In your first project, you made films using only a camera with a single lens – no tripods or other stabilization methods. This week, we’re going to explore the idea of handheld cinematography in greater depth.
Tripods are excellent for smooth movements and static shots. Monopods also offer stability and they allow you to smoothly move the camera in unique ways. In the coming weeks, we’ll also be using tools such as gimbal stabilizers, sliders, and cranes. With all of these options at our disposal, why go handheld?
Handheld footage has its own aesthetic, distinct from that captured on a tripod, gimbal, or Steadicam. We generally think of camera shake as a bad thing – and it often is, in non-professional work – but it can give cinematography a dynamic, vibrant quality when used thoughtfully. A bit of shake can make an intimate scene feel more personal – or it can make an intense scene feel more raw.
While our brains and bodies do a fantastic job of compensating for it, we are almost always experiencing a world in motion. That means that when a shot is completely static, it can actually feel unnatural. Filmmakers like David Lynch sometimes use static shots to build tension in a scene. In this sequence from Blue Velvet (cinematography by Frederick Elmes), there is a dolly in during the first shot, then no camera movement in any of the following shots.
Compare that to this scene from Alejandro Iñárritu’s 2000 film Amores Perros (cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto). Even on the wide establishing shot, there is a small amount of continuous camera movement – a tiny bit of shake. This completely changes the feeling of the sequence. Lynch’s shots feel detached and alien – there is an uncanny quality to the environment, which is appropriate as Lynch’s work tends to explore darkly unsettling worlds beneath the veneer of idyllic suburban life. Iñárritu’s shots feel personal – the movement places the audience within the environment of the film, rather than detaching them from it.
That is the real power of handheld cinematography – the ability to engulf the audience. When a camera is moving slightly, the viewer feels as though they are staring through the eyes of someone participating in the scene. Often, this movement is very slight, even subconscious, but it still affects the viewer in a significant way.
Here are two sequences that use camera movement in ways that don’t really call attention to the fact that they are handheld. Pablo Larraín’s Jackie (cinematography by Stéphane Fontaine) uses handheld cinematography even in very “generic” scenes such as this shot/reverse shot.
This remarkable sequence from Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men (cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki) makes a more overt use of handheld camera work, but it sort of fades into the background after a few shots. Most of the shots could have been filmed on a tripod or stabilizer, but the slight additional movement helps place us into world of the film.
Of course, a handheld camera can also be used in a much more overt way. In this chase scene from Fernando Meirelles’ City of God (cinematography by César Charlone), the wildly moving camera adds energy to the sequence. Notice also how the camera’s movement is more dramatic in the shots of the chicken being pursued than the early shots of the two friends walking. The rapid editing meshes well with the movement, creating a sequence that is immediately engaging.
A shaky camera can also jarring and disorienting, which is why it is frequently used in war films to portray the chaos of battle. The obvious example of this is the Omaha Beach scene from Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (cinematography by Janusz Kaminski). Here, the moving camera confuses and frightens the audience, reflecting the panic felt by the soldiers.
While all of these examples use handheld camera movement in different ways, they are unified in that they all use it intentionally. We tend to associate shaky handheld movement with amateur productions because they are often then accidental result of an inexperienced camera operator. Good handheld cinematography requires the same attention to lighting, blocking, and framing that tripod-mounted camera work does.