Unlike still photography, filmmaking is a medium defined by motion. Motion is the action within the frame but also of the frame itself. Even a series of well-lit and nicely composed shots can be perceived as a slide show, as opposed to a story in motion, if they remain stagnant. Nowadays we are hard-pressed to find a Hollywood film that does not include extensive use of camera movement. Because of this, even if we don’t know anything about filmmaking, we expect to see movement when watching a video.
Regardless of which tools are being used, the principle of the movement remains the same. A tripod is an ideal tool for getting to know the most basic types of camera movement: pans and tilts. You will often see pans and tilts used in a manner that mimics a character’s POV or establishes a sense that the action on-screen is being observed by others.
Because pans and tilts mimic how we view the world, it is important to consider the height of the camera when blocking your shots. The height of the tripod then determines the perspective from which the audience views your subject. Interestingly, the speed of the pans or tilts also has an effect on the viewer. A slow pan forces the viewer to take in all of the visual information of the scene as it enters the frame, while a fast pan or tilt can disorient the viewer and switch their attention to a new point of focus.
To have and to hold
It is certainly possible to tell a story without any camera movement, but movement is a very powerful resource for infusing drama, revealing key details in a scene, and transitioning between shots in a sequence. I believe it is safe to say that the most common movement is used to follow the characters on-screen.
Handheld camera work is especially popular in independent and low-budget productions as it requires less gear, fewer crew members, and greatly expedites shooting schedules by avoiding elaborate set ups per scene. But, before jumping into production with only handheld techniques, it is important to understand that unintentional shaking can cause nausea and make your production appear amateurish to the viewer. In today’s world of smartphone vertical videos and dancing cats on YouTube, a viewer might also associate handheld camera work as non-professional.
When done correctly, intentional handheld shake can infuse a sequence with a sense of urgency and tension. Think of documentary work in which the camera crew is chasing the action, such as video journalism, reality TV, or wild battle sequences in war films where the frantic handheld camera work provides a feeling of being in the trenches alongside the actors.
Every decision you make as a filmmaker will affect the way an audience will react and interpret your scene. No single camera move will represent a specific feeling or message. It completely depends on the story and context. Try not to incorporate movement for the sake of movement either. Rather, understand and appreciate the dramatic effects of each type of movement and how it can enhance your project.
Eduardo Angel is an independent Technology Consultant, Educator, and Visual Storyteller based in Brooklyn, NY. He currently teaches at The School of Visual Arts and the International Center of Photography, and mentors the photography program at the Savannah College of Art and Design.
He is a co-founder of the idea production company The Digital Distillery, author of popular filmmaking courses on Lynda.com, and regularly shares his thoughts on technology, photography, and cinema on his website eduardoangel.com.