’t control pan & tilt during the actual races and the camera looked around randomly: at birds, perhaps at the Queen, but seldom at the horses! A disaster. On an RF-infested planet, ‘interference’ is no excuse (and my telepathic, wish-induced pan/tilt scheme is not yet perfected), so extreme moves of that sort await developments in fiber optics.
When I first attempted to read my way into the movie industry in the Philadelphia Free Library in 1965, Raymond Spottiswoode’s tome, The Grammar of the Film (1950), baffled and confused me with pronouncements such as:
“The majority of non-Russian directors seem to think that if their story is slow and lifeless, it can be made to move merely by moving the camera; in fact , however, this results in a purposeless irritation, the proper procedure being to cut from each point of vital attention to the next. Thereby, the discontinuity which lies at the bottom of nearly all the powers of the film is given its proper weight.”
I have committed a number of continuitous irritations over the years, but not purposelessly, and not, incidentally, because I dislike cuts! Cuts are great! I learned, for example, not to mindlessly follow someone’s bald spot down stairs, or pursue his posterior up them, just to avoid cutting. No one cares. No one will leap up and leave the theater just because you stop moving on the top step and cut to the reverse angle looking up from the bottom.
On the other hand, extreme, arbitrary continuousness may sustain shocking intimacy with the performers and bring us face to face with the gripping, unblinking tension of passing time. I have operated one such long uncut shot: the 23 minute final act of La Traviata, Live from Paris, which was a lifetime high! And I confess to some professional jealousy regarding the execution of the astounding 90 minute uncut take within the Hermitage that was the entirety of The Russian Ark. There wasn’t an unplanned second of time in either of these endeavors. But both were hubristic and lucky and required every last erg of our respective beings—and both would have made Ray Spottiswoode flap in his grave like a run-out spool of film!
“What’s around that corner, kid? You’re oblivious aren’t you, pumping away on that Big Wheel, not even looking around!” We are right behind you, an inch off the floor, but none of us expect that chilling sound in dailies when those plastic wheels go from carpet to wood to carpet to wood...
Kubrick’s tracking shots, though stylized and formally centered, were never just about place, they were revealing in other ways and worked you up emotionally, metabolically. For nearly a hundred years, backing up ahead of oblivious characters in scary places has made movie audiences nervous, but the relentlessness and, I think, the oily smoothness of Stanley’s camera, cumulatively made every corner of the vast cold environs of ‘The Overlook’ feel dangerous!
Yet Scorsese’s continuous move into the ‘Copa’ in Goodfellas is of a totally different nature: disarming and cheerful and entirely about the careless power of Ray Liotta and his mobster pals. Incidentally, Larry McConkey, who famously operated the Goodfellas Steadicam shot, never just randomly moves his camera. He throws down swarms of marks and asks annoying questions and maddeningly rehearses, but on the first take it all begins to work and every frame counts. He knows as well as anyone, that the impact of even a very small move can be quite outsized. Larry reports that on a different, goofily salacious movie he would prefer not to name, he shot extended close-ups with his Steadicam arm hard-mounted on an dolly. Why? Because the director valued Larry’s ability to control the background with tiny lateral shifts, and to emphasize the performance by breathing in closer without the telltale magnification of zooming. These almost undetectable translations made a noticeable improvement in the effectiveness of the shots.
Oddly enough it’s the big, elaborate, high-speed moves, both real and virtual, that are often a letdown. I admire both editions of the Lord of the Rings series, but with respect I must point out that some of the big digital set pieces are surprisingly uninvolving. For example, despite its swarming activity, the huge CGI shot volplaning deep into the ‘forge’ of Saruman only becomes powerful when it finally wipes onto a real set and comes to a stop in front of Chris Lee, who, like Ian McKellen and the other grand old thespians in Rings and Gladiator and Harry Potter, electrifies with just his eyes, words and voice. Those vast caverns filled with fleetingly seen creatures are only a video game until Lee does his stuff and the story gets moving again. Shall I suggest why? Perhaps CGI is just too facile. I can imagine that once a virtual space is defined, with it’s light sources established and it’s virtual population in place, flying through it would require surprisingly few keystrokes—the digital equivalent of an ill-considered Steadicam shot, or one of those techno-moronic concert shots. When we trouble to set out rail for dolly shots, at least we consider what matters. Why are we doing this? What exactly do we want the audience to see, to feel at each moment to make all this effort worthwhile? (That black swarm of flying, spying things which we followed down into the forge, didn’t bloody do much in the end, did they? They just flapped by in the background! I’d rather have seen one of the creatures land on Saruman’s shoulder and breath its charnel news into his impassive face!).
And when those digital creatures fly, leap or fight in ways that violate the laws of physics, (which we viscerally understand), it renders us immune from wonder or awe. We can only regard them as cartoons. Spiderman conspicuously fell too rapidly when he swung through the air, and when he was tossed around by that similarly inertia-free green person and none of their stunts were at all impressive! An exaggerated care for those physical laws, particularly with respect to on-screen fighting, keeps your audience much more involved. (Spielberg always got it. All the stunts in Raiders, for example, felt alarmingly, painfully real).
Which brings us to:
From the day when my crusty old Fearless Panoram dolly arrived on the undulating floor of our rural barn studio in Pennsylvania, and a Bolex was incongruously, pin-headedly, placed aboard, I began to study, first hand, the fascinating kinetics of the moving camera. My early dolly shots were sluggish and curiously unsatisfying. The Fearless weighed over 600 lbs. It required a lot of your famous British Thermal Units to make it start and stop, but we eventually got the hang of matching the actor’s timing. Is there a sense of urgency? Does the he skid to a stop, or amble into place? Does he bolt away from his mark? Can we decelerate and accelerate with a similar (or at least complimentary) curve of energy? Which of his subsequent affectations, twitches, false starts, require a corresponding shift of the lens? With a dolly as massive as the Lusitania, that skill was hard-won, but it paid off when the Steadicam finally arrived, since by then I understood that the nature of the camera transporting device, heavy or light, must be subordinated to the nature of the action.
When this effort succeeds we remain, in narrative terms, invisible—the cinematic equivalent of the ‘omniscient-third’ viewpoint. But out-of-sync camerawork, moving too soon, or carrying on after the actors stop, draws attention to the camera’s eye and we feel like an entity, a presence, if not quite an onlooker. Of course, like a number of other cinematic rules, such as the editorial compunction about ‘crossing the line’, this idea can be considered a useful default, a basic practice, to be ignored at your whim (and peril), but keep in mind that in an era when all the tenets of filmmaking are up for grabs, as in the utter anarchy of a video game, it’s good to anchor our work in some way that relates to traditional practice—such as that the ‘character’ of the camera should at least be according to your will.
Another kinetic property of moving shots remains surprisingly obscure and not yet talked-to-death in film schools. I think it has valuable implications.
As a camera moves, geometric perspective lines and vanishing points suddenly take a back seat to a singular new ‘appearing’ point which is caused by the apparent flow of motion on screen: if we look ahead, the scene seems to expand outward from this one place; if we look to the rear, the frame collapse toward the corollary ‘disappearing’ point, fixed according to the true vector of one’s approach or withdrawal The classical attributes of a pleasing frame are in flux in such a shot, new masses wiping into the foreground, others departing as we progress, so the concept of ‘dynamic composition’, composition in motion, would suggest that we place these appearing or disappearing point on the traditional axes of heightened interest that accord with the Rule of Thirds.
By default people tend to center moving shots on the destination (just as they routinely, mindlessly put cameras up at shoulder height!), but when that point is offset, even extremely offset, audiences just turn their heads and unconsciously accept that they are now headed ‘over there’ and the flow of screen motion becomes a great tide sweeping the greater portion of the frame, side, top or bottom; selectively revealing and concealing in ways that can be quite gripping. Those grand Arrival and Departure shots that begin and end movies, that establish places, characters and events or suggest their final destiny, particularly reward the elegant placement of their appearing and vanishing points.
One of my recent favorites was perfectly designed and executed—the vast and evocative final pullback that ended The Perfect Storm, leaving Mark Wahlberg (sp?) behind as a lonely speck cresting an infinite foreground of cold gray ocean waves.
Film and video-makers can now digitally stitch together shots that give the illusion of continuity across any imaginable barrier, but when the lens just zips down from the stratosphere through a keyhole and onto an eyelash, it suggests that the camera has no more substance than a neutron or a quark, and the result is correspondingly trivial. There is something about the massy, klutzy dolly and crane shots in old movies that comparatively resonates. Something physical. They felt more important, more meaningful! This suggests that a few more keystrokes could easily ‘mass’ up the virtual camera—the visual counterpart to ‘comfort food’—and kinetically give the work some consequence.
The 4th dimensional barrier of time has also been annihilated. Matrix imitators now orbit like comets around frozen actors, completing the temporal disconnect that began way back with undercranking and peaked with the recent glut of speed/aperture effects; but though marvelous when first encountered, these tricks pale with repetition. I think that the pioneers of the cinema, with the possible exception of Abel Ganz and George Melies would be gobsmacked by today’s movies (picture Gottfried Daimler strapped into a new Mercedes on the M1, stereo blaring, GPS chattering!), but the rest of us are getting a bit jaded...
So what is it that still matters at the movies? The artistry—now and forever. The writing, the performing, the look, the sound, the feel; the artful way we play upon our lighting and shooting and mixing and compositing instruments; our palette, our brushes, our lumps of charcoal in torchlight... what else is there?
Fortunately, for the purposes of this discussions, my focus can remain myopically on just one narrow but potentially artful aspect—finding ways of moving the camera that can still move an audience...
To be Continued...
In the spring issue of Zerb, Garrett Brown’s essay will conclude with an examination of the optical and dramatic consequences of The Moving Camera.