Video Production Techniques: Using a Moving Camera


This video demonstrates the technique of using a wildly moving camera for effect. BUT VIDEOGRAPHER BEWARE….This technique will mark you as an amateur if not done correctly!

TO MOVE OR NOT TO MOVE, THAT IS THE QUESTION!!

There’s no doubt about it.

The #1 mistake newbie video makers commit is to move the camera so much they induce sea-sickness in their audience.

Seriously. As a sufferer of extreme motion sickness I can testify firsthand to the effect.  Wildly moving video can make people nauseated. It’s happened to me a bunch.

As a video production teacher, I can tell you that a wildly moving camera marks a video as amateur in a nano-second. When people first get their hands on a video camera, for some odd reason they are compelled to pan, zoom and tilt with abandon.  This is so common it has become a cliche joke.

Not using a tripod while videotaping an interview is a big mistake.   So is shooting against a window.  This interview will look horrible and be a shaky sillhouette.  The camera woman also has the camera at too low of an angle.  Who wants to look up someones nose?  Sorry kids, youre FIRED!

Not using a tripod while videotaping an interview is a big mistake. So is shooting against a window. This interview will look horrible and be a shaky sillhouette. The camera woman also has the camera at too low of an angle. Who wants to look up someone's nose? Sorry kids, you're FIRED!

THAT DOESN’T MEAN CAMERA MOVEMENT IS ALL BAD!
Having sung the praises of getting rock-steady, tripod shots, it’s also true that a moving camera can occasionally be used as an effective story-telling technique.  But to do this well, the movement has to be purposeful and controlled, not random and wild.

Generally speaking, video should be shot off a locked down tripod and the camera should not move much at all.  If you do use camera movement such as zooms, pans or tilts, keep the movement slow and steady.  Ideally, the action within your shot should move as much as possible, but the camera itself is usually kept steady.

MTV CHANGES THE WORLD

Beginning with MTV back in the 80’s, this rule started being broken so frequently that it almost became a non-rule. A steady camera used to be such a mandate that my first boss would go totally nuts if I moved the camera and couldn’t JUSTIFY it under intense interrogation!  Thank goodness that rigidness is no longer the norm.

Deliberately moving the camera can create a sense of chaos or excitement. Over the years, this technique traveled beyond the music video genre but that’s still where you’ll find most of it. Dramatic TV shows use the technique relatively often though it’s not as extreme as what you’ll see in the Blair Witch Project.  Watch CSI, the camera moves almost constantly.

FAKE NEWS
Often, gentle, random camera movement is done to simulate a news story, since many news photographers keep their tripods locked in the trunk and always handhold.   News video is usually a bit shaky.  This basic style is referred to as “documentary style” and can be described as run-and-gun method used by one and two-man crews where nothing is staged and all lighting is natural. Let me re-phrase. If you want to follow ethical journalistic practices nothing is staged. Otherwise, stage away, make it look “newsy” by hand holding.

Some video producers think your average viewer has such short attention span that they must move the camera a lot or the viewer will get bored. I don’t buy that. Nevertheless, some camera movement can be extremely effective.

If you do chose this style, keep in mind that quality cameras movement is NOT the same as random, uncontrolled jiggling and it CERTAINLY isn’t the spastic, golly-gee-willikers-I’ve- just- bought-a-new-toy-and-it-does-tricks type of movement people always seem to do when first picking up a video camera. (Hey, I did it myself, 30 years ago and got laughed at my teacher too.)

Quality camera movement is planned and not too terribly spastic. Doing it right takes practice. Doing it right means using it sparingly.

STUDENTS DISAGREED!
My high school students used to CONSTANTLY argue with me over this. They thought hyperactive spastic cam meant they were creativity geniuses. I’d tell them to go home and watch TV. (How can you argue with a teacher who gives assignments like that?)

If you watch TV critically, you’ll notice that with the exception of music videos and high-drama crime shows, 95% of it is steady cam. There’s a reason for that. Viewers can’t stomach a constantly moving camera. Like spices used in cooking, a little is good but a lot ruins the stew.

That’s not to say I was rigid about the rules. I laughed like crazy when some of my students were POSITIVE I was going to gripe at them for not using a tripod on their rap music video. I said no, your grade got marked down for crappy lighting, the spastic-cam technique actually works for a rap video about a shrinking t-shirt, but relying on car headlights for nighttime illumination, then having no alternative when the car battery runs dead, not only strands you in the boondocks, it leads to poor-quality nighttime shots which would have looked beautiful with full light.

Sorry kids!

When you are watching TV and video, look at the very edges of the frame to see how much the camera is moving.  Even just slight movement will show up on the edges.

Then, if you decide that you want a style that adds excitement, chaos and helps keep the pace moving rapidly, some camera movement might be an option.  Otherwise, please do your viewers and your reputation and favor and lock the camera down on a tripod.

Here is a video I made years ago that used the moving cam technique in the opening.  Watch this opening and see if you think it worked in this instance.

If you want to read more on this subject, here is another post on using a moving video camera.

Thanks for reading Video Production Tips

Lorraine Grula

Comments

  1. frank says:

    I have been saying this ever since that shitty cop show “NYPD Blue” debuted: the shaky camera gimmick makes people think they’re watching something that’s “critically acclaimed” LOL.

    And it works. Becauser look at all of the crap on TV that passes for “quality” nowadays.

  2. Hey Frank.

    I’m with you buddy. Not a big fan of spastic cam either.

    But a little bit has it’s place, but I think if you are trying to do serious video on serious subjects it is still best to use a tripod.

  3. Charlie Hand says:

    Shaky, wobbly cam is an epidemic cancer in TV and film. It seems like everyone is compelled to use it, and no one can justify it. It doesn’t emulate news, documentary or amateur shooting. To say so is to insult news, documentary and amateur shooters. Those shooters strive to provide a steady frame in which the viewer may view the scene, and don’t perfectly succeed. The shaky/wobbly practitioner’s goal is exactly the opposite: to deliberately jiggle and wiggle the frame. The difference between a documentary shooter and a shaky/wobbly shooter is night and day. When shaky/wobbly producers use actual amateur footage on TV, they digitally add shake. That sort of blows away the argument that shaky/wobbly cam is trying to emulate amateur. The argument that the shaky/wobbly cam is anthropomorphic is absurd for anyone who is not drunk and who doesn’t suffer from Parkinson’s disease. The human psycho-visual system is a steady-cam system. Even when a person is moving, their perceived frame is steady, unless they are drunk or have Parkinson’s or are really violently shaking. So if the POV is not drunk, not Parkinson’s and not violently shaking, why is the POV frame shaking? Two characters are sitting at a table talking, and the camera is the POV of another person. As a viewer trying to figure out why my frame is shaking and wobbling, the only possible answer is that the producer is an idiot.

  4. Hi Charlie.
    Thanks for your comment! In many respects, I agree with you. Generally speaking, I am NOT a big fan of “shaky, wobbly cam” video as you call or, or as I call it in the article “spastic cam.” And I do agree with your statement that lots of people feel compelled to use it but really have no real justification for doing so. However, I do think it has a place in some kinds of video and I think it worked in this anti-tobacco video pretty well. Obviously, you don’t! :)
    A good news photographer is rock steady, even when hand-holding in a hurricane. I am not insulting news photographers, I WAS one. But, whether it is fair, true or not, it is PERCEIVED by many that news video is poor quality (shaky, grainy, etc.) so when people want to emulate news shooting they often purposely add the shake. I have seen that technique used a million times.
    In my 32 years of making video, I have known many people just like you, who reacted with extreme disdain for spastic cam. I think of these folks as “old school.” I also know people who think spastic cam is a fantastic technique and they use it all the time. I think that is crazy, bad production values. I take a middle ground. It has a place, but it is a small place and should be reserved for instances when it truly ADDS something.
    In general, I always tell people to shoot off a tripod and that rock-steady is the way to go. But that is not a hard and fast rule in my opinion. I guess you think it is.
    Thanks for the discussion! I could talk all day about what makes a good video.
    Lorraine

  5. More ideas of television and home video

  6. Regarding formal interviews using a muslin backdrop. Is there any hard ‘n’ fast rules for using a plain black backdrop. I have used it in the past and really liked the look. However, I was wondering if it may give a negative touch/look. Should it perhaps only be used when the subject matter is greatly serious?

    Thanks for your in-put!
    Mark

  7. Hi Mark.
    IMHO, a muslin background is just about always a good choice. Muslin, and other types of cloth, are easy, inexpensive and portable. Professional photographers have been using cloth backgrounds for a very long time for precisely those reasons. It is best to use cloth that does not need ironing yet remains wrinkle free. Muslin is not the best choice in that regard, but some people actually like the look of a wrinkled cloth. Cloth backgrounds can be made to look more interesting with good lighting techniques and some nice draping. I have some dark colored wrinkle free cloth hung on the wall that I have draped to give a bit of texture. I also hung a light on the ceiling which provides both backlight for my hair and background light to emphasize the text of my draped cloth.
    I hope this helps you out!
    Lorraine

  8. Thanks for you reply Lorraine!

    My question was more about the use of black muslin and its appropriatness for certain videos. I.E. is black too “serious” as a backdrop for a series of interviews regarding the history of a school? – Don’t know if that makes sense? Please refer to my previous post.

    Thanks
    Mark

  9. Hi Mark.
    I do not think black is too serious for interviews regarding the history of a school. However, it might be too bland. I think interviews are best when the background says something about the subject matter. In other words, if you are interviewing a surgeon, placing them in surgical suite immediately identifies them visually. Schools typically have all kinds of cool things to make backgrounds out of. Hallways full of lockers, trophy cases, mascots painted on the walls, classrooms, etc., etc. Typically, cloth is used because it is easy and will block out backgrounds that aren’t “pretty.” If I were you, I would try to use backgrounds that are visually relevant. However, that is not always possible. Then your cloth comes in handy. Cloth can be made to look very nice as a background, but it is basically meaningless. I hope this helps!
    Lorraine

  10. What many people don’t understand is that adding camera shake is an art. There is a certain amount that a camera needs to move and how it moves is part of the storytelling process. Just like good sounds provides so much to a story, camera moves do the same visually.

  11. Hi James.
    Camera movement that works is indeed an art, as this post already stated. It’s not just random, chaotic movement. Random chaotic movement is what you get too often though and it does not sit well with the viewer. Thanks for your comment.
    Lorraine

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