|Godard and Coutard film Belmondo and Seberg with the camera in a mail cart|
I was glad to read David Stratton's comment in The Australian at the weekend that my recent piece in in that paper ("Shaken, not stirred", October 20-21) on the strengths and weaknesses of handheld camera work had "provoked a great deal of lively debate on the subject in film circles."
I haven't always agreed with Stratton's regular complaints about the excesses of handheld but this year a couple of flagrant examples of annoyingly undisciplined camera work on otherwise very strong films (Beasts of the Southern Wild and Lore) had me nodding vigorously in agreement and deciding to investigate the phenomenon.
As I'd noted in the lengthy Weekend Australian Review piece, handheld camera work has a long history, taking off in the early 1960s thanks to the advent of light cameras with synchronised sound, something leapt upon by documentary filmmakers such as Jean Rouch, D.A. Pennebaker and the Maysles brothers, and in fiction films, by French nouvelle vague cinematographer Raoul Coutard.
Thanks to the advent of high resolution digital cameras, handheld today is so widespread that many viewers would often most likely not notice their use. But on the other hand this has led to a deliberately exaggerated technique of wobblycam - UK director Paul Greengrass is a leading exponent - where the aim is to lend a fiction film the appearance of a documentary by constantly shaking the camera, as if the film were being shot on the fly.
As I observed, it's hugely ironic that the best documentary makers tend to be highly disciplined in their camera work....
The complete piece starts here:
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 hand-held 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 hand-held 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 it influenced, such as as the first Beatles film, A HardDay'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 hand-held cameras throughout. In 1999 US low-budget 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.' "
|Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games|
Is a distaste for obvious shakycam really age-related? According to this view, cinema lovers such as David Stratton, well known for his criticism of overly obvious camera wobble in his reviews for this newspaper and ABC TV's At the Movies, are by implication unable to move with the times. Claire Gandy, programming manager at national cinema chain Dendy Cinemas, believes "the older audience tends to like a film that is more traditionally shot because they are used to an older style of filmmaking". Denson Baker, making a name as one of Australia's most talented younger cinematographers, recalls discussing with director Jim Loach what approach to take when preparing to make Oranges and Sunshine, the story of a woman investigating what became of British children forcibly adopted out to Australia in the 50s and 60s. They decided to give the film a "documentary feel", he says, but also to keep the camera work under control. "That was made for an older audience that finds it more difficult to deal with shakycam. My mother, for instance, constantly complains about films using that, and gets nausea from it - and she's the target audience."
But it remains unclear to what extent age is really a factor. Some viewers have an unfortunate susceptibility towards shakycam-induced nausea. It's not an aesthetic choice. There's nothing they can do it about it. According to Benjamin Zeccola, executive director of national chain Palace Cinemas, customer complaints about films using shakycam fit no particular demographics. "Even our program director has said that heavy use of hand-held can make him feel nauseous, and sometimes customers do come out and complain," he says, adding the complainants are across the board in age and sex.
"I would suggest that if you notice the hand-held camera, then it's not being done properly. We think that hand-held can really enhance the sensory experience, enhance the sense of realism." But, Zeccola continues, "It does get overused, and if it's too extreme it can lead to nausea. Some people don't mind and are oblivious to it, and others find it irritating. I think it's right that David Stratton and others who write about film complain about it. If it's overused, it's disrespectful to the audience."
Michael G. Stewart, professor of ear, nose and throat medicine at New York-Presbyterian Hospital / Weill Cornell Medical Centre, told CNN camera-induced nausea was a classic case of vertigo: "You can look around and feel like things are moving when they aren't," he said. Shakycam affected some more than others because people had naturally differing levels of susceptibility, "similar to how some people cannot ride on a small boat without getting sick", he said. "It's just a natural variation."
If shaking the camera makes at least part of the audience physically ill, why do some directors persist in using it? The answers vary according to the film. The Blair Witch Project and 2008 creature feature Cloverfield were each posing as amateur films, representing "real" events their protagonists had supposedly snatched on domestic camcorders. They aimed to put viewers into the seats of the amateur filmmakers on the screen, as if they were in the movie themselves. The horrific nature of their stories would thereby be accentuated. In Cloverfield's case it also meant the filmmakers could tell a Godzilla-like story without the budget required for expensive special effects (its monster is not seen until near the end, and then only partially).
This desire for intense subjectivity is a commonplace of filming with hand-held - not just the shaky variety, but many film and teleseries that make more disciplined use of mobile cameras. Baker, who has shot using significant amounts of hand-held on his last four projects, says the idea is to make a scene feel "true and in the moment, as opposed to a staged event".
|Emily Watson in Breaking the Waves|
Director Tony Ayres, who used hand-held for one of the two episodes he shot of teleseries The Slap, notes hand-held "has been associated with documentary, and drama has been more about controlled movement, so when fiction filmmakers started using it, it had the effect of representing subjective truth. I loved Morvern Callar and that had a lot of hand-held camera; you really felt you were in the head of the Samantha Morton character, really experiencing things the way she experienced them." Ayres's 2002 debut feature Walking on Water used a lot of hand-held, "but the cinematographer was a human tripod, so it didn't look like it. That again was trying to impart feelings of subjectivity and it was a great way to capture the story with limited resources."
The irony of the desire to achieve the naturalism of documentary by shaking the camera is that the best documentary makers are highly disciplined in their camera work. Bob Connolly, one of this country's pre-eminent documentarians with titles such as Mrs Carey's Concert and Black Harvest behind him, is scathing of the "documentary" excuse. "Nothing infuriates me so much as to put that pretentious wobble that they somehow think is documentary," he says. "Documentary filmmakers actually work incredibly hard to make sure the camera doesn't wobble." Then again, he feels many of today's documentary filmmakers are "extraordinarily amateurish" in their use of hand-held. "People have just never learned how to control the camera. I'm with Stratton with that. It's not the hand-held camera per se [that's annoying], it's the incompetence with which it's used. And then when it's actually deliberate, you see in a feature film all this swinging, it's mimicking incompetence. It's beyond belief. All it does is distract you from the film, and there's no need for it."
Connolly points out Pennebaker (Don't Look Back) and the Maysles brothers (Salesman) "were trained to keep the camera steady". Digital cameras, he says, have "democratised the whole thing. Anyone can go out and shoot a film to a certain level of competency." The downside is digital cameras with automatic settings "tend to make people very sloppy. They haven't done the rigorous training that we all had."
|Happy Together - filmed by Chris Doyle inside cramped spaces|
In a feature film, when the camera wobbles it's not accidental. Cameras and digital editing software now have stabilisation devices built into them, so filmmakers have to go out of their way to get a jerky effect. Even the word "hand-held" is misleading, since the camera is so often held on the shoulder. Today there are devices such as the aptly named Easyrig that help camera operators to hold a mobile device longer by redistributing the weight from the shoulders to the hips. As Baker points out, Australian-born, Asian-based cinematographer Chris Doyle, the influential hand-held virtuoso revered especially for his work with director Wong Kar-wai, is known for using a pillow strapped to his stomach to absorb shocks.
For Doyle there was often a practical reason behind the hand-held - his locations, Hong Kong's cramped flats and narrow alleys, had no room for fixed cameras. If the shot required him to contort himself to squeeze into a corner, hang out the window or lean back over a balcony, he would do it. For much of 1960's Breathless, cinematographer Raoul Coutard held his 35mm Eclair Cameflex camera on his shoulder, which helps explains why the camera movement is so smooth. At other times he sat in a wheelchair pushed by his director, Jean-Luc Godard, or hid the camera in a mail cart, so that he could shoot actors Jean Seberg and Jean-Paul Belmondo walking down the Champs-Elysses without the public noticing they were actors making a film.
Glendyn Ivin, one of two directors on TV series Puberty Blues, thinks shakycam too often "becomes this default stylistic choice where the more you wobble the camera, the more 'real' it's meant to become. But I feel if you're rocking the camera and that's to bring truth and honesty to the film, it's going to be shallow." On the other hand, "when it's done well, it feels spontaneous and you're with the camera". Ninety per cent of Puberty Blues was shot with hand-held, "but I don't think you feel it. If I'd heard the criticism 'it's got too much hand-held', I'd really take stock and ask 'why isn't it working?' If the camera movement becomes too obvious, it reminds the viewer there's a film crew standing around just out of shot. But when all the elements are working well, I love it. I think it brings immediacy, particularly with [a cast of] kids, teenage girls. They're not thinking about the next day, they are right there in the moment. If it was too locked-off, it would be too considered."
Hand-held, he adds, means smaller crews who are able to work faster. "The more fat you can reduce, and get rid of the crew, the dinosaur tail of filmmaking, the more fun is the filmmaking."
Do actors really prefer working with hand-held? British actor Emily Watson thought the reason her performance in Breaking the Waves had received so much attention, including an Oscar nomination, was down to von Trier's spontaneous filming methods. His use of hand-held meant eschewing the conventional concerns for continuity and the need for actors to hit their marks (prearranged chalk marks on the floor), she told The Australian. "He decided that the acting and the telling of the emotional story was the central thing to the film and everything else was peripheral to that." It was "as if acting in free fall", a process she found "incredibly liberating".
This filmmaking philosophy owes much to the 60s and 70s features of US "independent godfather" John Cassavetes (A Woman Under the Influence). His cameras - whether hand-held or fixed position - were at the service of the performers, and not, as he believed was true of most conventional cinema, the other way around.
Rake actor Matt Day recalls making the 1997 Australian thriller Kiss or Kill with director Bill Bennett under similar conditions to von Trier's Waves. "The whole film was hand-held and that was focusing on performance. We didn't have a continuity person. The actors would move to different positions in each take, rather than trying to repeat their movements from take to take, even say different things. That's a good example of how to use hand-held effectively."
The masters of this type of filmmaking, he believes, are Belgium's Dardenne brothers (Rosetta), independent US team the Duplass brothers (Cyrus), and von Trier on last year's Melancholia. "A lot of what he gets from his actors is a result of his directing style," Day says of the Dane. "The hand-held is part of the creative process. The place is lit so you can swing a camera in any direction and it will work. If you're shooting off a traditional script and traditional schedule, it's not going to give you the same effect."