Tirade Tuesdays: Shaky Camera

The use of handheld, shaky camera has been one of the most adopted and most contested aesthetic effects of the past decade. While the arguments against it are obvious, what’s not so obvious is why people keep using it if audiences keep complaining about it. Instead of simply stating the obvious reasons why this is bad, I propose that we look at the reasoning behind using handheld, shaky camera movement and then conclude why this reasoning is faulty.

A lot of the reasoning behind using shaky cameras is part of a larger notion surrounding the film as a medium. Not long after its inception, debates raged about whether or not films should become more realistic or remain formalist. While tendencies of both still remain in modern films, in terms of capturing the image, realism is often the most desired result.

Therefore, the reason handheld camerawork has become so popular is because as an image literate society, we have interpreted handheld camerawork as more realistic, making us feel as if we are an actual spectator. This can be traced to the popularity of certain reality TV shows such as C.O.P.S. where a camera operator runs behind, capturing real life events.

The problem is that in narrative films, audiences are smart enough to see past the ruse. We know that what we are seeing is not real, so by taking a technique used to capture real events, we become aware of the illusion and it takes us out of the experiencing, making us aware that we are seeing things through the perspective of a camera.

The reason why this works in reality TV, is because part of the narrative of reality TV is the fact that there’s an external person capturing the footage, we recognize this as part of the nature of the world we are being presented. In The Bourne Ultimatum, there isn’t some secondary character introduced that is following Bourne around with a camera, it’s simply an aesthetic choice used to capture the events of the film.

The handheld camera effect is also a growth out the didactic, erratic postmodern aesthetic, which is quite possibly one of the silliest aesthetics to be applied to film. The rapid fire editing, coupled with the shaky camera movement makes for blurred, incoherent images that involve trying to meld two incompatible forces. The fast nature of editing actually undermines our sense of realism because of the constant transitions among images.

Think about some of the best use of handheld camerawork that you’ve seen. The first film that comes to my mind is Children of Men. Here is a film that does have a shaky camera, but it works because it’s coupled with something that heightens the sense of realism: the long take. Instead of rapidly cutting between images, Children of Men creates a number of persistent shots, many running minutes long, drawing audiences into the realism instead of constantly jumping around.

Therefore, the problem, to a large extent is not actually the shaky camera, it’s the fact that people use it in a way that undermines the sense of realism they are trying to achieve. If your film has a cut every few seconds, shaky camerawork is going to make your film unwatchable and incoherent. Without understanding the effects of your aesthetic choices, you are doomed to make the same mistake so many filmmakers are making today.

© 2010 James Blake Ewing