Does anyone like that Shaky Cam?

Does anyone like that Shaky Cam?

Some movie trends arrive without much public support.

Was anyone clamoring to see children’s fairy tales brought to the big screen?

Here’s guessing that’s the ugly truth for the Shaky Cam, the endlessly moving camera meant to convey an added urgency to the action on screen. Or, so it would seem giving the director a very large benefit of the doubt.

The latest Shaky Cam opus is “Battle: Los Angeles,” and it’s clear, after surfing a few film web sites, it’s not winning many converts.

Here’s a typical comment at RottenTomatoes.com on the movie:

What killed it for me was the shaky-cam. The freaking screen wouldn’t stop moving for a second, and I almost left it – Sputnik99

So why use it?

Director Paul Greengrass may not be the first one to haul the Shaky Cam out, but his work on the second two “Bourne” movies proved how effective camera displacement could be. “Bourne” star Matt Damon isn’t a large man, but by shooting him in such a fashion it made the fight sequences feel like nothing we’ve seen before. That’s priceless when you’re trying to elevate an action picture beyond its competition.

But the Shaky Cam in “Battle: LA” threatens to ruin the entire film. Director Jonathan Liebesman uses it early and often, even in situations as calm as two men talking to each other around a desk.

Shaky Cam is like slow motion. Use it sparingly, and it can make an ordinary scene crackle. Embrace it for every other scene and you risk a mass exodus. And some very angry movie site commentary.

Update: The Furious D Show adds some more quality points to this discussion.

Update, Take Two: In “Director’s Close Up,” Steven Spielberg shares this anecdote about a camera test which led to the dramatic opening sequence in “Saving Private Ryan” – “I took one of those huge drills, those big industrial Black and Decker drills, took the bit off and instead just used the drill as a large vibrator. And basically had the on/off switch and I would hold the drill up to the camera, and when I pressed on, the camera would vibrate … the vibration was subtle enough to create a subconscious neurotic feeling to it.”

If only other directors approach shaking the camera with such artistry.

(Photo: The new action film “Battle: Los Angeles” relies heavily on a shaky cam technique to amplify the excitement on screen.)

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{ 32 comments… read them below or add one }

James FrazierNo Gravatar March 14, 2011 at 2:59 pm

I’m seemingly alone in enjoying the way “Battle: LA” was shot. I thought it was a masterwork of composition compared to “Bourne Ultimatum,” which felt like Greengrass hit the “Shuffle” button on the editing suite.

cftotoNo Gravatar March 14, 2011 at 3:26 pm

I was worried that the action in the film would be like “Transformers 2″ – impossible to decipher. But amidst the shaking and explosions I found it very easy to digest.

AlericNo Gravatar March 14, 2011 at 3:56 pm

I HATE, HATE, HATE, shaky cam and would punch out anyone that says it adds anything but annoyance in a film. When it first came out it was unique, after all this time it basically says look at me I am edgy, which means you are anything but.

TRONo Gravatar March 14, 2011 at 4:14 pm

Can’t stand it. And it almost sucked the fun out of Battle LA. I mean seriously why does anyone think it would be a good idea to shaky-cam a scene in a fricken’ florist shop? Now, once the real action started I don’t know whether they eased-up on it or I just got so interested I forgot about it, but it didn’t bother me from then on.

KNo Gravatar March 14, 2011 at 4:32 pm

Kind of ironic now that Sci -fi movies no longer have to rely on tin toy saucers on fishing line they can’t take the time to storyboard action sequences without the “earthquake” effects. If they want “realism”, go back and take a look at Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove battle scenes – combat photographers don’t wave their cameras around.

shinsnakeNo Gravatar March 14, 2011 at 6:00 pm

I’m with TRO, when the movie started, it was unwelcome and distracting. It made the 15-25 minute set up of these people’s lives almost unbearable. By the time the action hit its stride, there wasn’t anything noticeable to me other than how enjoyable the film was.

K, I think the point is that they are trying to give the experience of the combatant, not the combat photographer. I despise shaky cam when it takes away from the film, but in the case of Battle LA or parts of Black Hawk Down, where you want to be right down in the “MOG,” as it were, now with the guy filming the guy right down in the middle of the fight.

I think TOTO hits it out of the park. Use it sparingly. A scene around a desk of an officer resigning is the last place it should be implemented.

Johnny SimpsonNo Gravatar March 14, 2011 at 6:15 pm

Agreed, CT. If memory serves me, Irwin Allen pioneered the “shaky cam” effect, yet he was smart enough to only use it for heavy action scenes. Example. If you look at the old LOST IN SPACE series, scenes with just dialogue or minimal action were actually quite placid. But you knew when the Shaky Cam hit something big was coming. Like you said, used sparingly it can add some real tension to a dramatic scene. Conversely, using it throughout a film or TV show only leads to a decrease in viweres and increases sales of Dramamine. That’s it! Shaky Cam is a corporate conspiracy between Hollywood and Dramamine! Prove it’s not. Am I good or what :)

shinsnakeNo Gravatar March 14, 2011 at 6:23 pm

My defense of the shaky cam in the latter half of Battle LA notwithstanding, one of the best looking shots in the film was when the young marine was trying to find his unit and they had a shot with the camera mounted on the rifle and pointing back in his eyes. It’s probably been used before, but I thought it was visually striking. Another one was the Call of Duty shot were the view was from one of the Marines as they came up over a hill and all you could see was the rifle itself and the scope. I know that one has been used before, but I thought it worked really well in this movie.

So I guess that further concretes the point that shaky cam should be used sparingly. Neither of those shots would be particularly magnificent in a film that didn’t rely heavily on shaky cam, but in Battle LA, they were enough to make me perk up and take extra notice.

KNo Gravatar March 14, 2011 at 6:58 pm

shinsnake, the first use of shakycam I remember seeing was in “Gladiator” – but instead making me feel a part of the action, my first thought was “Gee, I’ll bet they saved a lot of money by not actually staging a bunch of fight scenes”, which, of course took me completely out of the movie. I understand about the “you be the grunt” part – (Band of Brothers) but a little of that goes a long long way.

I expect this is also fall out from mil-oriented video games becoming more profitable than movies.

EdSkiNo Gravatar March 14, 2011 at 7:09 pm

In some cases I think it’s appropriate. For example, the beach landing scene in Saving Pvt. Ryan.

In that case, when huge shells are exploding left and right, I imagine the shaky cam is more realistic as the world explodes around you.

But in most cases, I agree, vastly over used.

jdls11No Gravatar March 14, 2011 at 7:11 pm

The first time I heard of the shaky cam being used was on the film “Children of Men”. As I remember everyone at that time were praising the use of it in that film. I suppose like everything else..too much of a good thing turns into, well, to much of a good thing.

richard mcenroeNo Gravatar March 14, 2011 at 7:19 pm

ShakyCam is the way the world looks through a lens in real life, guys, it’s an authentic perspective and a valid artistic choice. I had no problem with it in Battle:LA.

In a “My Dinner with Andre” diner drama it would probably be a bit much. Until the Blob crashes down on the diner.

AndrewPriceNo Gravatar March 14, 2011 at 7:55 pm

I can’t stand the shaky cam. Not only do I find myself often closing my eyes to avoid getting sick, but I’ve actually found the overuse to make films dull because it just wears you out and you start taking it on faith that whatever is happening on screen is what is supposed to be happening…. kind of a “yah, yah, yah, whatever” feeling.

Not to mention, when I see it, my first thought is always — “oh, so the director didn’t know how to shoot this.”

wesNo Gravatar March 14, 2011 at 8:33 pm

I turn off movies when they over-use the shaky cam. Since it first came out – was it Blair Witch? – I couldn’t stand it. I’m one of the guys that want’s to see and understand what is happening. I could care less about “Edgy” – I want to follow the story. I turned off Transformers II – it was insane.
If they did away with shaky cam, I would be very happy. :)

PiazzagrrlNo Gravatar March 14, 2011 at 9:19 pm

Shakycam made me decide never to see a Bourne movie again (that, and the fact that Matt Damon’s a jackass.) I refuse to pay full price for a movie that doesn’t put a steadicam on the equipment list.

BugsNo Gravatar March 14, 2011 at 9:41 pm

Well said. Shakycam has its uses, but it shouldn’t be used in EVERY situation. I’ve seen the camera waving around in scenes were two people sit at a desk talking to each other. Why?

Even in action scenes, it can be massively overused. I’ve seen fights in which it is absolutely impossible to tell what’s going on because not only are the participants tumbling all over the place but the cameraman is, too. Sure, fights and pursuits and other vigorous activities can be disorienting, and shakycam can convey that effect. But not EVERY SINGLE TIME. It’s becoming a movie cliche, not a valid effect.

EricPNo Gravatar March 14, 2011 at 10:02 pm

Only time the effect doesn’t bug me is Friday Night Lights, film or TV version.

Alexander WilliamsNo Gravatar March 14, 2011 at 10:16 pm

The irony being that ShakyCam(tm) is pointedly NOT how things look in kinetic action from a first-person perspective. Your brain and eyes are engineered to minimize perception of shake. Point of view and focus may quickly move around a visual field but it doesn’t just shake out of sync with PoV and focus unless the environment is moving and inertia’s keeping your focus in a single spot.

But don’t take my word for it. Get up, go outside, and run around. Pay attention to what you’re seeing. Fast-focus and quick-cutting, but not ShakyCam(tm).

In my book, that just makes it an extra-idiotic shooting method for 95% of what its used for these days.

mitchNo Gravatar March 14, 2011 at 10:27 pm

ShakyCam jumped the shark for me when in one of the Bourne movies (last one?) there were 2 men facing each other at a small table talking. Camera was behind one man and would move around like the camera man had to pee. On many occasions the back of the mans head would obscure nearly 1/3 or 1/2 of the screen! Seriously?

And for American fight scenes, its obviously used to disguise lack of any real martial arts ability. For hand to hand connoisseurs (ie Jackie Chan fans) actually being able to see the skill and amazing choreography of a good fight is not something you find in any Hollywood films.

Kira DavisNo Gravatar March 14, 2011 at 10:40 pm

When used correctly it can be a great device for adding drama or tension to a chaotic scene, like a well-placed piece of music or a single tone. I’m fine with that. I am *not* fine with the shaky cam replacing actual plot as a means of engaging the audience. Which seems to be happening more and more. I liken it to certain “preachers” who stand in front of others and aren’t really teaching anything unique or provoking, but just repeating the same 10 tired Bible verses they learned as a kid – only they’re shouting and spitting and sweating and rhyming, as if that adds some depth to their sermons. I call it the “I’m not really interesting or thought-provoking or studied, but if I make enough noise you’ll think I am” sermon. That’s what the shaky cam has become. In my opinion.

IllTemperedCurNo Gravatar March 14, 2011 at 11:17 pm

ShakyCam is an integral part of the “found footage” horror genre, and it’s appropriate there, going back 30 years to 1980’s Cannibal Holocaust. Of course, it’s woefully cliche’d now, but it once had real power in the horror realm.

Elsewhere it’s a terrible distraction, except in limited circumstances. It’s a mistake to base your whole career on one camera trick (cough, cough *Paul Greengrass* cough, cough). And for goodness, sake……ShakeyCam in The Constant Gardener? Really?

Saving Private Ryan did a pretty good job of using it appropriately, evoking the combat photography of Robert Capa in the beach landing scene, but pulling back quite a bit in later parts of the film.

Alex RNo Gravatar March 15, 2011 at 1:39 am

Me and my brother were watching Bourne Supremacy and both really thought it needed to stop with the shakey cam. It was way too much and didn’t deliver on the sense of environment and energy. It’s not working.

The_Real_RandyNo Gravatar March 15, 2011 at 2:13 am

I’m with Aleric. Shaky-cam is one of those movie trends that can’t die soon enough.

The_Real_RandyNo Gravatar March 15, 2011 at 2:23 am

IllTemperedCurr brings up a good point about the old days of the “found footage” genre but after the abomination that was BLAIR WITCH hit theaters, it became a crutch for lazy filmmakers who were using it as an excuse to not give any actual effort. The sad thing is that enough people fell for it (and keep falling for it, apparently; what artistic merit is there in making a sequel to PARANORMAL ACTIVITY?) to make those stupid kids running around in the woods filthy rich. As a filmmaker, how can you look at yourself in the mirror when most of the “pornodies” of your movie showed more professionalism than you did?

thebutlerdiditNo Gravatar March 15, 2011 at 4:16 am

First time I remember severe shaky cam was my baby shower in 1988. My sister filmed the floor and ceiling as she walked around and “panned” faces. I didn’t like it then, I don’t like it now. If I want a spinny head, I’ll go on a roller coaster.

jwNo Gravatar March 18, 2011 at 7:42 am

I walked out from the very first scene where they are sitting around a desk simply talking. The camera man acted liek he was defending himself froma wasp,and shook the camera so needlessly, that i wasnt about to invest 2 hours in a visual blender,for some directors over wraught misguided, old ,abeit abused technique. Got my money back immediatly and walked out. I havent seen a camera being used with such grace,since the Lee Harvey Oswald prison transfer. NOT!

SiameseNo Gravatar June 22, 2011 at 1:54 am

Shaky camera is fine, in adequate doses, like in private Ryan in certain scenes. In cloverfield, well the idea was that its recorded through a handheld cam so…yeah.

In Battle Los angeles its used so much, its ridiculous, makes some scenes look kinda silly. It has been used in almost EVERY scene. Kinda ridiculous.

Charles HandNo Gravatar August 27, 2011 at 2:21 pm

I am embarrassed for humanity because of shaky cam. It has taken over the TV and movie industry like mass insanity. What embarrasses me is that after all these years there is no cadre of producers, actors and directors denouncing this hideous epidemic. It is madness. Why not shitty makeup, wouldn’t that make movies better? Why not shitty props? Why not shoot everything on 8mm, wouldn’t that make everything more immediate and exciting? Why not play circus music continuously through every show, wouldn’t that add an element of excitement? You see, for every element of production they would say we are crazy if we suggested something that didn’t fit with the story. They don’t paint everyone like clowns because it wouldn’t be consistent with the story. They wouldn’t play circus music constantly because it wouldn’t fit with the story. They use high resolution media because more detail draws the viewer in. But shaky cam very rarely has any connection to what is going on in the story,reduces the viewers’ connection with the story and obscures every other production element. Yet all the producers, directors and actors love it. It is madness!

Tommy ScottNo Gravatar June 25, 2012 at 8:43 pm

I despise the shaky camera method and as a filmmaker myself I will probably never use this technique for anything in my films. When I watch a film that has the camera constantly moving around it just tells me that the filmmaker doesn’t want to bother doing it right and that they’re covering up for any mistakes that might occur. It’s difficult to focus on anything and is very taxing and frustrating to watch. When I see a film, I want a good, cinematic style with smooth, sweeping shots, and shots that are solid and properly framed. Any arguments about it being reality and the way it looks through a real lens are just nonsense. Yes, it might look like that if you yourself were standing inside the movie looking around as if you were there, but that’s not what films should be trying to accomplish to begin with. As a filmmaker I’m not trying to place the audience inside the film. They are observers only and I want them to have a nice, comfortable observation point of view not one that makes them sick.

FrankNo Gravatar January 27, 2013 at 2:01 am

Shaky camera? Hello directors……it does nothing to add and takes away everything that my brain would experience for itself. Give the audience the credit for understanding the action sequence and allow the experience to flow naturally. YOUR RUINING THE EXPERIENCE!!! I personally will completely shut off (mentally and literally) the film even if it was academy worthy. Your mind never gets the opportunity to focus on anything. I’ve already have walked out and brought back(rentals) movies knowing that they were good stories and great characters because of this. Please stop this effect.

J.No Gravatar November 23, 2013 at 8:03 am

Just back from The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. The movie was shot in continuous moving, sway left right up and down, it’s more subtle than crazy shaky camera in Bourne’s movies, but it’s continuously. I had to close my eyes almost the entire time. Just glanced here and there. I tried to watch it with one eye but it didn’t work, it made me dizzy, nausea, sometimes my brain felt like it’s vibrating I wonder if I got some kind of epylepsi. I can stand zoom in then stand still, this one zoom in, sway to the left, move up and down, sway to the right move lil left and right, change it again, so tiring and painful. I can say that I really hate that! I like 3D movie because usually they have stabilized camera, but JJ Abrams ruined it with Startrek 3D last year. I hope people stop this thing, and back to stabilized camera, bring back the slow motion rather than jerky fighting scenes, let people really enjoy the acting instead of feeling anxious due to moving camera. It’s like cheating, don’t have to put perfect detail just blur every scene with shaky one.

YYZNo Gravatar January 28, 2014 at 8:12 pm

@ Charles Hand – GREAT POST, very entertaining and very well said !!

From TV (The Office) to movies Bourne !V, this has become epidemic. I actually liked the Bourne IV story but the cinematography was so distracting and the end action sequence so disorienting (and I actually liked BlairWitch…. ONCE), be it out of lazyness or being $cheap$, it was like the cinamatographer urinated on an otherwise decent work. Really, I attribute it to self absorbed gen X directors who think all movie magic should be rooted in AWESOME MTV cinematography and are trying to make their MARK in the industry, which they have…..and it REEKS. I’m sooo dissapointed when cinematic crap like Transformers II or MI II with all the cut and paste are so successful monetarily….it just means more of the same will be made. Oh well. I’ve got to say when Tarantino spends a long time on performances like the opening farm house scene or the two pub scene’s later in the film in Inglorious Bastards it’s like taking in a breath of fresh air. Let the actors act, the script shine, the set work and the camera guy OBSERVE……That’s talent !!

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