The Shaky Cam Trend

By Zack Mandell, posted 20 April 2012

There is probably no more reviled filming technique than the "shaky cam", or the vomit cam as it is derisively referred to by those that it sends running from the movie theaters with hands pressed over mouth. The fact is that shaky cam is a valid filming technique, but one that should be used in moderation. This article discusses the history of the shaky cam technique, and examples of its use and misuse.

A search of the web for "shaky cam" will net you an endless number of diatribes against the use of this technique and almost none in support of it. This seems to be a matter of the squeaky wheel getting the oil, where those that are made ill or given a headache by shaky cam are the most vocal, and those who are not so bothered by it are not compelled to speak out on the matter. And when the technique made its appearance in the first major film, it created a stunning effect.

The Normandy beach scene in Saving Private Ryan used the shaky cam technique along with a faster film speed to evoke the chaos and terror of the scene. It was a great use of shaky cam that drew the audience into the scene and dropped them right into the action. The next major use of shaky cam spawned a whole new genre of film that came to be known as "found footage". The Blair Witch Project presented itself as home movie footage that had been discovered and turned into a film. The film became a phenomenon with people arguing about whether it was real, movie theaters posting warnings about possible motion sickness, and movie studios taking note of the massive box office earnings. Where Saving Private Ryan had used shaky cam as a technique to give weight to a scene, The Blair Witch Project used it as filmmaking style.

Some argue that shaky cam is a crutch to get away with sloppy filming, to save money, or to cover bad fight choreography. And these people have a fair point that many films have used the technique carelessly or as a crutch in the past, such as District 9, Cloverfield, and Battle: Los Angeles. Of course there are also examples of uses of shaky cam that add to great choreography and film work. A great example of this is the Bourne movies. Merging the expert fight choreography with a shaky cam puts the fight scenes in the Bourne franchise over the top and is a great example of how a little goes a long way when it comes to the technique.

So, while the shaky cam technique has many boisterous critics, it is a legitimate filming technique that has its place in movies. When used sparingly it can add great weight and a sense of realism into the scenes in which it is used. When overused, it becomes gimmicky, hackish, and can make a film unwatchable for many viewers. The lesson here is that you can have too much of a good thing, and that shaky cam is a good thing, as films like Saving Private Ryan and the Bourne films have shown.

Zack Mandell is a movie enthusiast and owner of www.movieroomreviews.com. He writes extensively about the movie industry for sites such as Gossip Center, Yahoo, NowPublic, and Helium.

Reader Comments

Paul Keyes, 26-Jul-2013
Shaky cam has more than worn out it's welcome. It's cliché and comes off as amateurish technique. How do directors expect to get their message out if half the audience is nauseous? Really?
gager, 26-Jul-2012
Shaky cam is never good. Shaky cam always brings attention to the camera and distracts from the third person concept of cinema. It's like looking at a reflection of the camera from a mirror in a scene except the shaky cam may make you throw up.
Apathygrrl, 19-Jun-2012
I hate the shaky cam. I cannot express enough the hatred I have for the shaky cam. I understand its usage in The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield, as these movies are supposed to have been filmed by people who are holding a camera while running for their lives and whatnot. I understand this because if I were trying to film something while running, my footage would be shaky as well. In my opinion the shaky cam in these movies is excusable due because the camera is almost its own character in the plot. On the other side we have movies like the Bourne Ultimatum and recently Safe House, which I cannot forgive. Here is my favourite example of why I dislike shaky cam. In the Bourne Ultimatum there is a scene where 2 characters are sitting in a restaraunt having a hushed conversation, but the camera is bouncing around all over the place like a 3-year-old on Red Bull. This is bad directing. This makes me want to smack the director over the head with a rolled up newspaper. Shaky cam bad enough during the action scenes you can't even see what's happening, but during the scenes when people are sitting still for 5 minutes? I say NO. I very much liked the plot of the Bourne movies and I would have liked Ultimatum more if Paul Greengrass had kept the damn camera still. It's times like this that I actually look forward to those smooth, slow motion shots where I can actually see what's going on.
Serge, 29-May-2012
Absolutely agree. It a grteat technique that should be used when appropriate to emphasize the feeling that the filmmakers wants the audience to feel. It also depends on character development/arc greatly. Great post, Zack.
Grant, 23-Apr-2012
I agree with this post, shaky cam is great but you have to use it carefully. I'm using shaky cam for a short I'm working on, hopefully it'll turn as good as I see it in my head

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