Beware of the Shake: How Excessive Handheld Can Ruin a Shot
Lighter cameras are making shaky-cam more of a problem, especially in drama, and evidence shows that the viewing public doesn’t like it.
So, what do we mean by shaky-cam, or as some keyboard warriors on social media call it—queasy-cam. Well, what it isn’t is the Jason Bourne type of camera movement—a thrill ride and brilliantly dynamic. Nor is it the reality type of show or mockumentary series like The Office. A moving camera in those situations adds to the reality and gives the footage an edge and a fluid nature.
What we mean is the overuse of camera movement when a scene just doesn’t warrant it. A two-shot, for instance, with heavy, important dialogue—why would that need any camera movement at all?
Maybe it’s so rampant these days that we don’t question it. But, where does this technique originate from and do directors now just ask for it from their cinematographers as some kind of dynamic type of shot when they think a scene needs something?
The History of Shaky-Cam
But, before we damn it completely, let’s look back at how and why it originated—and has flourished—especially in drama.
There were examples of handheld camera work, not necessarily of the shaky kind, as far back as Abel Gance‘s Napoleon in 1927. But, the real camera movement experiments happened in the sixties with avant-garde filmmakers like John Cassavetes and Kinji Fukasaku in movies like Battle Royale.
The horror genre loved a shaky camera. For example, in The Evil Dead, Sam Rami ordered his cinematographer Tim Philo to bolt his camera to a piece of 4×2 inch wood and let two grips run with it down a city block.
Directors like the Joel and Ethan Coen (The Coen Brothers) and Steven Spielberg all joined in with the fun, but it wasn’t until The Blair Witch Project in 1999 that shaky-cam became culturally significant.
Then the “found footage” genre was born and used the extreme movement of the cameras as its calling card. 2008’s Cloverfield was another example of it, but there were warnings of the public’s unrest when the film was released into theaters.
In fact, if you went to see the film in AMC theaters, it came with a written warning. Hurriedly pinned to the main door of the theaters was an indemnity note that read,
Due to the filming method used for Cloverfield, guests viewing this film may experience side effects associated with motion sickness similar to riding a rollercoaster.– AMC Theaters
This was the first official sign of the public’s unease with this extreme camera movement.
Television Starts Loving the “Shake”
In 1993, television (or, more accurately, cop shows) decided to borrow the technique and get in on the act. A show called NYPD Blue started using it throughout their program to add a dynamic element to the gritty police drama. Some people liked it, others found it “notchy.”
There was a growing dislike of the technique and some directors weren’t shy in their hostility. Christopher Mission Impossible McQuarrie criticized the technique as a “gimmick used to try and hide the lack of real energy in a scene.”
What Do Camera Operators Think?
When you’re asked by a director to use the shaky camera method, there’s not much you can do. He or she has employed you to do a job and raising creative differences at the start of a project isn’t smart.
The truth of the matter is some cinematographers hate the technique, even though they become quite proficient at it.
Now that camera operator Peter Versey has retired, he can come clean on what he thinks. He worked on movies like Superman, Highlander, Mission Impossible, and frequently used the technique under direction and with the extremely heavy film cameras of the day. His issue was that it could take away from an actor’s big moment in a film.
I’ve always found it very annoying, especially on wide shots. I never liked doing it as I was always looking for compositions, and when you find one, you tend to stop. These are key moments and you really want to concentrate on the eyes and the actor. If you move the camera in any jerky way, then it totally takes away from the moment.– Peter Versey, Camera Operator
Peter tells a story of shooting a police drama in the nineties called Trial and Retribution. He was asked by the director to shoot in the shaky-cam technique, but to mitigate the effect,
A grip called Mike Fox came up with the idea of drilling a hole in a hard cricket ball and then putting a bolt through it to attach it to the camera. It would then screw on to the tripod. We put heavy sandbags on the tripod’s legs so you could rest the camera, but have this wonderful floaty effect which was near enough 360˚.– Peter Versey, Camera Operator
Up-to-Date Shaky-Cam Programs
If you thought the shaky-cam technique had long gone, you’d be wrong. Just start watching high-end television and movies, and you’ll see it all over the place. Minimal movement is always justified and works well, it’s just when excessive movement is used for no apparent reason that people start complaining. I say people, I mean viewers.
Earlier this year, a BBC police drama called Bloodlands used shaky-cam heavily and the Twitter-verse didn’t like it. A few of the comments at the time included:
The shaky camera work and random zooming is stressing me out #Bloodlands.
At least I’ve learned something from this show for my short film. Don’t do shaky camera work. #bloodlands
What’s happening with the camera work in #Bloodlands. I’m confused. Is this a drama or a documentary made by teenagers?
Just getting to watch #Bloodlands now. Wtf is the camera work all about? Ten minutes in and I am seasick! All over the place, even when a character is talking the camera is jerking about. This doesn’t make it look edgy, makes it look like my six year old is filming it.
Gave up after ten minutes. Good cast, but another series ruined by Mickey Mouse, blurred and shaky camera work, with too many ultra close-ups. Maybe a cost-effective way to shoot a movie, but while watching, I’m constantly reminded of the camera.
The “constantly reminded of the camera” comment is telling indeed. The last thing we want is our audience ‘jumped out of the narrative of a show
Even a UK National Newspaper took a swipe at the program:
SHAKY START: Bloodlands viewers left “dizzy and seasick” as they blast BBC thriller’s wobbly camera work.– The Sun
The Future of Shaky-Cam
With cameras becoming ever lighter, there’s no reason to think that disproportionate movement will disappear any time soon. Especially when directors see it as a stock technique when you need dynamism in a scene—at worst, it’s a lazy construct.
All we can do is call it out when we see it. Isn’t that what social media was made for?
For more filmmaking tips, advice, and perspectives take a look at these articles:
- 5 Things I Learned From My First Time Shooting 16mm Footage
- Datamoshing 101: How to Make Your Footage Look Trippy
- How to Give Your Footage a Cinematic Look in FCPX
- 7 Must-Have Books for Every Screenwriter’s Library
- Exploring the History and Revival of the 4:3 Ratio
Cover image via Matthew Wardell.