Sometimes the best action shots are simply a camera placed in the right position, at the right time, not moving at all. Some of the best movement I’ve ever seen in films and television shows has been where the action is staged perfectly in front of the camera. In a landscape filled with amazing new tools and ways to radically move the capture device like never before, let’s not forget what may some call the old-fashioned way of creating movement in the frame: with your actors.
Of course, these days it takes a real master to put together that kind of staging, given how much is asked of the camera and grip departments to get that sense of kinetic overload audiences seem to be craving. We’ve certainly seen directors, working in conjunction with their cinematographers, put together that kind of staging in some of the best films of recent years. Even though there was a lot of camera movement in Inception — an astonishing piece of cinema for which Wally Pfister, ASC, won his first Oscar® — discriminating eyes can attest to all those exquisite shots that just let the action play out in the front of the lens. Working closely with director Chris Nolan, Wally had that sense of when to let the camera be quiet. And when that does happen, it often takes the correct choice of platforms to ensure the camera is in exactly in the right place.
Here’s an example: I can remember ordering up a piece of equipment designed for fluid motion, but then using it strictly as a camera platform. Like, say, a 15-foot or 20-foot Technocrane, used as my standard camera platform. It’s let me move the camera very quickly into places that I couldn’t easily get it – high, low, you name it. What happens is that a piece of equipment traditionally associated for one application transforms my workflow in an unexpected way. And it doesn’t end there: you can use that non-traditional platform to make moves without having to lay track or squeeze a large dolly into a tight spot. When you can just stick the camera out and let it be operated remotely, it provides a fluidity that could not be obtained in almost any other way.
This kind of thinking may sound counter-intuitive to a low-budget film. But if a tool gives you the ability to get more shots within a day and still make the schedule in an elegant way, then it’s the right decision for the budget. The money that’s spent is justified by the time saved and the quality of the shots. Conventional wisdom may dictate “I couldn’t possibly afford a Technocrane on this show”, but some of the most successful times I’ve used the options I describe have been on the lowest budgets films in my résumé.
Even if you don’t keep the camera perfectly still, consider more subtle, micro-type movements within the frame as opposed to the wildly frenetic type of motion that may easily overwhelm the narrative. We have tools that are readily at hand for this type of approach. Whether it’s a very slow dolly, a microscopically slow Preston zoom, or even putting the camera on a slider or over-keeper — tools that have only been around for a few years — you can make beautifully designed moves with motion easily and quickly on the set.
When we talk about a kinetic camera, that doesn’t always mean we have to swing high, swing low and run as fast we can.
Sometimes the best movement in a film is no movement at all.
Steven Poster, ASC
International Cinematographers Guild
IATSE Local 600