Thursday, July 14, 2011

Herr Wozzeck Muses: Shaky Cam

Here's a fun fact: I went to see Transformers: Dark of the Moon with friends. It was also extremely late at night (we caught a show at 10:55 PM), and that's the best time for friends to go out when you're in college, right? Yeah, that's what we thought. No, we didn't have alcohol beforehand. We were all sober to the best of my knowledge. It was fun, and full of craziness.

But that's not why I'm bringing that bit of information up. I'm bringing it up because of a discussion I had with said friends on the way home.

We started asking ourselves about movies we've seen earlier in the year, and then one of them asked me what my opinion of Battle: Los Angeles was. I told them I hated it (which, looking back, was probably too strong a term for me to have used: I don't like it, but I don't hate it either, now that I think about it), and things more or less happened from there. They thought it was big and dumb and enjoyable, and I said that I found it to be a cliched movie that had action scenes that were an incomprehensible mess thanks to the ridiculous amount of shaky cam involved.

And then, the discussion turned to shaky cam, which is where I was going with this. As all of you on my blog know, I tend to frown upon shaky cam as it shows up in an action movies, especially when it makes it needlessly difficult to tell what the hell is going on when it zooms in on the action. I think shaky cam is nothing more than a mere gimmick: I'd much prefer that my action scenes actually give some idea of what's going on.

So in this discussion with my friends, I blasted shaky cam for needlessly muddying up action scenes in most movies (key word being most). In turn, my friends replied that it was a way to create more immersion. Their reasoning is that by making the camera as shaky as possible, it simulates you being in the action.

Here are some reasons why I found this argument to be bullshit:

1) That argument only works if you're trying to do something with the aesthetic of your cinematography. Shaky-cam works with movies like Cloverfield and The Blair Witch Project because the amateurish quality of the cinematography (I.E., how much the camera shakes) is part of the point of those movies: the cameraman is part of the action. But throw that quality of shaky camera into a movie like Battle: Los Angeles or 28 Days Later in which the the camera isn't part of the action but is rather a passive observer of the action and the gimmick becomes absolutely pointless.

2) If your movie is good enough, you don't need to rely on cheap gimmicks to immerse your audience. They'll be absorbed by the characters and the story well enough: the action then proceeds to pit the characters through things, and you hope they rise up above it. It's the secret of any good narrative. And when you don't rely on the narrative, you have to rely on the action: muddying it needlessly doesn't help your movie at all, especially when it's heavily cliched.

Having a clearly visible action scene is honestly so much better than it is if it's muddied by how the camera is moving. Think to the rotating hallway scene of Inception: would that scene have been as incredible as it was if the camera had been shaking? I don't think so. It was a brilliant move on the part of Nolan's cinematographer to stick to the tracking shot that stays rooted firmly in the ground and is very steady. It made the action clear.

This is a clarity that shaky-cam lacks as used in a lot of movies. I think there's a way to do shaky-cam well, but most movies that employ it haven't found this way yet. And in these cases, shaky-cam remains a problem with the movie.

This is Herr Wozzeck Reviews. I'll see you guys next time.

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