Filmmaking: Tips, Sources & Tools — April 28, 2012 at 7:34 am

Shaky camera in films: pros and cons

film-eyeWe’ve seen this technique used in films a thousand of times before, and we still do. “Shaky cam” effect is in fact consirered a valid filming technique, which should not be overused however.

In some cases, shaky cam (or hand-held cam) help to bring more realism to a particular scene, and in other cases the only thing this effect does is frustrate a viewer.

Sure its great to use haky camera technique for a more realistic approach, for better connections with the audience.

It may look good on paper, however this “connection” doesn’t work so good in some cases when you’re actually watching a film.

Some people would of course claim that shaky camera ruins complete movies, or that its a trick for lousy filmmakers to get away with their unprofessionalism, or to save money or even cover bad fight scenes (like in case with latest Steven Seagal movies).

There is truth to that, as especially fight scenes are simply impossible to watch if they’re being “shaken”. While fast cuts are somewhat bearable, the shakes ruin the action.

Shaky camera (shaky cam, hand-held camera or free camera) is a cinematographic technique where stable-image techniques are purposely dispensed with. The camera is held in the hand, or given the appearance of being hand-held, and in many cases shots are limited to what one photographer could have accomplished with one camera. Shaky cam gives a film sequence an ad-hoc, electronic news-gathering, or documentary film feel.

It suggests unprepared, unrehearsed filming of reality, and can provide a sense of dynamics, immersion, instability or nervousness. The technique can be used to give a pseudo-documentary cinema verite appearance to a film. Though, too much shaky camera motion can make the viewer feel dizzy or sick.

Usually, the “shaky cam” technique is used in documentaries or films that have what they call “found footage”, where the shooting is mostly carried out by one person hand-holding the camera. The infamous “Blair Witch” project is a vivid example.

The film became a phenomenon with people arguing about whether it was real, movie theaters posting warnings about possible motion sickness, and movie studios taking note of the massive box office earnings.

There are films that use realism (shaky camera work) to their advantage, and there are those which kill their own audience by excessively using that very technique.

A filmmaker should possess some knowledge of using the shaky camera technique. In some movies, where the technique is used it doesn’t hit your eyes as much as it does in some low-budget movies or documentaries.

Of course, filmmakers should not forget one simple fact that people may want to watch a particular film not because it overuses shaky cam technique to be “as close to reality as possible” but simply because its a fiction, and they want as much details as possible.

The ugliest shaky cam abusers are those which have little regard for the actual film they’re making and instead are more concerned with the look and visceral feel of the movie.

Take mockumentaries for example, as in some of them the shaky cam effect is used to its maximum to make you believe a particular scene is scarier and more believable than it really is.

What’s worse – shaky cam gives you this constant feeling that you’re missing on a portion of action that the film offers you.



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