Lyn­den Bar­ber goes deep into the world of hand-held cin­e­matog­ra­phy

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film -

IN a cinema foyer at the Sydney Film Fes­ti­val in June I con­grat­u­lated an Aus­tralian pro­ducer for her ex­cel­lent new film. I went on to warn that while prais­ing it over­all, I’d also crit­i­cised the film on­line for what I con­sid­ered to be ex­ces­sive use of ‘‘ shaky­cam’’ — the ten­dency to vi­o­lently shake a hand-held cam­era to the point where some mem­bers of the cinema au­di­ence felt bil­ious. The re­ply was with­er­ing: ‘‘ How old are you?’’

The brusque­ness of that re­sponse, per­haps, was un­der­stand­able. Pro­duc­ers over­see­ing the pre­miere of their new films, projects nur­tured for years, are nat­u­rally sen­si­tive to­wards criticism. But I also won­dered if it re­flected a more ques­tion­able and widely held at­ti­tude — that any­one ob­ject­ing to an im­age that wob­bles throughout the film, even in the qui­eter scenes, was now con­sid­ered a fuddy-duddy, an old fart who had failed to get down with the kids, and that some­how it was their fault for not ap­pre­ci­at­ing the tech­nique.

That in turn in­vited an­other ques­tion: did the pop­u­lar­ity among film­mak­ers of this of­ten di­vi­sive style come from a be­lief that it was cool and fash­ion­able, rather than rig­or­ously ask­ing whether it served the story?

It’s im­por­tant to recog­nise the use of hand­held cam­eras is part of the reper­toire of stan­dard cin­e­matic method­ol­ogy, of­ten so seam­lessly in­te­grated into the film that many view­ers would not be aware of it. The tech­nique first be­came com­mon­place in the 1960s with the ad­vent of lighter cam­eras and syn­chro­nised sound. This was a rev­o­lu­tion­ary mo­ment in film his­tory. Film­mak­ers could get out of the stu­dios and into the streets and apart­ments to film spon­ta­neously. The over­whelm­ing pref­er­ence in the 60s was to con­trol the cam­era move­ment and keep the im­age steady; the ex­cep­tion be­ing films us­ing hand­held to cap­ture a brief mo­ment of chaos — such as 1968 hor­ror film Rose­mary’s Baby, where it was used solely to film a brief scene of Mia Far­row’s preg­nant wife strug­gling against sa­tanists try­ing to hold her down.

The tech­nol­ogy was cru­cial to the cre­ation of many great films, in­clud­ing the 1960 French new wave clas­sic Breath­less and films in­flu­enced by it, such as the first Bea­tles film, A Hard Day’s Night. But it was es­pe­cially im­por­tant to doc­u­men­tary, with Amer­i­cans D. A. Pen­nebaker and the Maysles broth­ers and France’s Jean Rouch cap­tur­ing real-life events as they were un­fold­ing with a new sense of im­me­di­acy and in­ti­macy. Writ­ing about Pri­mary, the 1960 doco about the Demo­cratic pri­mary elec­tion, US doc­u­men­tary his­to­rian Richard Meran Barsam said: ‘‘ The viewer has a sense of be­ing there, of see­ing the cam­paign through the eyes of the can­di­dates, Hu­bert H. Humphrey and John F. Kennedy’’ (au­thor’s em­pha­sis).

To­day hand-held is ev­ery­where — from TV com­mer­cials to high-pro­file tele­dra­mas, big Hol­ly­wood fea­tures to small in­de­pen­dents, such as Dan­ish di­rec­tor Su­sanne Bier’s Love is All You Need. Open­ing in Aus­tralian cine­mas on De­cem­ber 13, this rom-com fea­tur­ing Pierce Bros­nan typ­i­fies the way hand-held is most com­monly used: the de­gree of shake lies some­where be­tween the glid­ing hand-held of the 60s and the self-con­scious wob­bles of to­day’s worst of­fend­ers. Ame­lio­rat­ing the po­ten­tial dis­trac­tion fur­ther is that it’s only used for parts of the film; still scenes are cap­tured with still cam­era work.

Dur­ing cinema’s first six or seven decades, di­rec­tors were forced to use heavy, fixed cam­eras that they could move only by plac­ing them on wheeled plat­forms, called dollys. The equip­ment took up a lot of space and was la­bo­ri­ous to set up. I in­ter­viewed Pol­ish cin­e­matog­ra­pher Sla­womir Idziak, revered for his work for Krzysztof Kies­lowski in­clud­ing in Three Colours: Blue and A Short Film About Killing, when he was mak­ing a film in Aus­tralia ti­tled Lil­ian’s Story in 1995. On lo­ca­tion he pointed to the cum­ber­some para­pher­na­lia of movie-mak­ing — the trail­ers, the equip­ment ve­hi­cles. How great it would be to get rid of it all. Now we had light­weight cam­eras en­abling films to be made on the run. Yet, he com­plained, still film­mak­ers per­sisted with out­moded pro­duc­tion meth­ods based on the days when cam­eras weighed a tonne and di­rec­tors gave or­ders like a gen­eral. Idziak had pre­dicted the fu­ture — at least some of it. Film­mak­ers still fre­quently use this tra­di­tional para­pher­na­lia, but now it’s a mat­ter of choice.

Kriv Sten­ders, di­rec­tor of last year’s Aus­tralian hit film Red Dog, draws at­ten­tion to the ad­van­tages of light dig­i­tal cam­eras that en­able film­mak­ers to get in among the ac­tion. Film­ing this way means the cam­era can oc­cupy what he calls ‘‘ the air in the room, with view­ers inside the dra­matic space, not out­side look­ing in’’. At its best hand-held cam­era work is seam­less, ‘‘ a breath­ing cam­era’’, Sten­ders en­thuses. ‘‘ It’s not con­tin­u­ally be­ing jolted. It’s not bumpy. It’s won­der­ful for ac­tors. It’s won­der­ful for di­rec­tors. It’s lib­er­at­ing be­cause you’re not bound by the ma­chin­ery of tracks and dolly. It’s faster. You can get more cov­er­age’’ (dif­fer­ent takes that re­peat el­e­ments of the scene from dif­fer­ent an­gles — in gen­eral, the greater the cov­er­age, the eas­ier the film is to cut to­gether in the edit­ing room). ‘‘ It’s a very er­gonomic way of work­ing. It frees you up. The lib­erty you have is won­der­ful.’’

The down­side is when the cam­era is jerked around to the point of draw­ing at­ten­tion to it­self. Shaky­cam, which in­volves the cam­era op­er­a­tor go­ing out of the way to cap­ture an un­steady im­age, has been around since Woody Allen’s 1992’s Hus­bands and Wives. Four years later Dan­ish di­rec­tor Lars von Trier re­leased Break­ing the Waves, which had a more con­trolled use of the mo­bile cam­era, but was the pre­cur­sor to his Dogme 95 man­i­festo that set out con­di­tions for film­mak­ers to fol­low in­clud­ing the use of nat­u­ral light and hand­held cam­eras throughout. In 1999 US low­bud­get hor­ror film The Blair Witch Project fea­tured such wildly ki­netic cam­era work that some US cine­mas posted warn­ing signs.

This man­nered style is still with us. Ex­hibit one: fu­tur­is­tic Hol­ly­wood block­buster The Hunger Games, whose first scenes tripped and stum­bled across view­ers’ vi­sion like a drunk. The rea­son was not ob­vi­ous for at this point in the story the char­ac­ters’ lives were rel­a­tively sta­ble. View­ers were just get­ting to know the main play­ers and the cam­era style merely got in the way. At the other end of the bud­get scale were ex­hibits two and three: ac­claimed Sun­dance and Cannes hit Beasts of the South­ern Wild, and Lore, from Aus­tralia’s Cate Short­land. These pow­er­ful sto­ries about chil­dren strug­gling to sur­vive apoc­a­lyp­tic events, on the Mis­sis­sippi flood plain and in im­me­di­ate-post World War II Ger­many re­spec­tively, are among the strong­est films re­leased this year. Frus­trat­ingly, they could have been even stronger still with more dis­ci­plined cam­era work. Sten­ders, whose ex­per­i­men­tal 2007 drama Box­ing Day was shot smoothly on hand-held, feels the shaky tech­nique has earned ‘‘ a re­ally bad name over the past few years be­cause it’s been abused’’ and says he found the cam­er­a­work in Beasts ‘‘ dis­con­cert­ing. I thought it was poor cam­era op­er­a­tion. You think, ‘ I wish he could just put a pil­low on the shoul­der.’ ’’

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