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Camera movements - Part III

Camera movements - Part III

In previous posts we reviewed the camera movements with a fixed point and in a moving point and the meaning that they bring to the story, but we mainly analyzed these movements in the meaning given to the shot by the direction of the camera. Although this aspect is important, when you release the camera from a still point such as the tripod (and the different tools that allow you to "move the tripod" in different directions) the direction shares importance with the tool. What you use to move the camera may be as much or more important in the reading of the shot than the direction, even some tools are part of the aesthetic repertoire of many directors. This time we will look at three different ways to move the camera freely: the handheld camera, the stabilized camera and the subjective camera. 

The handheld camera or the shoulder mounted camera was one of the first tools that appeared in the cinema once the cameras reduced their dimensions. As soon as the cameras had a more reasonable weight to be carried, operators started to carry them on their backs to record with more versatility. Now more than ever, since a film camera can be so small that it can be held with one hand (sometimes with the small help of a stabilizer like an Easyrig). Using the handheld camera, albeit being nowadays a very common resource, has a strong narrative link with the documentary camera. It is often used to give the scene a more realistic or routinary nature and more effectively pull the viewer into the story. Even so, the handheld camera started to become a common resource in action movies to "hide" the lack of speed or dynamism that an action piece could have. For example, in a chase scene, if the talent runs extremely fast, on the next shot they can barely run anymore. With the camera shaking - a resource called shaky cam -, you help create the feeling of running at high speed, even if the talent is going at a slower pace. Because of this, the handheld camera is increasingly being linked to sensations of tension and intensity very close to the emotions that are intended to be transmitted in action movies.

There will be times that we don't want to use a handheld camera, but we need the freedom and versatility that this gives us. That is why in 1976 the inventor and cinematographer Garrett Brown invented the Steadicam system, first used in films such as Bound for Glory by Hal Ashby and Rocky by John G. Avildsen, and popularized by its widespread use in the film The Shining by Stanley Kubrick. The invention was a revolution in the cinematographic world and would soon extend its popularity. Directors like Paul Thomas Anderson implemented the tool in their stylistic repertoire because it allows taking very long shots with very fluid and fast camera movements (such as whip pans). The steadicam movement soon began to be associated with tracking shots, a very common resource to present a character while also presenting a scenario, atmosphere or repertoire of characters linked to the protagonist of the sequence. Over time the steadicam, although remaining one of the basic tools in the film industry, has inspired to create more modern tools to stabilize the camera. In large productions, there is a need to use gyroscopic motors to stabilize the camera in more adverse conditions (especially when mounted on large devices such as cars, helicopters, drones, and cranes). As technology improved and became smaller, the obvious step was to adapt this stabilization system and put it in our hands. One of Gimbal's market leaders, Freefly, revolutionized the industry with its manual gimbal Môvi. Currently, the use of the three-axis manual gimbal (colloquially known simply as gimbal) has prominently extended and the price of these is plummeting and being more focused on a user level. One of the best-selling gimbal in recent years has been the Zhiyun Crane 2, one of the simplest and most prosumer-oriented ones on the market today. The use of the gimbal has freed camera movements and its widespread use increasingly blurs the unique meaning that this type of movement can have. Gimbals are used alternatively to simulate a slider such as a crane, a steadicam or, with a little inventiveness, we can put the gimbal anywhere and expand the possibilities that a subjective camera can give us.

When the camera completely loses its freedom and simulates what a character (or object) sees, it is what we call subjective camera (or point of view shot). This type of shot, originally, is used to simulate the vision that a character has, often making use of the shot/reverse shot technique – a character looks, we see what they see, and we go back to a shot of their reaction. But as cameras reduced their size and the technology gave more creative freedom, the POV camera allowed to make shots and movements much more ambitious. One of the most recent examples of this type of shot is in the Breaking Bad series by Vince Gilligan, where the camera was placed in the point of view of common objects (such as a shovel or the inside of a bathtub) to symbolize the inevitability of the events of the series. Other POV shots in motion commonly used are the Snorricam (an apparatus placed in front of the talent, which is used to create a feeling of disorientation or being under the influence of drugs) or the POV vehicle camera (usually placed on one side or at the top of the vehicle looking in front or behind, giving a feeling of adrenaline or high speed).

In conclusion, camera movements are one of the most important bases of cinematographic language and, not only must we consider what movement the camera will make, but what tool we’ll be using and how it will affect the scene and the meaning of the moment. Choosing well what tools we will use in our shooting is not just a matter of budget, it is vital to convey the message that the work wants to create. Knowing what we have and how to use it is the best resource we have as filmmakers so, from there, it’s only left to practice.