An interesting post hit yesterday on Salon from director of photography Matt Zoller Seitz. A summons to arms, a battle cry. In it, he calls out the increasing practice of directors and DOPs to use shaky-cam techniques on multi-million dollar films. The specific example he mentioned was Battle: Los Angeles (yes, THAT film again. Welcome to Battle: LA week. Not my intention, honest. Like I plan any of my content) but Paul Greengrass and Michael Bay are also singled out for special attention. You could argue that most big-budget actioners use this technique to a greater or lesser degree, and in a worst-case scenario, almost exclusively.
In Battle: LA, I assume that the idea was to give the impression of an embedded reporter following alongside 25 Recon. This reporter is clearly suffering from the coffee shakes. Shaky cam turned the last Bond film into an incomprehensible mess as the Broccolis tried to put Bourne style shot-work into the franchise. It was one of the flawed decisions that would stall the resurgence of Bond in it’s tracks.
I don’t want to spend time synopsising Matt’s post, so I’ll simply add my approval. There’s a whole genre of horror films that pose as found footage from camcorders in the tradition of The Blair Witch Project, and I can’t be alone in finding them unwatchable. They give me motion sickness, and are pretty much unreadable. There’s no sense of staging, or frame-building. Hand-held techniques, used sparingly, can be incredibly effective. When they become the only technique, there’s a problem. It looks cheap, ugly and lazy.
The problem is, it’s everywhere. Bandwagon jumping has always been an issue in Hollywood. A film-maker does something innovative, and others rush to follow. When shaky-cam techniques were folded into the effects sequences of Firefly and Battlestar Galactica, Hollywood made notes. The Star Trek reboot forgot the sweeping, graceful camera passes across the surface of the Enterprise as it flew past in favour of jittery zooms and whip pans. NCC-1701 is a beautiful ship, and it needs to be eye-candy, not half-seen in a thick layer of fake motion blur.
Shaky cam is hard to shoot, too. You need a multi-camera set-up, and even then there’s no guarantee that you’ll catch everything you need. It’s a mess to edit, a pain to sound sync and horrible to grade. As you can probably tell, I’m not a fan.
I don’t want to see the end of hand-held, by any means. It’s been a vital part of film technique since the French New Wave. But it’s time to stop relying on it as a way to mask poor direction, effects and acting. As Matt says: Get a tripod. Write a set list. Stop covering action. Start directing again.