Thursday, June 28, 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 2 (Cons)

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.  In Part 1 of this discussion I talked about the various ways people are for it.  You can read that post here.  Now for the Con arguments.


It can limit your ticket sales

There are some people who will not go see a movie if they know that the shakycam is going to be pretty bad in it, or once they have seen it, they will not go back to see it again.  On the other hand, I have never heard anyone say, “Don’t go see that movie.  It doesn’t have shakycam in it.”

Take a look at the third and fourth Mission Impossible movies, for example.  The third one took in over 47 million dollars its opening weekend.  Word of mouth got around about the heavy shakycam use in it, though, and it only ended up grossing 134 million dollars.  It came out during the summer when it is much easier for people to go see movies, too.  The fourth MI film opened in December and made only 12 million dollars on its opening weekend – one quarter what the third film made.  Word of mouth got around on it though, and even with the cold weather and snow some people had to battle, it ended up grossing over 200 million dollars.

“What about The Hunger Games?” you might ask.  That just broke the 400 million dollar mark after three months in release.  If you look at the box office, though, it made more than half of that total in the few days just after it opened.  Word of mouth started getting around, and then even news stories were being written about the shakycam in the film.  Once enough people started hearing about it the box office dropped off precipitously.

Movies don’t reach very high box office numbers from getting more people to come see it once, or from big opening weeks; they get them from repeat business and word of mouth.  Alienate a chunk of your audience and there is no way that they will become repeat customers, and they may pass on their dislike to their friends.  There aren’t too many directors of films that make 400 million dollars who are not asked by studios to come back to film the sequel, but the director who shot The Hunger Games in shakycam is one of them.

I don’t care about such bourgeois things as ticket sales; I am an artiste/cinephile

That’s fine, but to continue being an artiste you will have to continue to raise money.  If you have some box office success in your track record then that becomes easier.  You’d better be ingenious when it comes to making your art films for less.

As for the cinephiles that prefer watching art films with shakycam in them, this affects you, too.  If your favorite directors can’t continue to raise money, then you will not get to see more art films from them.

It’s lazy filmmaking

I mentioned in the Pro post that shakycam can reduce production costs.  In addition to needing less equipment it also saves money by cutting down on the time it takes to film a scene because the director no longer has to take the time to actually compose a shot.  Directors with limited vision can now just tell the actors to do their lines and have a person walk around them with a camera.  It doesn’t matter if something is framed behind them, because the shaky image would obscure anything like that anyway.  Because of this, framing a great shot is starting to become a lost art.

One of the extra features on The Bourne Supremacy DVD showed Matt Damon talking about how much fun it was to work in director Paul Greengrass’ shakycam style because he no longer had to worry about where in the frame something had to appear.  His character had been wounded and he asked Greengrass what position he wanted him in so the audience would know this.  Greengrass told him it didn’t matter what showed in the shot.  Damon was ecstatic about this because it made things so much easier for him both on what he had to do physically, and on how quickly his work on the scene would be done.

It limits filming options

The original Dogme 95 rules on hand-held camera work were that the camera was supposed to go where the scene was happening.  This meant the camera wouldn’t be high up looking down over the scene, or it wouldn’t be zooming in from far away.  Even those directors who ignored the rest of the Dogme 95 rules and only did shakycam still disregarded this part.  They would put a man holding a camera up on a crane to get a high shot.  Once again in the Bourne Supremacy DVD extras, they showed Greengrass strapping a man into the back of a pickup truck, handing him a camera, and having him attempt to film a chase scene behind him while the truck was itself dodging the same obstacles that the car being filmed would soon have to dodge.

If you’re going to hire a crane, camera vehicle, etc. then this defeats the whole point of using shakycam to either show you are an artiste or to make the film more natural.  If you do stick to the rules, then it limits the available shots in your palette.

It eliminates “suspension of disbelief”

Something that has been written about many times over the decades is that the audience suspends its disbelief in order to enjoy a film.  They know in their heads that they are watching a movie, not something real, but they get caught up in it, even becoming immersed in it, and because of that they enjoy it far more.  Anything like silly plot points, improbable events, etc. can lessen or even eliminate some people’s suspension of disbelief.  Shakycam does that for some people, too.

Think about a sporting event.  There are officials ensuring the players abide by the rules and/or making decisions on what is a strike in baseball, a ball being out in tennis, a free kick in soccer, a penalty, etc.  The consensus way to tell if an official has done a good job is when he/she is not noticed.  It is the great competition between the players that is what people are watching for.  It’s when an official decides he needs to take over a game, control it, show the players who is in charge, in other words, becomes noticeable to the viewers, that he does a bad job.

When a director uses shakycam he is doing the same thing as those bad officials.  Whether it bothers them or not, most people notice the images bouncing around in the frame, rather than just watching the great performances of the actors.  The director is reminding people that they are watching his movie, not the actors’.  It is something that he has created; that there is a cameraman standing there filming a couple of actors.  Like a silly plot point, or an improbable event, this also removes some people from the movie and kills their suspension of disbelief.

I even remember the first time I lost my suspension of disbelief because of shakycam.  It was with Traffic (2000).  Michael Douglas’ character was giving a press conference.  The shakycam had been kind of annoying up to that point, but that was all.  The scene started out with the view of Douglas from the back of the room.  He was bobbing around in the frame.  The scene then cut to a shot from behind Douglas where we could see the reporters…and all the news cameras on tripods in the back of the room filming Douglas.  I literally laughed out loud.  It took me completely out of the movie by reminding me how unrealistic the bouncing images were since the cameras that would have been recording it for the news would have all been still.  Since then I still get pulled out of movies from time to time because of shakycam.

It’s annoying

This is the opposite of the “It’s exciting” feeling in the Pro post.  Even those people who love it in action scenes don’t necessarily like it during the quieter scenes.  Having people’s heads bob up and down, or partially in and out of frame, while they are just having a quiet conversation can be quite annoying.

It can sometimes induce motion sickness

I read comments regarding The Hunger Games that some people literally had to leave the theater because the extreme motion of the camera was making them sick to their stomachs.  As I discussed in the Pro post this is due the movie messing up their brain’s ability to interpret motion.  Just like some people get headaches from 3D movies, some people simply cannot adjust to an image bouncing around while their brains and eyes are still.

It’s not art; it’s bad cinematography

Back before there were many widescreen TVs, and DVDs were being issued in both Widescreen and Fullscreen versions, I used to use the following example to illustrate to people why Widescreen was better.

Open up a book and set it down so you can read it.  Now place your hands over the outside quarters of the lines on a single page.  This is the equivalent to a 2:35 to 1 widescreen film losing almost 50% of the picture by being cut down to 4:3 Fullscreen.  When you read the remaining words on the page can you still follow what is going on in the story?  Yes you can, but imagine how much more rich and vivid the story would be if you could read all of the words.  Widescreen was the equivalent of being able to read all the words.

Let’s use the same example in regards to shakycam.  Imagine you bought a book and when you went to read it you found that the words were offset on some pages so that they bled off the edge of the page on the left, then the next page was missing some on the top, then the next page’s text disappeared into the binding.  Imagine further that some parts of the page were smeared so that you could make out some passages only with difficulty, while others were just unreadable.  Could you still read the book and understand what was going on in the story?  Yes you could, but imagine how much more rich and vivid the story would be if you could read all the words clearly.  A steady camera is the equivalent of being able to read all the words.

Just because shakycam is a conscious decision that does not mean that it makes the film artistic.  Anything that limits the ability of the viewer to enjoy the movie to the fullest also limits the ability of the viewer to enjoy the art that went into making it.  Shakycam does not make a movie more artistic; it makes it less.


I have been told by more than one person that I should just accept shakycam in movies because it is here to stay.  I think a lot of people have done just that.  The largest block of comments I’ve seen from people over the years would fall into the “I’m not thrilled with it, but I put up with it” category.  It's sort of like how most people say they are not thrilled by talking in the theaters, but they put up with it because they want to see the movie.

Going back to the book example, how many people do you think would put up with a book they bought being partially unreadable?  There would be massive complaints, the books would be pulled off the shelf, and new printings with the full text would be issued.  If people wouldn’t put up with it in a book, why should they be expected to put up with it in a movie?

Perhaps shakycam is with us to stay.  That’s fine for those people who like it or put up with it, but not for me.  Yes, there are certainly times where Shakycam is the right thing to do.  Those are the situations where the camera person is a character in the film, or when it helps young filmmakers get started out because they don’t have to spend money for still camera work. 

In all other situations, though, it lessens the impact of the movie on me, either by annoying me, or even taking me out of the film entirely by reminding me I am only watching a cameraman shoot some actors.

That's my line for when shakycam goes from being acceptable to being unacceptable.  What are your opinions on shakycam?  Do you love it, hate it, don’t care, or don’t even notice it?  Where is your line?  Do you think it will continue to grow in use, or is it like split screening in the late 1950s to the early 1970s – a passing phase that will be far less prevalent 10 or 20 years from now?


  1. As I just mentioned in the other post, it is a useful stylistic tool for the director to have at their disposal, but only for certain situations, when you are trying to get a point across to the viewer. Make them want to throw up, like the opening scene of IRREVERSIBLE. Or give a first person perspective of a SWAT team member like in [REC]2. But to make your entire film that way when the action or drama doesn't call for it, is cheap, lazy, and highly annoying. There's a reason even the founders of the Dogme 95 doctrine didn't stick to it for long.

    1. I could do without director's making me want to throw up, too, even if it was a stylistic choice on their part. Thanks for your comments.

  2. I don't get to watch many movies, but I have noticed the shakycam is being used on certain tv shows lately. I personly don't like it, as it makes me dizzy. I find myself looking away, thus missing part of the show. It can be frustating.

    1. Yes, J.J. Abrams, used it a lot on his shows and he has continued it now that he is directing feature films.

  3. Hunger Games, man. Fans can say all they want about that movie, but the shakiness in that flick was absurd. Glad you highlighted that it made the bulk of its change in its first few weekends.

    I do agree that shakycam can be lazy filmmaking. And while I think Greengrass tends to push the limits of how much shakycam I can ingest during one film, I think he has a point. Part of the freedom of shooting handheld is that there are no marks for the actor to hit. It really does free up the actors so that they can concentrate on their performance, and not if they're blocking another actor. But, again, that doesn’t mean shakycam deserves a pass 100% of the time. No way.

    Great companion piece here.

    1. Thanks again. Greengrass long ago surpassed my limits for putting up with him. I won't watch another film he directs. I figure he's about one step away from just setting the camera on a paint mixer and filming his movie that way.

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