How to Talk About Film Without Sounding Like an Ignorant Moose (part three)

So you want to change the camera angle, but you don’t want to cut the film for some reason. What do? You move the camera while the film is still rolling, of course. And because nothing in film is complete without jargon, there are tons of special terms for each type of camera move.

First up we have Pan and Tilt. These are the two movements you can get while your camera is on a stationary tripod. Panning involves turning the camera horizontally while it remains in a fixed location by pivoting it around. This mimics someone turning their head. Tilt is like a pan, but this time the camera moves vertically, like someone leaning their head back or tipping it forward.

Next we come to the Track or Dolly shot. Now track and dolly can be used just about interchangeably, but they are not to be confused with panning. In a track shot the camera is moved in one direction on a little cart on a track. Like panning, this can change the field of view along the horizontal, but unlike panning, the camera does not pivot. It stays pointed in a single direction. The track is used to keep the motion fluid and steady and as unlike a Jason Bourne movie as can managed. Crane shots also fall in this same territory. In a crane shot, the whole camera assembly is on a crane (like the name says), which lets it move in three dimensions instead of two.

Now that little video is a bit dry, but it does two things of use. One, it shows why zooms are almost never used in films outside of looking through the eyes of a T-800 as it picks out its target. They look odd and overly mechanical. When we want to look at something closer we move our face closer to it, or we move it closer to our face. Moving the camera is what gives us that appearance that sort of movement. Secondly, it gives a pretty good shot of what the track for a track shot looks like, in case you were wondering.

Handheld shots are easily my least favorite of the moving shots. We have video journalism and documentaries to thank for these unsteady beasts. Now in journalism or documentary-making, there is a real chance that whatever you are trying to film might be gone by the time you finish setting up a tripod, so holding the camera makes sense. However, as these handheld shots became part of the culture’s visual lexicon, filmmakers started to give their tripods the boot in order to invoke the raw immediacy of those journalistic shots. I’m not saying it can’t be done well, but it’s kinda overplayed at the moment. I maybe started cursing under my breath when I saw the scene in The Bourne Supremacy that was nothing more than two dudes talking in a cafe shot handheld. NOT NECESSARY GUYS! Now, there is also a magical device used when a smooth camera movement is desired, but setting up track is impossible. The steady cam is a harness with a system of counterweights that allows a handheld camera to remain relatively stable even as the operator walks around and such. Reality TV loves these.

It should be noted that you can combine more than one type of movement into a single shot. The most famous combination being what we used to call in film school the “Hitchcock Shot.” There are about a billion different names for this trick, the push/pull, the vertigo, the smash zoom, the dolly zoom, but Hitchcock is always my favorite. It’s done one of two ways; either the camera tracks in while zooming out, or it tracks out while zooming in. This causes the subject to remain the same size while the field of view behind them alters drastically. If done with the camera moving inward while zooming out, the background seems to fall away, which is probably why Hitchcock used it in Vertigo, which made the shot famous. My favorite example, however, comes from Jaws:

Now, all these are used to avoid cutting, but why? Well, pacing is part of that. Cutting frequently tends to intensify the pace of something and make it seem more frantic. Also long shots are sort of viewed as being a sign of more technical mastery. The longer the shot is and the fewer shots in a scene, the less you can Frankenstein a scene together from several takes. Everyone has to bring their A game for long shots, so they usually get saved for something special. Which is why I’m gonna send you out with a clip from one of my favorite movies, The PlayerThe Player might as well be a feature length in-joke for film buffs. It lampoons just about every convention in the books. This is its opening scene where there is one long shot, something supposedly very awesome. Furthermore, there is some mad crane work going on there. But it’s used here to do nothing more than establish a location. (Note all the references to cutting and long track shots too. This film is nothing if not humorously self-aware.)

By Opifex

Opifex is a former art student, unrepentant nerd, and occasional annoying liker of things before they were cool. She keeps two sets of polyhedral dice in her purse, in case the first set stops being lucky. That's kind of how she rolls.

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