Camera in Motion - Mode, Means, Method
Of the many things that filmmaking may be said to be it is, above all, a process of creative problem solving. What exists tangibly for the director is a need to illicit a specific set of emotions and responses from the viewer - to make them feel, look, view, consider and engage with a defined idea in a particular way. Once that ‘idea’ (be it narrative or otherwise) decided upon, the process of making the work into existence is one of solving the problems that the execution of that idea throws up.
So far so good...
The problems to be solved might be creative, logistical, technical or dramatic; they might be concerned with staging, performance, lighting or editing but it is in the solving and overcoming of these problems that style, form and cinematic art is delivered. Whilst cinema might be said to encompass and draw upon All the arts of painting, scupture, music, theatre and performance, there are also distinct components of cinema’s DNA that are unique and belong only to Cinema. Foremost among these is the 'moving camera'. Whilst other arts have moving subjects and an arrangement of space, no other art possesses the ability to deliberately and overtly move the viewer through space.
The moving camera is pure cinema.
Thus for the filmmaker the problem-solving surrounding the application of the moving camera is at the very heart of the cinema experience. But like any artistic 'tool', movement is but a colour on the artist's palette, a paint which may be smeared carelessly and without consideration just as easily as it may be deftly and skillfully applied.
What follows is a structure for providing the filmmaker with a clear mechanism for devising solutions to problems of movement. Rather than another litany of how camera movement may be interpreted in an academic way, it is intended as a means by which filmmakers may inform their cinematic problem solving by conjoining conceptual impetus with the mechanics of production.
The particular properties of Camera Movement may be viewed through a simple triangular prism of the Mode, the Means and the Method. The Mode represents the intended idea; the sensation, concept or aesthetic construct the filmmaker aims to create and to generate in the viewer. The Means refers to the tool and the mechanism used to create the motion. The Method details the technique of operation the filmmaker employs in the execution of the camera movement. It's from the Method that we apply style and form to to the tools/Means of movement in service of the intended Mode.
Between these three we are able to describe in both practical and conceptual terms any camera movement fully in step with its aesthetic and narrative intentions. Moreover this structure provides a matrix of key questions to prompt the filmmaker to ask in solving the particular challenges of shooting.
If a filmmaker can clearly define the Mode, Means and Method of a given moving camera shot - in a way where each is concert with the other, serving the same ends - then the filmmaker greatly raises their ability to fully resolve their cinematic vision in a manner more akin to delicate brush strokes than random paint splatter.
We can divide up the Mode of a moving camera into 5 archetypes - the Abstracted, the Motivated, the Voyeuristic, the Anthropomorphic and the Veritae. Within this taxonomy each one represents a particular desired conceptual effect; a means of positioning the viewer and shaping their experience.
This represents an extraneous, disconnected, 3rd person or God-view perspective on a given scene. This mode is among the most common and presents a movement in a scene where the viewer is positioned and given a privileged and intangible observation point. Such a point is not directly connected to either space or definable character.
The example above from Tarkovsky's 'Stalker' presents an Abstracted camera; a specific movement over the scene that places the viewer in a privileged vantage point from which to survey or have revealed the scene. Because Abstracted movements are not motivated by character, action or space they - more than others - serve to make commentary on the scene. By engaging a movement with no internal influence the director is empowered to construct meaning for the viewer from an external position.
This mode describes camera movement that is compelled, influenced or effected by scene. Such a movement takes on an internal logic that drives its movement rather than external directives. A motivated camera seems to be prompted to move by the natural events and needs of the scene rather than by an external directorial impetus.
In the example above we see a Dolly tracking shot that follows the character of Jack (from Stanley Kubricks 'The Shining') as he moves from the empty hallway into the crowded ballroom and up to the bar. The movement of the camera can be said to be Motivated because the impetus to move is dictated by a need to follow the character and keep him frame. In such a case the movement of the camera appears not dictated as external commentary but rather motivated by the internal action of the scene.
Conversely we might consider the flipside, the un-motivated camera, whereby the movement seems to be lagging behind the action and the camera not compelled or influence by the action. This example from Gus Van Sant’s ‘Elephant’ shows an extraordinary example of the camera movement defying expectations but not keeping up with the conversation and only framing on the speaker seemingly be accident.
The term Voyeur is used to describe someone who enjoys watching that which they shouldn't or which should be private. As such this mode defines an intention to position the viewer as n 'invisible guest' within the scene; a mode of looking in and watching on with overtones of seeing that which is private or hidden.
This example shows a scene from 'The Lion in Winter' where a shot begins in rather simple and abstracted 2-shot and uses a dynamic track forward to close-up. This brings the viewer from an abstracted 3rd person to a very intimate, almost invasive position on the couple. In this example the fact that the two are lovers, in bed, engaging a private and personal moment of disagreement embodies the camera movement with Voyeuristic quality; an invisible invasion of the personal space of the characters.
Again in an example from ‘Elephant’ we experience an ongoing set of moving cameras that follow the action and in particular follow silently individual characters as they move about their daily school routine. In the above example, with the camera so close and intimate to the subject, the viewer is placed in a position of pursuit but one where the character being pursued and observed is unaware of the presence of the viewer. This is the very essence of Voyeurism; the invisible observation of private moments.
This defines a deliberate effort to embody and personify the camera with human characteristics. Most often this is directly connected to placing the camera in a particular character’s point of view. In doing so the camera takes on movement and cadence connected to the movement and position of the person being embodied by the camera
In this long-take example from ‘1984’ we, as viewers, are positioned directly in the POV of the character Winston and move as he moves toward the dark building and the prostitute he is visiting. We experience what he experiences, see what he sees as he sees it. Anthropomorphic cameras are often unsettling for the viewer especially in POV where the otherwise rare Direct Address in cinema is given tangible reality.
But an Anthropomorphic camera need not necessarily be always a POV shot. The following example from the Canadian TV series ‘Newsroom’ shows the subtle use of a wandering camera that does not present as a definable POV but none the less feels anthropomorphic. The framing is unclear, seemingly unplanned, not always falling on the ‘correct’ subject at the right time. The result is a sense for the audience of having a first-person presence in the scene.
From the Latin meaning ‘truth’, the Veritae mode is about a desire for the camera to present a literal and actualized representation. Veritae camera movements are designed to be organically connected to the scene, to be natural and without external manipulation.
The example below is from the 9min short film by Claude Lelouch which is made of a single take from a camera mounted to the front bumper of a car driving at high speed through the streets of Paris. The movement of the camera is definitively Veritae as it involves no editing, no apparent manipulation, just a singular movement in a real and identifiable location.
Whilst the mechanisms by which a camera can be moved are virtually infinite, from suction-cup brackets on cars to rolling skateboards, they may be functionally groups together into 5 main groupings. Whilst the specific apparatus for each of these groups may range in size and complexity (A Dolly for example can be a simple as the improvised use of a wheelchair, or as complex as a seated, mechanized, track riding machine) it is the characteristics of each group that denote the main traits of movement performed by each of these tools.
Arguably the humble Tripod remains the staple form of camera movement for al kinds of screen media. Whilst it is fixed in height and has no direct spatial movement of position its simple 2-planes of motion, Pan and Tilt, enable the Tripod to perform 2 key functions; Following action and selectively and sequentially Reveling scene and object.
In the example scene from William Friedkin's 'The Exorcist' we see both the acts of Following and Revealing inherent in the motion of the Tripod. The camera pans to follow the motion of the car and in doing so reveals the destination of the car as the home of the possessed girl.
Along with the Tripod the Dolly is among the most ubiquitous tools for camera movement and it possesses a long history in cinema. The 1913 Italian film ‘Cabiria’ made such effective use of sensuous dolly movements that they were known for sometime in the US and Europe as ‘Cabiria Movements’.
Regardless of size and complexity a Dolly is effectively a Tripod on wheels and thus to the Tripod’s Pan+Tilt mechanics for ‘Following’ and ‘Revealing’ the Dolly adds a one-dimensional spatial movement – forward and back.
But it’s not the Dolly’s planes of movement that are significant so much as the manner of its movement, the ‘transparency’ of its movement. The key element of the dolly is that it presents the camera as unaffected by the world. From its privileged position on tracks and its overt intent to be as smooth as possible, the Dolly, by nature, attempts to make itself transparent. Whilst the movement it performs might be apparent to the viewer, the presence of the apparatus diegetically in the scene is not. Changes in the geography of the scene do not effect the dolly, generally speaking neither do weather or obstacle. The movement of the Dolly allows the director to comment on the scene, re-frame it or follow action but in any of these cases the camera moves as a ghost, removed from the physicality of the scene it depicts.
The simple example above from the film ‘Fresh’ by Boaz Yakin shows both the ‘Following + Revealing nature of the Dolly combined with it’s non-diegetic position as abstracted from the location at the same times as it depicts it. The Dolly, as it follows the young character of Fresh, by virtue of its smooth flow of motion remains a third-person perspective – looking into the scene but not sharing the space.
Much like the previous means of camera movement the Jib or Crane is effectively a hybrid that adds extra dimension to standard movements. With the Pan+Tilt of the tripod and the Jib/Crane invests the camera with height and lateral motion. In doing so it embodies the same Following and Revealing constructs of the Tripod and Dolly but does so in 3 dimensions. Along with a myriad of variations this empowers the Jib/Crane to engage the particular ability to not only move through or past a subject but also Over it, delivering a 3D dimensional reveal.
In the example here from ‘Elizabeth’ a single Jib shot takes the viewer from the microcosm of blood flowing in a stream, over individual bodies from a suspended and floating ‘god-view’, onto a macrocosm wide view over the full battlefield to survey the scale of what has happened. The unique ability of the Jib to not only move forward-back and up-down but to also tilt all the way over from its suspended position to look directly down empowers it to perform a much broader task of revealing than either a Dolly or Tripod. Moreover that the jib is able to do so in a 3-dimensional way movement that can fully engage with space.
The hand-held camera movement holds a particularly potent position in cinema language. On one hand its range of motion seems infinitely variable; pan, tilt, movement in depth and elevation. However because this movement is effected from direct connection to the human body of the operator it is also decidedly limited to human scale and what is physically possible. What is most significant for the Hand-held camera is not so much its planes of movement but the cadence of its motion. Hand-Held camera is invariably shaky camera; the influence of the operators hands, the terrain, the weather, the location all effect the camera in tangible and visible ways. A Hand-Held camera movement is invariably one that makes the viewer acutely aware of the presence of the operator and as such positions the use of Hand-held dominantly as one in the first-person and diegetic to the scene.
The example scene here from Romero’s seminal ‘Night of the living dead’ uses Hand-Held motion – both deliberate in the form of Pans and Tilts, as well as involuntary by way of camera shaky and wobbly framing – to quite specifically place the viewer in the scene. The shot is not of itself POV (there is no indication that the camera directly represents another character) but it does provide POV sensibilities to the viewer, embedding them in confines of the car. The shake and erratic motion demands the viewer to transpose themselves into the camera and the scenic events rather than see the camera as abstraction from the events of the scene.
The Steadicam represents one of the most significant advances in camera aesthetics in the history of cinema. Rather than just a simple hybrid of hand-held, the Steadicam delivers a quite unique visual motion and a specific set of visual language traits. In simple terms the Steadicam delivers for the filmmaker all the flexibility and freedom of hand-held shooting but it does so without the overt presence of the operator. Where the natural shake of hand-held makes the viewer acutely aware of the operator and the first-person presence of the camera mechanism in the scene, the Steadicam can be as ‘transparent’ the viewer and abstracted from the physicality of the scene as the Dolly but all the while maintaining all the benefits of free flowing movement and even a sense of being diegetic.
The example scene from Martin Scorsese’s ‘Goodfellas’ serves as a penultimate example of the power of the Steadicam to perform camera movements that would otherwise be impossible. The winding continuous motion of the camera through the back rooms of a nightclub as we follow closely the path trod by the characters delivers to the viewer a very intimate and immersive camera motion but one which maintains the viewer as an invisible ghost in the scene.
The Method refers to the principles of technique that may be applied to a camera movement device to enact a particular style and serve the intended Mode. Where the Means defines WHAT will be used to move the camera, the Method describes HOW.
Kinetic camera technique describes the effect of action on camera and embodies camera movement methods that aim to have the camera physically manipulated, altered and effected by the objects and subjects in a scene.
The example from ‘Borat’ shows a definitive type of kineticism in camera movement whereby the camera is physically a part of the scene. The camera is bumped and jostled by the characters, must dodge their erratic movements and at one point the camera itself is grabed and thrown by a character.
The second example below from Sam Rami’s ‘Army of Darkness’ shows a similar effect whereby the frenetic fighting of the characters physically seems to force the camera to move and dodge and whip pan with the action. However, unlike the above example from ‘Borat’ the camera is not overtly present in the scene. In ‘Army of Darkness’ we have the same Kinetic effect as in ‘Borat’ but the camera is not meant to be perceived as an entity but rather that the camera emulates the experience for the viewer inside the circle of action.
The Velocity of a moving camera shot is at the heart of the cinema-effect; regardless of which Means are employed the velocity at which the camera is moved – fast or slow – can define the viewers emotional response to the subject. A technique engaging specifically with velocity of motion seeks to envelope the viewer in a momentum that comments on or contextualizes what it is they are seeing.
In the example from ‘Sin City’ we see the camera rushing at great distance from the subject and at increasing speed; the result being to emphasis the panic and energized state of the character as they flee across roof tops. The speed of the camera carries the viewer along with energy to match the subject.
By contrast the example below from ‘Alien’ depicts very slow, languid, methodical velocity of camera. The scene is one where with the crew are all in hyper-sleep and the ship itself is slowly ‘waking up’. The slow methodical movements of the camera are a commentary and context on the slow and methodical processes being undertaken by the computer onboard the ship we are seeing.
Leveraging Randomness in the movement of a camera allows the filmmaker to present an experience of the subject to the viewer that ‘feels’ unpredictable and, more importantly, unplanned. Where a steady Dolly shot feels composed and specifically orchestrated, an ever moving camera - seemingly unsure of where to focus or move to next - presents the viewer with an unsettling perspective.
In the example form Orson Welles’ ‘Citizen Kane’ we see a camera probing and searching the frame, seemingly trying not to be seen by the subject. The result is that the image takes on a heightened air of truth and veritae. The Randomness of it’s framing presents as unplanned and so, by-proxy, more authentic and un-mediated by a conducting director.
Variation is the technique that embeds story structure progression into the individual shot. The technique, which is to a large extent reliant on both deep-focus and long-take cinema, finds the director concerned with creating a deliberate structure within the movement of the camera. In this way the Variation in the movement – found in velocity, distance, framing – becomes the mechanism by which a distinct journey is created and precise set of contexts created for the viewer.
In Orson Welles’ celebrated ‘Touch of Evil’ opening shot we see the process at it’s best. More than just a technically impressive the long-take, the fundamental technique being leveraged in the shot is precise cinematic structure executed through movement variation from start to end. Initial Pans reveal detailed information. The switch to Dolly motion moves the viewer to follow and discover the ramifications of those details. A lift of the crane shifts the viewer out of the circle of action and into an abstracted God-view looking down on the scene form an ineffectual remove, unable to alter the events set in place. High tracking shots maintain our distance and helplessness before we move in a Jib-like way to ground level to be more immersed in an intimate ghost like tracking of individuals about to be effected by the bomb which we, as viewers, are privileged to know is primed to go off. Finally rough hand-held drags us back into the circle of action to be placed in a position of shared experience with the characters. The Variation of this one moving camera is not arbitrary but a carefully constructed set of shifts that force the viewer to move through the narrative arch of the scene with a precise set of experiential weigh-points.
Whilst seeming overly simple, the static camera locked in position whilst the world moves around it can, at times, be among the most powerful moves of all. In particular when the scene or action is demanding movement, coercing the camera to move, and yet the camera remains static and fixed as if unable to move, a very powerful engagement can be forged with the viewer. An engagement built on the filmmaker choosing not to move when the viewer may wish to.
The example form the title sequence of ‘Lord of War’ shows a fixed perspective from the POV of a bullet being manufactured in a factory. The field of view and position is set and locked and despite the action all around the camera/bullet and it’s own diegetically occurring bumps, falls and rolls, the camera remains fixed. The viewer is forced into the confines of a camera that doesn’t move amid the ever moving chaos of the world around it.
What is intended by this breakdown of camera movement - its variations as well as aesthetic and conceptual considerations - is Not a set of rules nor a fixed taxonomy that pretends to be able to account for every shot in cinema. What is detailed above is intended a platform for questions to be asked; a structure form which a more refined set of investigations can be staged.
The process of justification is crucially important in cinema, the ability for the filmmaker to not simply splash form and technique around simply because the means to do so are available, but rather to make considered and informed choices and solve the intricate problems cinema production throws up.
Embedded in this structure are four essential questions about how a director might construct the Architecture of Performance that the moving camera allows.
1) Where is the viewer positioned in space?
2) What do you want to invoke in the viewer?
3) Which tool best suits that intention?
4) Which technique will achieve the desired effect?
By identifying the Mode, Means and Method of any moving camera shot the process of solving problems and making clear creative choices about the aesthetics of a film can be engaged with clarity and confidence. As is often said, it’s the journey not the destination that’s important. For the filmmaker no one but themselves will ever really care what terms and conceptual phrases underpinned their choices but arguably, just by undertaking the process to ask those questions and seek definable answers, a film is rendered more articulate and cohesive. Less random paint splashes on the canvas and more careful brush strokes.