“As The World Turns”

There are so many ways to move a camera. But none is more important then when the image serves the story. To that point, I recall a movie at last year’s Camerimage Festival called Ida, during which the camera never moved at all. Every scene was done in still images, and it was an effective way to tell that story.

But that’s extremely rare in our industry. More often than not, filmmakers are looking for new and exciting ways to move the camera. And it has always been so, really.

Early in my career, I did a lot of handheld work. One memorable example was shooting in a park while sitting in a wheelchair with the camera on my shoulder. I heard comments from the people watching like, “Oh, look at that young crippled man who can still carry a camera.” At which point I got up and walked around with the camera, perfectly serving my slight passive-aggressive tendencies.

I remember another example of working with a director shooting a commercial in the Hollywood Wax Museum. Before we arrived at the location, he said we “definitely won’t need to move the camera.” Once we arrived and began to set up, he said, “I think I’d like to move the camera from here to here,” with no dolly or even a wheelchair handy. But I did spot a janitor with a three-wheel canister vacuum cleaner, mounted the camera on top, sitting on a sandbag, and made the move. These kinds of examples go to the essence of serving the narrative – improvising how we tell stories by moving the camera.

Of course, most times, moving the camera is a more structured affair. I’m on a film now for which the director and I created a visual plan according to the forward movement of the narrative: smooth dolly moves throughout the first act, Steadicam as things start to get a little bit crazy in the second act, and then all handheld as everything unravels. (It’s a horror film.) It’s a simple way of defining what the audience should see, and today’s technology allows for so many options. Not just dollies and Steadicam, but remote heads, Technocranes, the MoVI (a new free-flowing way to move a camera) and unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) that can carry a camera anywhere it’s needed to go.

However, there’s often a tendency when technology is brand new to overuse it so that it becomes a conceit rather then a device to further the story. When Garrett Brown developed the Steadicam, it opened a new world in imaging, and Guild operators who have excelled in that technology have enhanced my career (and the careers of countless other cinematographers) in the decades since. But soon after the Steadicam was mastered, there was at least one major studio production that used it for every scene, which pulled me out of the story. Likewise, when cameras became small enough to effectively hand-hold, there were movies shot entirely with that operating technique. And audiences were unhappy with that choice. I recently heard of a movie shot entirely with the MoVI. My guess is that with every other overused technique, it will draw attention to itself and away from the story.

Of course no matter the technology, I’m amazed by the skills of Local 600 camera operators, who can accomplish shots that I may have no answer for myself. Let’s not kid ourselves: it takes a lot of strength and physical prowess to operate a camera in the many different kinds of situations (some very extreme) required in today’s industry. These men and women are truly miraculous to watch. Camera assistants, who can expertly judge distance as the world turns around them, are remarkable talents, as well.

In fact, any way that a DP and a director want to move an image, a union camera team can figure it out.

 

Steven Poster, ASC
National President
International Cinematographers Guild
IATSE Local 600

Related Posts