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Camera movements - Part II

Camera movements - Part II

Previously we saw what camera movements the audiovisual language allowed us without moving from place, simply using a tripod. But with only a tripod we cannot dominate all the meanings that we can transmit with movement, so in this post we will go a step further and talk about camera movements using a moving point, i.e. an imaginary straight line. We will work on the movements’ meaning in each of the three dimensions and also how these movements can be combined with fixed point movements to expand their signification.

First of all, when moving the camera horizontally (that is, on ground, forward or backward, to the right or to the left) the most usual is to use a dolly (tripod with wheels), a slider or a traveling car. That is why you can expect that the movement’s naming has inherited the name of the tool that makes it. On one hand, the forward or backward movement is called dolly in/out or travel in/out, although the most universal name for this movement is the push in and pull out. In classic cinema, especially during the Hollywood’s Golden Age, the use of the dolly was very popular and much of the cinematic language of the camera movement was cemented around the use of the dolly and its limitations. We can see it constantly in Film Noir films like The Maltese Falcon by John Houston or Touch of Evil by Orson Welles. For example, one of the most used shots was the push in towards a character, to highlight the emotion or impact of the talent, or an object or action, to transmit the importance it has in the scene. On the other hand, the pull out is very common to reveal the scenario surrounding the character or, sometimes, to end the story and literally get away from it. 

When we move the camera laterally, or also called lateral traveling, it is usually by pure functionality: a character walks, an object moves ... We follow an action that goes from one side to the other. But the importance of this movement in its meaning lies in the direction. In the western cinematographic language, the movement from left to right implies development or progress. In contrast, the opposite movement - from right to left - means to recede or to return to the beginning. This meaning is so common that even entire films revolve around this symbolism, such as Snowpiercer by Bong Joon-ho. A virtue (or a defect) that lateral movement has is a certain sense of omnipresence in the action. It is a very detached movement and that makes it difficult to attribute a single meaning without context or content. Stanley Kubrick used it constantly in his films to create alienation between the viewer and the events of the film. Or it is used to show the inevitability of some event or the passage of time. It is also commonly used in war films to show the massive and widespread ravages of war.


The last movement that we have left to analyze now is up and down. This movement is even less common since, apart from the technical difficulty of working with a crane (hence the name of crane up and crane down), the sensation of not being a subjective movement is even more exaggerated than in the lateral traveling. That is why the crane up is very often used to show omnisciently a large space. On the other hand, the opposite movement, from top to bottom, has a similar meaning but with the inverted order of factors: instead of ascending from the main action to an omniscient point, we start the action from an objective point until focusing the frame in the action that interests us. This is very common as an establishing shot at the beginning of a scene or movie to place the viewer and quickly get into the action. Other uses that can be given are feelings of inferiority and impotence or superiority and magnificence depending on context and direction. 

Once seen the basic movements, unless you want to work as Wes Anderson and you are forbidden to do more than one movement at a time, it is time to see how they work if we join them. Mainly, the movements that are complementary are the ones that work best together: the lateral movement with the panoramic, the crane with the tilt and the push in and pull out with the zoom. Combining these movements gives much emphasis to the meaning they already have. For example, crane up with tilt down is a classic movement by emphasizing much more the meaning of ascension of the scene without losing the focus of attention of the action. Or a zoom in with a push in concentrates a lot of attention in the center of the shot. Sometimes, however, when we work with complementary movements and opposite directions (except with the crane / tilt) we create new meanings that alter the viewer's spatial perception. A camera movement that is already a classic in the cinema is the dolly zoom, also called Vertigo effect for being its first use in the homonymous film by Alfred Hitchcock. This consists of moving the camera in push in or pull out and zooming in the opposite direction at the same time. This way, the subject of the scene maintains the space it occupies in the shot, but its environment is stretched or compressed creating a very interesting spatial alteration effect often associated with panic.

In conclusion, albeit true that camera movements using a moving point depend a lot on the use of more advanced tools than a tripod - like sliders, dollies or cranes - and are very often linked to the movement of our characters in the action of the scene, this does not imply that we cannot up your game in the scene and only use these movements to follow the characters. All movements can be used in static moments or breaking the expectations of the viewer. From here you only have to give wings to your imagination. And if this is not enough, the last step is to release the camera, which we will discuss in a future post.