Friday, June 8, 2012

Shaky cam is a tool of the devil

Look, I get that over time cinema evolves. Whether the innovation is sound, color, 3D, or CGI, 48fps, film-goers are always eager to see the next big thing. But there's one so-called "innovation" that needs to be retired. I know, I sound like the neighborhood crank yelling at kids to get off his lawn, but shaky cam is the tool of the devil and needs to begone.

Call me old fashioned, but when I go to the movies, I like being able to actually see what's onscreen. If I can't tell who lived or died after watching a big action scene, that's a problem. If I can't even tell characters apart, then I think it's clear that they're doing it wrong. I don't know why this annoying trend is so popular, but it needs to stop.

I think the first movie that intense shaky cam really ruined for me was Transformers. I was very excited to see Michael Bay reboot the toy commercials I loved as a kid. Having Peter Cullen return as Optimus Prime made my inner eight year old jump for joy. This was going to be a fantastic special-effects spectacle and I couldn't wait.

Then I watched it and couldn't tell an Autobot from a Decepticon. I had no idea which character was which during all the intense battle scenes. And the saddest part about it was that since we were dealing with CGI robots, the shaky cam had to be digitally inserted into the movie. This was a conscious choice, and the result was that millions of dollars were spent on awesome giant robots that we couldn't clearly see.

Transformers isn't the only offender. The majority of the Bourne movies are shot by people who must believe that if the cameras hold still, they'll explode. Most action movies are utterly incomprehensible onscreen. It's not like I'm asking for a plot that makes sense. I want to see things blow up in new and creative ways. Thing is, I actually need to see it.

Shaky cam apologists will argue that the technique is used to convey intensity. When the camera shakes, when they zoom in, it's like we're in the middle of it. It's mean to draw us in. I wouldn't have a problem with that if shaky cam was used sparingly in key moments, not for the entire movie.

The good news is that there is hope. As more and more movies are shot in 3D, studios and directors are learning one important lesson. 3D isn't effective if we don't know what's going on. Since it takes the brain time to adjust to the 3D image, whipping the camera back and forth in an effort to make the audience motion sick will render the 3D meaningless. (Which is why you never want to see post-conversion 3D, because it wasn't shot for 3D and it makes the shaky cam that much worse.)

A perfect example of this is Transformers: Dark of the Moon. Bay shot it in 3D and it was magnificent. Oh, the plot was hastily cobbled together five minutes before they started shooting, but what was onscreen looked amazing and the 3D was some of the best I've ever seen. (I paid extra to see it Imax 3D.) It worked because Bay had to actually hold the camera still and let us see everything onscreen.

This needs to be a trend. We need to see less shaky cam and more directors willing to pull back, hold still, and let us see the film. If Michael Bay can be taught how to behave behind a camera, then I think there may be hope for Hollywood yet.

Now if we can just get them to write a plot that doesn't make my brain want to take hostages, but we'll deal with that later.


  1. I agree. The Transformers movie drove me a bit nuts. I just chalked it up to getting older and not being able to follow all the quick action. I found all just a bit exhausting.

    I haven't seen the Bourne movies as yet, but the chances of it are a bit shaky at best.

    Thanks for yet another thought provoking article.


    --by the way, I think I my have hooked you another fan. Good friend of mine was reading through some of your past blog articles. Multiple times he exclaimed "That is SO true".

    Well played, Mr. French; well played.

    1. I'm glad you're enjoying them.

      The Bourne movies aren't terrible. I do like them, and the shaky cam is a lot easier to deal with on a television.

  2. The shaky cam is starting to affect modern day television on a normal basis, as well.

    It looks sloppy to me, as if they didn't have time to setup tripods and aim shots, thus making the film appear as if it was thrown together over a couple of days.

    I think one reason it is used so regularly today is that the act of telling a good story with an engaging plotline is no longer an important issue. As long as big name actors are on screen speaking dialogue and there's ginormous CGI explosions, people will go see it.

    What happened to the ingenuity today that was present in writers like Gene Roddenberry, Terry Nation, Robert Holmes, H.G. Wells, Herge, and Sidney Newman?

    Modern day television is utterly dull and without substance, and virtually every film released now is just a remake of an original classic.