Why You Shouldn't Use Shaky-Cam

By , posted 3 December 2014

If you haven't read my article on why you shouldn't edit your own film, read that first.

In my article on objectivity, or the lack of it that we have as filmmakers, I used Paul Greengrass' Bourne films as an example of lost objectivity. But those films are good for something else, too. Never, in the history of film, have I seen so many complaints on blogs, forums, reviews, and in one-on-one discussions about a single film style as I have on shaky-cam and quick cutting. Inexperienced filmmakers and studio executives tend to love it. Everyone else, for the most part, tends to hate it. I'm one of those that hates it. I mean I really hate it. And I see it more and more. But the problem with imitation in general, is that the imitator won't be as good at it or use it correctly. I have only seen shaky-cam used effectively once, in Tom Ford's A Single Man. The reason it works well there, is that it shows the panic of the character. It came at a point when all we'd seen up to then was calm, beautifully composed, shots. It was jarring, and it needed to be. But it wouldn't have worked if the entire film was shot that way.

People (and when I say "people" I mean studio executives) tend to point to the success of Paul Greengrass and the 2nd and 3rd Bourne films in favor of shaky-cam. I argue that without the properly shot first Bourne film (thank you, Doug Liman), the next 2 by Greengrass wouldn't have been at all successful. In fact, I'd wager that if Greengrass had shot the first one, there wouldn't have been sequels. When a certain camera style is constant, it loses its effectiveness. In that, Greengrass blows it. We know Bourne is going to win, but we want to SEE HOW he wins. Think of it this way: if you have a film that is 99% static shots, then at one point you dolly in for a close up, that dolly move has impact. But if every shot in the film is a camera move, the move when you need it loses all meaning.

But here's why shaky-cam doesn't work on a human level: we, as humans, don't see that way. Ever. Shaky-cam is an interruption to our visual sense, and is very dangerous to use. YOU will see your shaky-cam shot differently than your audience. You've seen it dozens, if not hundreds of times. Your eye will fill in what you know to be there and even stuff that isn't. Your audience, seeing it for the first time, cannot compensate for the wild shot or a five frame edit. Depending on screen size, it takes the human eye 3 to 5 frames to recognize what it is seeing. But it does this based on past experience of seeing things (we don't see with our eyes, we see with our brains). Now try wrapping those five frames in a blur of images. There is absolutely no way to discern what we are seeing even on longer shaky-cam shots. Since we don't see in shaky-cam mode in real life, our brains have a hard time filling in with past visual reference. Shaky-cam builds a barrier between your film and your audience. They will never become completely involved in your characters because they will be constantly reminded that they are watching a film. And speaking of screen size, that 7 inch monitor on set will dampen the effect of shaky-cam. On a 40 foot screen, that tiny move is now huge. To you, as director, it will seem the same. To us, the audience, it's a tiny boat in a hurricane.

Dolly shots, tilts, pans and cuts work because that is how we see in everyday life. Try this little experiment I've used on students (I sometimes lecture on directing). Hold up each index finger at arm's length, about 2 feet apart. Just using your eyes (no head turn), try to look smoothly between your left index finger, moving to your right index finger. It's physically impossible to do this smoothly. Your eyes will stop and start. They will try to focus on things in the background, etc. Now try moving your left hand TO your right hand, following the left with your eyes. It's easy to watch your left hand in an absolutely smooth way. That's why dolly shots work: because that's the way our brains work.

Camera movement and placement must work for the film you are making. Lately I see hand-held and shaky-cam used in really inappropriate places. Again, I bring up Greengrass and the Bourne films because they are an easy example to illustrate my point, but he's not the only offender. It's difficult to have an emotional moment between two characters if the camera is jittery. When is the last time you looked into your girlfriend's or boyfriend's eyes with your head bobbing from side to side?

Another trend that comes from Greengrass is the abandonment of screen geography. For example, in the 2nd Bourne, early in the film, an assassin is chasing Bourne and Marie. But we never have a clear idea where the assassin is because Greengrass has dropped screen geography. We feel no tension because we don't know how close to death they are because there is no relationship between the chased and the one doing the pursuing. Shaky-cam and quick cuts can only up the tension if they are used sparingly. They can't replace screen grammar.

If because of this technique, you can't distinguish between the protagonist and antagonist, you've lost the audience--because in that moment, they are trying to figure out who is who. They are out of the film. It creates a visual hiccup.

To completely visually understand the 2nd and 3rd Bourne films, you have to see them more than once, and preferably on a small screen. That's too late. In the example cited above, it took me two viewings on DVD before I completely understood where the bad guy was. 100 years of film grammar shot to hell.

See, the thing is, to be the next Polanski, Hitchcock, Frankenheimer, or fill in the blank, the directors nowadays have to hit the ground running. All the masters we love had time to hone their craft. Those days are gone, it seems to me. No longer can you make a film every two years if you have a bad one. That way of learning your craft is gone, but to get better you have to make films. The sad part is, young directors don't really have that opportunity. I've been in the director's chair as a fixer, and much more time at the editing bench. I've seen it from both sides--a lot.

So I can say with confidence that, as a director, you will see your movie differently than your audience. Not only with shaky-cam, but absolutely everything in your picture. If you know that going in, it can only be a benefit. As I mentioned in the editing article, objectivity, or the lack of it, is a human frailty. And those Cinema Masters already know it. Every director I've met or worked with that's been at it for a while, gets opinions outside his/her bubble about their film. On set, that could be the script supervisor, the producer, the cameraman. In post, it's the editor, the producer, and a hand-picked audience of friends. The only ones that don't go to this trouble are first timers that have had the auteur theory drummed into their heads by well-meaning film teachers and historians. A painter or novelist can please themselves. Filmmakers have investors, bond agents, distributors, an audience and a host of others to please. And if you take the “screw everybody” route, the distributor will just recut your picture anyway (or worse, not buy it). You only have that luxury once you have a hit or two. Be careful you don't make a film outside of human perception (unless it's a sequel to a movie that was a hit).

Reader Comments

Nora, 23-Mar-2015
Very interesting reading, although I originally found the article while searching for a site that might help me weed out films containing shaky cam scenes before I spend money on trying to see them. But I learned a lot I wasn't looking for - thanks!

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