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Erratic Motion as a Shooting Style

Over the past few years, handheld, jerky, and erratic motion of the video/film camera has become widely accepted for use in documentary, thriller, action, and suspense films. I’ve tried to do some research into the purpose of the method and to glean a set of standards for how it should be done, but there is not really much to be found. Below are my own observations on the subject, realizing that there will likely be some objections to my thought process. This is welcomed, as I also want to learn how best to use the lens as effectively as possible. A sample video is provided, below, to go along with the discussion.

Purpose: Create suspense and/or conflict. Look again at the types of films and scenes where this takes place. They are mostly all at points like a point-of-view looking through the woods for the guy with the axe, surrounding Jack Bauer and the chaos in 24, during heated arguments, etc. One generally will not find this type of shooting in heartwarming stories or at the point of a passionate kiss. Therefore, pick your tools and methods accordingly!

Let me give you a really brief sample scene to think about… The train slows as it approaches the stop as Wilber gets a glance at Anne. She also sees and approaches closer to the track and walks along with her eyes fixed on his.
Okay, you can see it – the couple has been separated for some time and they are about to be reunited, right? Well, not necessarily. If you add too much extra motion you introduce tension, and now the story could become one about a girl and guy who are about to continue an argument that started earlier in the day when he had to leave for work. Same location, and possibly even the same shot list, but how it is shot spells the difference.

Procedure

Okay, you want to create tension or suspense in your scene and determine that jumpy motion and constant zooms are right for your project. Easy, right? Nope. A seasoned videographer will have several elements for which to look as he utilizes the method. Even though it comes across as erratic, there’s quite a bit of skill and thought that goes into it.

  1. Know the script. Knowing the script and what your actors/talent will do is essential. There will be key words and thoughts that are communicated. There will also be elements or items that may need to be visible in the shot at a given moment. The cinematographers with the 24 series really did this well.
  2. Find the tempo. Every scene has a tempo. If you get too fast or too slow in your motion, then the motion becomes distracting. Worse, the motion looks like as series of constant mistakes. After studying the script, listen for certain points, key words, and even breaths or pauses to know when to make your move.
  3. Match the motion. If your talent is swaying or gesturing and you go the opposite direction, you are counteracting the drama and limiting its effect. Try, as best possible, to let the actors tell the story and to enhance it with your motion.
  4. Follow key descriptives. If the script of the talent discusses something close or personal, push in. If there is a sense of distance or loneliness, pull out. Use the space throughout the scene to keep the audience feeling what the action and dialogue are promoting.
  5. Remember your rules of thirds. Obviously, the purpose of the motion in the shot is used to create a sense of tension, but the rules of thirds need to be followed to a large extent. How? Well, it’s done by breaking the rules and returning to them. For instance, an extreme closeup that jerks up and moves the subject’s eyes to the bottom of the shot is just a really poor shot – unless you are following the previous steps (maybe to capture just a glimpse of the knife in the hand of a dark character above?) and then return quickly to a shot with good composition. The majority of your shots should retain good composition, however, and the motion in them allows for the one or two erratic changes to look acceptable when they take place. You are building the viewers’ dependence on you to tell the story at this point. Their confidence is placed on you as you control the lens to get exactly what they should be seeing and experiencing. Again, this is a case where you know the rules well enough and you know how to break them successfully.
  6. Repeat tension & release. Psychology plays greatly into this method. Honestly, on my opinion, this is probably why the method was so unacceptable for years. It was unprofessional to create tension with the camera in such a way. However, as people become more accepting of it, use of jumpy motion and in-and-out zooms will help to gather the audience to sense the feeling of the tension in the scene. Keep in mind, though, that this shooting style requires the use of some tension by the motion but also providing the release to the eyes to see a well composited shot.

Notes

  1. As previously stated, choose this style specifically for the type of scene/shot/feel that you want, not just because it’s cool. I saw this in a recent college video ad (that I will leave unnamed) where a single actor talked on-screen for a minute or so and the camera moved all over the place. Honestly, guys, this is the wrong use of the method. I felt frustrated the entire time I watched, and I was drawn to the motion more than what I was hearing what was being said.
  2. Erratic is not chaotic! Once again, know the subject matter and move to bring it to light. Don’t just swing the camera and push-n-pull every so often. Plan it out as much as possible. I will sometimes just pull and then zoom right back if it fits with the tempo with no real connection to the action, but this is done to match the tempo, not just because I feel like doing it.
  3. Experiment. Try the effect on a tripod vs. handheld. For professional videos that want to create a sense of excitement with limited tension, I’ve found that this can be a good method.
  4. If your camera has a steady shot feature, turn it off; otherwise, your lens will shift and float, causing some strange secondary motion.

Sample

Trinity Baptist Church was doing a series and wanted to provide some additional instruction online. We broke up several weeks of material and put Pastor Messer in front of the camera. We wanted to record Pastor Messer with a single camera angle due to location and time constraints, and so I chose to give some motion as a way of retaining interest in an otherwise still talking head. Not wanting to create too much additional tension, a tripod was used, and I tried my best to match the tempo and outline as he spoke. Now, I’ve worked with him for quite some time, so this was also playing in my favor, as I can follow his mannerisms pretty well. See the sample, here on vimeo: ChurchLife Sample, and feel free to leave feedback or discussion.

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