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The Whys and Hows of Tracking: Handheld vs. Stabilized

How you move your camera in your projects can affect the tone and message of your shots. Here’s what to consider before hitting record.

When tracking action through a location, there’s a limit to the number of pans, tilts, and cuts we can use to depict the scene. Even if a few pans could depict the action, it may not be what’s best for the overall style of the film or mood of the scene. Remember, the camera is essentially the silent narrator of your project, dictating when your audience sees new information, exactly what that information is, and (depending on the angles, lighting, and so on) how your audience interprets it. Often, what’s best for the action is to actually follow it. Of course, there are several ways to accomplish this, but they typically fall within two visual styles: handheld and stabilized.

For the sake of this article, the terms “handheld” and “stabilized” will be pretty broad. For instance, when I refer to a stabilized shot, I’m referring to shots without camera shake, wherein the camera appears to float through the scene. On the technical side, this might be the result of a number of approaches: dollies, gyroscopic gimbals, etc. Handheld will refer to any shooting style with the human element of some level of camera shake.

First and Third Person

A striking difference between a stabilized and a handheld shot is the relationship between the audience and the action. As in a novel, think of this as third person omniscient and first person points of view. A stabilized shot seems almost ethereal, floating through the space, unaffected by its surroundings, able to access any area of a scene as it chooses.

In Boogie Nights (above video) more stabilized shots are appropriate because not only is it a tale that’s being recounted to us, but at times, we venture off into areas of the story that the main character (Dirk) would have had no access to or knowledge of. Stabilized camera movements help convey this feeling.

On the other side, we have handheld, which makes us feel as though we are part of the action, moving around the characters, limited by the physical space and objects around us in the scene.

However, with The Office, handheld is perfect because, yes, the show is a mockumentary, but it still immerses the audience. It gives us the intimate feeling that we work at Dunder Mifflin, with all these crazy characters. Quite often, the camera literally spies on our coworkers, through blinds or over a desk, etc. It puts us there in the moment. Let’s take a look at how those two styles can shape the way an audience interprets that information.

Control and Chaos

The camera movements here are so controlled and steady, carefully and coolly gliding through the scene as we follow the always-in-control James Bond. It conveys his own control over the situation, his confidence in his skills as he walks on the ledge of a building in preparation for an assassination. The camera isn’t remotely frantic until the gunfire begins, but even then, his aim is steady!

Contrast James Bond with this iconic scene from Children of Men. The main character, Theo, has zero control over his situation. In fact, he’s only alive because rebels took his captors by surprise. The camera comes as close to being Theo’s point of view, without becoming a literal POV shot. We follow what his eyes follow, we see objects as he sees them. The camera puts us in Theo’s shoes as he desperately runs through this war zone, hoping for the best. (Shout out to Emmanual Lubeszki for absolutely nailing this oner.)

At the end of the day, you may choose stabilized or handheld, purely for the visual aesthetics. As director, that’s your choice. But keep in mind that everything in film, not just camera movement, will have an impact on your audience’s perception of your story.

Sometimes you have to make your camera movement choices according to your budget. With low- to no-budget, you may have to go handheld. Just be creative by finding ways to make it work for your story — and the mood of the scene. But if you’re dead set on shake-free, smooth motion, there are hundreds of home remedies to help you out. Here’s just one to get you started.

Cover image via Children of Men (Universal).

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