First, watch the video:
Why move the camera at all?
There are many reasons to move a camera. It can be used to:
- Reveal information, or hide something.
- Add energy to a scene, or uncertainty.
- Get a better look at things, or follow an actor, discovering the scene along with him or her.
- Move away from the actor, detaching yourself from him or her.
When used correctly camera movements are one of the most powerful elements a storyteller has in his or her arsenal.
Let’s see what the different types of camera movements are, why they are used, and what tools you can use to make those moves.
1 Pan and tilt movement
The camera is fixed in a position but looks right or left, or up or down. This is the simplest type of camera movement – and the earliest.
You can show an actor walking from left to right, revealing the scene, or you can point from shoe to head, revealing their attire.
You can even perform the pan or tilt quickly, sometimes called a swish pan. In many ways a swish pan seems natural because we, too, look quickly if we hear something alarming. The movement adds energy to the scene and replicates our own motion.
You could even pan continuously in circles, and this has devastating effects. Like Kurosawa showed, and later Sergio Leone made famous, you can cheat and show an actor running fast by just making them go in circles.
To accomplish a pan or tilt all you need is a simple tripod or head. You can mount this head on cranes or any other device. With heavier cameras you also use gear heads that allow for precise movements and framing. The more precise you want your pan or tilt, the more expensive the gear becomes.
Expensive fluid heads reduce backlash, unnecessary bumps or jerks, and absorbs mistakes in the panning technique. Who would have thought even the simple pan and tilt move could be so deep?
2 The tracking movement
The camera moves from left to right, or the other way around – sideways.
You could have a character walking sideways, or a car driving sideways, or a horse galloping, and the travel is the most convenient way to follow the actor. One of the great travel shots are from the film Rashomon, I urge you watch that opening sequence for pure poetry.
Travel can be slow or fast, and each has its own impact on the shot. Speed always equates to energy in filmmaking. But just like a hyperactive person is annoying, over-speeding ruins the shot.
We have multiple tools today to accomplish the travel shot. The camera dolly is the most common. It is an expensive piece of gear designed to reproduce all kinds of moving shots in a compact system. But tracking can also be done with the Steadicam or a gimbal or a crane.
You could also strip it down into a skateboard wheel dolly, like the Dana dolly or Matthews dolly, or just make one yourself. That’s what I did when I didn’t have any money. It’s harder to accomplish in a handheld situation, at least with current technology, becauses there’s too much shake.
3 The dolly movement
The dolly shot is similar to the tracking shot, except you’re either moving in or moving away.
This is used more for emotional impact rather than following the action. Something about a character growing larger or smaller in the frame, combined with the change in perspective, makes us feel we are moving closer or further away. A camera zoom gets us closer or further, but doesn’t change the perspective. A dolly feels real, where we are either invading the space, or escaping it.
Just like the tracking shot, you can use dollies or a steadicam or gimbal or crane to execute the dolly shot. You can even shoot this handheld or on the shoulder, and it gives the scene an energy mirroring a documentary.
4 The crane movement
A crane shot combines the pan, tilt, travel and dolly shots and adds one more axis – the vertical. You can move the camera up or down, or any which way.
This gives you an infinite freedom of camera movement. The more precise and further you need to go, the more expensive the equipment becomes. Probably the most popular tool used to achieve all kinds of complicated crane shots is the Technocrane.
Dollies can have small jib arms to give us some height, or you can even move an expensive camera dolly up or down on one axis, which is why the camera dolly is probably the most versatile tool in the camera movement arsenal.
A gimbal is typically used as the head for cranes or jibs to stabilize movement. You can also use manual cranes, operated by human beings, and this saves money, but takes more time to setup and is more risky. Still, tremendous shots have been accomplished this way, like how Orson Welles did in touch of evil. I have a whole video about it available to members only:
Coming back to crane shots, you can take it to extremes with drones. You can fly high or in impossible to go places. Modern drone technology is improving rapidly, and maybe there will come a day when a drone is completely silent, completely safe, and replaces many of the traditional tools of filmmaking.
5 Random movement
Michanel Bay specializes in extreme random movement. The camera shakes, or moves around in a random pattern.
You could accomplish this with a generator, like Matthew Libatique did, explained in my video on his cinematography.
Or you could use something simple like a tripod, and just moving the camera around slowly. It can also be accomplished handheld, or on a Steadicam or gimbal. The objective is to keep the frame moving.
Why would you want to keep the frame moving? I guess it’s because directors want to add energy. They feel the shots better. Personally I hate them, but that’s the beauty of storytelling and camera movement. You can move the camera slowly, fast, or not at all.
Just because you have all the choices doesn’t mean you have to constantly move the camera. Sometimes, nothing works except a static camera. It looks, and it doesn’t judge.
It’s not trying to create any energy, just tell you things like it is. The important thing is to feel it, if you don’t feel it, don’t move the camera. That’s all there is to it.
I hope you found this video and article useful. What do you think?