SHAKEN, NOT STIRRED
Lynden Barber goes deep into the world of hand-held cinematography
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.’ ’’