Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Discussion Starter – Shakycam: The Most Exciting Thing to Happen to Film Since the Addition of Sound; or The Worst Thing to Happen to Film Since, Well, Ever – Part 1 (Pros)

I’ve seen more and more comments in recent years about the proliferation in movies of hand-held camera cinematography, or “shakycam” for short.  Some people despise it; many people dislike it, but tolerate it; some people like it; a few people love it; and some people, believe it or not, don’t even notice it.

I figured I would gather together the various pro and con arguments I have seen, and then go into a little detail on them.


It makes movies more real

While shakycam has been around here and there for decades it really started to gain acceptance after the Dogme 95 movement began with a few independent filmmakers.  This movement was intended to make films more natural.  Among the restrictions imposed by these rules were things such as: only hand-held camera work; no musical score except what was played by someone in a scene; no lighting except from sources in the scene; no sets – only real houses could be used; no special effects; no props except those already at the real location; etc.  You can read much more about the Dogme 95 movement, as well as get a list of some key movies made under its rules here.

Over time some mainstream directors wanted to be taken more seriously as artists and they saw following the rules of this movement as a way to accomplish that.  Unfortunately, they ended up ignoring most of the rules because they were too limiting.  These directors usually employed the one technique that would be most noticeable to everyone they were trying to impress – shakycam.

The thing is, this is the one major rule that doesn’t make a movie more natural.  Using only the lighting, music, sets, props, etc. that are found at the location is more natural because nothing has been added.  How you film it is not.  Think about it.  Movies are simply a set of still photos strung together and run by our eyes fast enough to trick us into seeing motion.  By their very nature the way movies are photographed and presented is completely artificial.  Whether the camera is on a tripod or hand held makes no difference in how natural they are.

I didn’t say it made them real; I said it made them more real

The supporting explanation I’ve most often heard here is that in our day to day lives we don’t just sit still and watch everything happen in front of us; we are in motion ourselves, therefore a camera that is in motion is more realistic in presenting what is going on.

Unfortunately, this ignores a basic piece of biology.  Our brains are hardwired to detect motion we initiate and to compensate for it in order to keep what we are looking at still.  It made humans better hunters.  Don’t believe me?  Try this experiment for yourself.  Look at an object across the room from you.  While keeping your eyes on it, stand up, walk around the room, turn your head, etc.  The object stayed still, didn’t it?

Have you ever been staring out the window of a vehicle that started to move slightly and just for a second it felt like what you were staring at was moving and not yourself?  That split second WTF feeling comes from the same biology.  The small motion that you couldn’t feel crossed up your brain for a second.  Having objects moving around within the frame of a film, when neither those objects, nor yourself are actually moving, also crosses up your brain.  Some people adjust to it just fine.  Regardless, it’s less real, not more real.

I don’t care about all that science mumbo-jumbo.  It makes the movie feel more real to me.

Since shakycam doesn’t have that effect on me, I can only speculate here.  More and more often news services are using footage shot by witnesses on cameras and phones.  Inevitably, this footage is bouncing around.  Perhaps seeing an image in a movie bounce around makes some people feel like it’s closer to what they see on the news.

In addition, there is a whole generation of movie goers that have been raised on so-called reality shows.  Perhaps there is a lot of shakycam there.  I don’t know.  I only see bits and pieces of them as I flip through channels sometimes, but what I remember seeing had those shows being filmed with a still camera.

It’s necessary to obscure the violence in a scene, thus allowing a film to get a PG-13 rating instead of an R

I saw this point being made a lot in regards to the recent film The Hunger Games.  Supporters said there would be no way to film people being killed with a steady camera because viewers would see too much.  Shakycam was needed to obscure what was happening.  (Pause for a second and realize that these people are saying that shakycam makes it difficult to see a movie and that this is a good thing.)

Alfred Hitchcock famously included a scene of a woman being stabbed many times in a shower in his film Psycho.  If he could do that in 1960, when limits on violence were far more restrictive than today, then there should be no reason a modern director, with even better equipment and technology, should not be able to do the same.

“But Hitchcock was shooting a single location, not an action scene” some might say.  Well, how did Peter Jackson shoot tons of action scenes across eleven hours of Lord of the Rings films usually with a steady camera?

“Yes, but those are talented directors” some might say.  Well, it doesn’t even have to be complicated.  Movies have been doing cutaways for the entire time they’ve been around.  Simply show the weapon being raised, then as it comes down, cut away but include a sound effect to convey what happened.

It makes action scenes more exciting

Again, it doesn’t have this effect on me, so I can only speculate.  Some of it I believe goes back to what I wrote above about it making films feel more real to some.  More real would also equal more exciting to them.

Another thing contributing to this feeling might be the “tease factor”.  Some people get more worked up when they are only shown hints of things and their imaginations fill in the blanks and invent exciting things that they are not actually seeing.

It’s art

This goes back to the Dogme 95 movement.  Because people who were artists came up with it, some people think that anyone who employs the same techniques automatically becomes an artist, too.  This is like saying that just because Tiger Woods plays golf and I do, too, then that puts me in the same category as him.

Art, of course, is in the eye of the beholder, so one person’s opinion that shakycam makes a director a real artist is just as valid as another person’s who feels it makes him a hack with no vision of his own.

It lowers production costs

The acceptance of shakycam in more and more movies has been a boon to independent filmmakers.  What’s the single hardest part of making a movie?  Raising the money.  Cinematographers, focus pullers, cranes, tracks, etc, are expensive enough.  Trying to get a steadycam and steadycam operator is very expensive.  Hand a guy a camera and have him walk around a scene to film it saves a TON of money.

A cynic would point out that the Dogme 95 movement had the effect of leveling the playing field for independents.  Those filmmakers who were not that good at raising money suddenly didn’t have to compete with those who were better than them at it.  If none of their peers used lighting, scores, sets, props, etc. then they didn’t have to try to raise more money to afford them either.

It is necessary when the camera operator is themselves a character in the film

Some films, such as The Blair Witch Project, Cloverfield, and Chronicle are shown from the point of view of the various characters filming the others.  This is the one time where shakycam is truly a natural part of the filming process.

To be continued

That’s all for now.  In the next post I will discuss the Cons of shakycam.  You can read that post here.


  1. I know you have yet to get to the cons, but I couldn't help but agree with pretty much this entire article. Shakycam is way over-utilized in today's movies, and while many arguments are brought up towards the realism of it (arguments that you've done well in countering in much the same way I would've), to me it just always made the film look unprofessional to me. I just got done with The Constant Gardener, which used this cinema-verite style of shooting, and it was one of the main problems I had with the film; I couldn't get into it as much as I would've because the camerawork looked so amateur. For me, if you can construct a great still image with each shot you take, that's one of the hallmarks of a great film, and shakycam makes it impossible to do this.

    1. Thanks. The article was too long, so that's why I split it into two posts. The cons will go up tomorrow.

      It's funny you mention The Constant Gardener because I felt the same way. Think of how beautiful the shots from the air were. The director knew because he used a still camera for those. For the shots of the two talking to each other, though, he literally handed the camera to the two of them to film the person they were acting opposite. That's why those scenes are even shakier than the others - because actors were holding the camera instead of a cameraman. It actually WAS amateur camera work.

  2. Chip, I really like this post. It's obvious that you've spent a lot of time considering the shakycam issue, and I think you're presented a very measured "pro" argument. Although I believe it's an overused convention, there are (some) times when it's appropriate, such as scenes that involve frenzied action (i.e., "It makes action more exciting."). It's unbelievably distracting, however, when it's a scene depicting two people having a simple conversation.

    Looking forward to reading part two.

    1. "It's obvious that you've spent a lot of time considering the shakycam issue, and I think you're presented a very measured "pro" argument."

      Thank you very much. I have been kicking around thoughts on it for years; I had just never organized them. While I am not in favor of shakycam in most situations, I still tried to present the Pro arguments as honestly as I could.

  3. I agree with Barry P. There is a time and place for it, and that time and place is never a dialog scene in a living room.

    1. Where the line between acceptable and unacceptable for people is what I am most curious about. That is one of the questions I asked at the end of the Part 2 post I just put up. It's a bit like asking people at what point in Falling Down, if any, did Michael Douglas' character become "the bad guy". The range of answers on that was quite interesting, and I am hoping enough people respond on these posts to get a good range of opinions, too.

    2. Actually, just the other day I saw an amazing film that used the technique perfectly.

      The film was A SIMPLE LIFE, by Ann Hui, and most of it has some very nice and steady, crisp, 'professional' cinematography where the camera moves smoothly and precisely.

      But then there comes a pivotal scene where the camera is kept distant, at a strange angle that's not quite right, and it's shaky. Ever so slightly at first, but then more and more, until you start to feel a bit dizzy. That's when the observant viewer will realize it's done to make you feel some of what the character is feeling at that moment, and once that moment has passed, no more shaky cam.

    3. Thanks for the info.

  4. This is a truly fantastic post – informative, educational and, in my opinion, accurate. There is most definitely a place in the cinema world for shakycam. But, like many techniques, it is used well and abused almost equally. In the end, I think it all depends on what the material calls for.

    I’m really (really, really) not trying to sound like a pretentious douchebag by mentioning my movie on your site, but I knew in pre production that my flick needed to be shot handheld. Dollies, tracks, tripods, mounts – I own all that stuff, but I just felt it suited the script better to be shot as close to the chest as possible. So, yeah, it’s shaky, but it’s not that shaky. Not Blair Witch style or anything.

    Sorry, back to your post…. I really like this article, Chip. If IMDb’s HitList was still around, this would definitely be a top contender to run on it. Off to read the cons now!

    1. Thank you very much. Yes, the IMDB list sometimes produced some very interesting articles in their links. Thanks for thinking of me in that company.