A Cinematographer’s Plea to the Budding Film Auteur : Move Your Camera

Filmmaker Toolkit
by Cybel Martin
February 11, 2014 4:05 PM
29 Comments
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I went to a recent screening of “Letter From an Unknown Woman” at MOMA with a friend and fellow Max Ophuls devotee. As always, I was delighted and swept away by Ophuls’ complex love stories and equally complex camera moves.

After the film, we discussed what we believed to be a fear, among many (not all) contemporary American directors, of moving the camera in favor of conventional coverage of a scene (Wide shot, Medium shot, Close Up, Close Up and figuring out the pacing in the edit).

Of the film elements filed under cinematography, I believe camera movement is the strongest indicator of my director’s voice. Certainly lighting plays an important factor in storytelling, but it’s the nuances of the camera that, for me, give me a glimpse into the genius of a director: An Altman zoom. Spike dolly. Varda tracking. Tarkovsky slow pan. Spielberg combo push in / tilt up.

Plenty of films draw strength from limited / zero camera movement. Off the top of my head, perfect examples are “Stranger than Paradise”, the duel scene in “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly”, Jeanne Dielman and several moments in Haneke films.

If you are still in the stages of defining your aesthetic, I invite you to expand on how you evoke emotions from your audience via camera movement.

Why do I think directors stick to conventional “made for tv” style camera set-ups?

A number of potential prohibitors come to mind:

Believing in your teachers more than yourself. When I was in film school, a teacher I really loved told me two pieces of “wisdom”: 1. you never end a film on a close-up and 2. panning back and forth during a dialogue scene was unwise only unless the camera movement was motivated by who was speaking. (see the “lamp scene” from “Le Mepris” around the 1:01:45 mark).

A challenge in film school is wanting to please teachers, especially ones you admire and respect, especially if their opinion of your films affects your scholarships. We were taught the basics of conventional coverage, which I think is extremely important. However, I now see it is imperative that all filmmakers watch a lot (A LOT) of films on their own and stock up on visual alternatives. I tell my students at City College that whatever I say is strictly my opinion. It is up to them to cultivate their own voice.

What if you dodged film school and heroically jumped right into directing your own films? There are other “authority figures” to contend with.

Sometimes the DP, 1st AD, Editor and Producer need to take a back seat. I applaud directors who are firm in their vision. If you have a camera move that seems unique, unwarranted, labor intensive or whatever but is clearly in line with your intentions for the film? It must be shot.

I’ve witnessed, countless times, a director be persuaded by their more experienced crew to break up a tracking shot, eliminate a moving shot all together or schedule to shoot both the “wacky” shot and traditional coverage (a delicate way of saying “you can’t pull it off”). Usually, we have the director and the film’s best interest in mind. We want to stay in budget and on schedule. However, our vision can be myopic. Only the director can envision the bigger picture. If the shot is vital, express that in pre-production and rely on our experience and expertise to make it happen.

If I dislike my director’s choice for a camera set-up, I employ my “Three Times” rule. First of all, I won’t say anything unless I can conceive of an alternative shot that still creates the desired effect. If I can think of an alternative, I will mention it up to three times. If the director still shoos me away? It’s never brought up again. Part of my job is trusting my director’s vision and aesthetic. I can’t be so arrogant as to believe I always know what’s best for their film. Directors continue to amaze and delight me with their ideas. And that’s the whole darn point and joy of collaboration.

Simply Not Knowing or Noticing

Some directors, especially those with strong theater, acting or screenwriting backgrounds, are extremely focused on the story and their actors. They’ve not taken the time to learn all of the ways the camera can support their vision. Even if they watch lots of films, they may not find inspiration beyond the content. On what word does the camera dolly? At what moment does the camera boom up? Listening to the director’s commentary on a dvd can be a great way to learn about camera movement. Three books that I recommend are Setting Up Your Shots by Jeremy Vineyard, Setting Up Your Scenes By Richard Pepperman and Master Shots Vol 1: 100 Advanced Camera Techniques to Get an Expensive Look on Your Low-Budget Movieby Christopher Kenworthy.  

Inspiration

The number of films with impressive camera moves is endless. I assume everyone has seen

the opening sequence to “Touch of Evil” and the Copacabana Club shot in “Goodfellas”. Although small HD cameras (and clever editing) can make these types of shots seem easy, I’m still impressed by the camera work in “Silent House”. 

I find inspiration everywhere. The stretcher tracking shots in the “Six Feet Under” opening sequence still give me chills. The running shots in “Beasts of the Southern Wild” are as exhilarating as “Jules and Jim”. If you want to see brilliant direction, notice how involved and textured the background action is in the oil derrick explosion scene in “There Will Be Blood”.

STUDY MAX OPHULS

Now let’s take a moment to discuss shooting Handheld

Hand Held: What a glorious opportunity for lazy camera work. I think everything should be done with intention. However, I know sometimes that “intention” is to shoot a scene without permits, shoot six pages in one hour, shoot a continuous shot when you can’t afford a dolly or steadicam, shoot a fight scene and hide the fact you don’t know how to choreograph it. I know all of these scenarios from experience.

I ask you to raise your expectations on how handheld can communicate and strongly support your narrative. Entrust your camera operator / DP with the same guidelines you would give if the camera were on a dolly. Direction such as when the camera will rest, when it will edge someone out of frame or drift away from a conflict. One of the best contemporary films I’ve seen with inspiring handheld is “The Messenger”. The best example I could find online begins around the 1:20 mark but I encourage you to see the film in its entirety. When you watch the film, notice who is favored in the frame, who is excluded and how that affects you. The director, Oren Moverman, also did “Rampart”, another film with really thoughtful and deliberate camera movement.

No conversation about exquisite handheld operating would be complete without an example from Wong Kar Wai and his longtime DP collaborator, Chris Doyle. The combination of color, lights, small practical locations and movement in “Chungking Express” is hypnotizing. There are a ton of Chris Doyle interviews on YouTube to find inspiration.

And then there’s Southland. By far, the best camera operating currently on television. Every episode of that show blows me away. Yes, this is just an opinion, but I don’t know who can compete. This is a spoiler heavy clip from, I believe, two seasons ago. 

Prepare. Prepare. Prepare.

One of my favorite science fiction films happens to have a reported budget of $7k and was shot on Super 16mm film. The Director / DP had no film experience prior to shooting. If you’re not familiar with Primer and the story behind it, it might prove inspirational.

Rigorous pre-production will balance out your limited finances, the inexperienced crew and tight shooting schedule. Shoot the rehearsals with your actors and try out different camera ideas.

If you’re blessed with an experienced crew, remember they are more than just technicians. Tell your DP the mood you’d like to create and ask what camera move they’d suggest to accomplish it. If you’re a DP, definitely collaborate with your Dolly Grip, Camera Operator and Steadicam Operator in the same way. If I run out of ideas, my crew is brilliant at offering more. Remember to ask them what equipment, tools and expendables they will need to pull it off and trust their suggestions.

In closing, a little poem actor, James Mason, wrote for the director Max Ophuls:

A shot that does not call for tracks

Is agony for poor old Max,

Who, separated from his dolly,

Is wrapped in deepest melancholy.

Once, when they took away his crane,

I thought he'd never smile again.”

You can see my work at MagicEyeFilm.com and chat film @CybelDP.

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29 Comments

  • Stephen Hamacek | February 13, 2014 7:06 AMReply

    Thanks for the article — some good points. Don't forget 'Children of Men' for modern bravura camera moves and motivated long shots. Wow. 'Beasts of the Southern Wild' was the first film that left me physically ill at the cinema from motion sickness though.

    A great resource for understanding camera moves is the 'Hollywood Camera Work' series of DVDs. Found them better than the books you mentioned, as far as planning confident/efficient/effective camera blocking. Just my 2¢.

  • Dankwa Brooks | February 12, 2014 12:01 AMReply

    You can tell by my comments below that I read this before, but I just had to read it again. Great stuff AND supplemental links!

  • Lana | February 11, 2014 7:03 PMReply

    Yes. And yes, Madame DP.

  • Daryl | February 11, 2014 6:39 PMReply

    Camera movement or non camera movement is a matter of what type of film language the director wants to use in a scene or for the whole movie. The article makes good points. I feel a lot of directors being that the tools of making a film are so cheap now, the directors just copy what they see or feel everybody else is doing instead of developing their own voice and style because they never really tried to understand the film craft or they just don't care and respect it. People like that would take your article Cybel and just start moving their camera around all the time with no purpose.

  • Dankwa Brooks | February 11, 2014 11:56 PM

    ^^^THIS^^^

  • dee | October 31, 2012 1:20 PMReply

    Nice article. Camera movement is certainly an art of its own. Not everyone can do it.

  • siya jim(steadicam). | October 31, 2012 2:13 AMReply

    Nice article I strongly feel my self, camera movement should be motivated by the story.

  • NO BRAINER | October 30, 2012 12:19 AMReply

    I see. So, limitations of most film students are lade upon them by their teachers? And all this time I thought they had no visual ability, none whatsoever, like how some people have no athletic ability. I think some will never get it, some can learn it in time and others are just born with it. These days, I rarely see filmmakers coming out of film school who are born with it.

  • c | October 29, 2012 2:04 PMReply

    great article... there are a lot of film makers out there running around with a camera. Anyone can tell a story however can one tell a story it a way where the camera can tell a story along with the dialogue is a feat most cannot accomplish because they lack the discipline and instincts. I watch films like Boogie Nights(full of camera movements). Paul thomas Anderson backyard pool scene or the opening scene when they enter the club was so well timed..it was like a play. or in the recent film "Miss Bala" by mexican director Gerardo Naranjo use of camera that made you feel that you where experiencing the violence along with the main charter. It had a strong Documentary feel however you get the sense that this was done intentionally to produced the desired effect. Thats whats separates the greats from the ones who just like telling stories. Directing is an art and once it is treated as such then it shows in the work.

  • Dave's Deluxe | February 11, 2014 4:34 PM

    That swimming pool shot was actually stolen from a great Cuban indie movie from the 1960's called "I Am Cuba" (which PT Anderson properly admits and credits, an avid film buff.) No study on camera movement is complete without viewing "I Am Cuba".

  • Cybel | November 2, 2012 1:28 PM

    I watched "Miss Bala" last week and was extremely impressed with the camera work. I tend to dislike too many shots from behind the protagonist's head (not seeing their face). There were many tracking shots from behind her and I thought it was very very effective.

  • Mark & Darla | October 26, 2012 10:46 PMReply

    Stop with the camera shaking and just film and tell the dam story if there a story to be told.

  • YouSaidIt | October 31, 2012 9:29 PM

    Absolutely...good writing is rare but anyone can track, dolly, pan and zoom until the cows come home...you even see it on paper towel commercials...not impressed.

  • urbanauteur | October 26, 2012 3:28 PMReply

    @Great Article!,Cybel;-)..if you like Max Ophuls camera moves...peep these ..auteurs ...Theo Angelopoulous(The Traveling Players,Eternity and A Day), grossly underrated hungarian auteur-Miklos Jancso(Red Psalm,The Red and White, The Round Up)Martin Sulik(Tenderness,The Garden,Orbis Pictus), Seijun Suzuki(Man with a Shotgun, Teen Yakuza)..etc...

  • Jerome | October 31, 2012 6:00 PM

    And, of course, Andrei Tarkovsky.

  • Cybel | October 27, 2012 10:59 AM

    Thanks for the film suggestions! Love Suzuki madly but not familiar with Jancso nor Sulik. I have no excuse for having not seen "The Traveling Players" yet so thanks for reminding me. I'll add them to my #NeverEndingQueue.

  • BluTopaz | October 26, 2012 10:07 AMReply

    Once again, Ms. Cybel makes me want to spend an entire week watching movies and reading. Gracias!

  • Funky J | October 26, 2012 7:55 PM

    Ha! Same here.

  • Cybel | October 26, 2012 11:18 AM

    YAY!!!

  • Charles Judson | October 25, 2012 6:04 PMReply

    Great post. Just came back from the Austin Film Festival and one of the films I saw was SPARROWS DANCE. It's a two character piece in which 98% of the movie takes place in the main character's efficiency apartment, which is only made up of a bedroom, kitchen and bathroom. The director rarely repeated a shot and continued to find new setups. It was impressive. What could have been a filmed play instead felt dynamic. Beyond that, the way he setup the characters to constantly convey information made for some strong shots. There's one I loved with the characters setup so it gives the appearance that the female lead, who suffers from agoraphobia, is bent over leaning against a counter facing left. In the foreground the male lead is leaning against the counter with his back facing right. It gives you the impression that she's nestled inside his physical space even though they aren't touching and they're still probably half a foot a part from each other. As that's the scene in which she reveals her condition, it's a composition that supports the emotional arc of the story. I would definitely check out all of Cybel's links and suggestions. We've come a long way from 10 years ago when digital cameras, while needing less light, didn't have the range film did. They now can achieve an incredible range of setups. Combine that with the homemade gear you can make for less than a hundred bucks, you can make a lot films look they had a higher budget.

  • Cybel | October 27, 2012 11:00 AM

    Thanks for mentioning "Sparrows Dance". I'll look out for it. I'm intrigued by your description.

  • Tim | October 25, 2012 5:56 PMReply

    after reading the first 3 paragraphs of this post, I was ready to comment with a rebuttal about how there's nothing inherently better about camera movement versus no camera movement, how simply adding camera movement won't necessarily help you break out of conventional coverage, and how the most important thing of all is not what techniques you use, but why you're using them and whether they're motivated by the story/theme.

    after reading the whole post, I still feel all of those things are true, but I also feel that this was a wonderfully thought out article that addressed practical aesthetic issues and urged filmmakers to challenge themselves instead of just cheer-leading them (I especially loved the section on lazy handheld camera work!). this is the kind of article I wish I saw more of on indiewire, so I thank you for that.

  • wylie coyote | October 25, 2012 4:58 PMReply

    The "Spike dolly" is actually the "Scorcese dolly". It first appears in "Mean Streets", if memory serves. Spike cited that spot as an inspiration and has been using that particular shot ever since.

  • urbanauteur | October 31, 2012 6:35 PM

    No both marty & spike stole it(dolly) from soviet auteurs- Mikhail Kalatozov & Andrei Tarkovski, check the record.

  • Cybel | October 25, 2012 6:06 PM

    True. True. Thanks for the clarification.

  • Dankwa Brooks | October 25, 2012 2:20 PMReply

    Another great comprehensive article Cybel! Great arguments for moving the camera and why!

  • Geoffrey King | October 25, 2012 1:04 PMReply

    I actually think the opposite. I believe that too many young filmmakers are employing camera movement without proper knowledge of motivated movement. Now don't take me for one who hates camera movement because I think that some of the most beautiful shots in history have been with a moving camera, but some of the most beautiful shots are also done with a still camera. I think that finding the right balance between still and moving camera movements is paramount to a film's success. Movement for the sake of cool movement just stamps "amateur" all over your work (usually due to the acquisition of a cheap slider and sudden access to countless reveal shots and horizontal dollying) I'm guilty of this contrived movement as well, but I'm trying to shy away from it. But then again, that's just my opinion.

  • Cybel | October 25, 2012 6:04 PM

    Hey - I agree with this too but for the sake of a concise blog post I stuck to one "grievance". Yes, a lot of green (and veteran) directors fly all over the frame with no patience nor finesse. Thanks for your input.

  • Dankwa Brooks | October 25, 2012 2:22 PM

    I agree with most of what you said especially "I believe that too many young filmmakers are employing camera movement without proper knowledge of motivated movement." Just because the shot is "cool looking" doesn't mean it makes sense in the context of the film.

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