One thing I admire most about J.J. Abrams is his use of camera movement. In Star Trek, the camera is moving in almost every shot. And the set for Star Trek was made as it seems in the film. Each room is connected to one another so that the camera can follow the actors from one area to another without any cuts, thus making more use of moving the camera. And the camera shaking and all of the movement makes it feel as if I were on the USS Enterprise.
The point I make with J.J. Abrams is that camera movement is important to filmmaking. It adds life to the film, it gets the audience more involved with the action, it can help with the tone of the film, and more importantly, it doesn’t make your film seem boring.
The basic camera movements include pans, tilts, dollies, trucks, and zooms:
- Pans are pretty simple to pull off. This is where the camera is locked down on a tripod and the camera operator turns the camera from right to left or left to right without moving the tripod. A lot of people consider a camera moving from side to side panning. You can say that when watching a film, but when making a film, there’s a difference.
- Tilts are just as easy to pull of as pans. The camera is also locked down on a tripod, but this time the camera operator moves the camera up and down without moving the tripod. It’s pretty straight forward.
- Dolly shots are a little bit more difficult but can still be easy to attain. The camera is placed on a tripod, the tripod is placed on a platform that is connected to tracks. Dolly shots are supposed to only go forwards and backwards. A lot of people will think dolly shots refer to the camera being moved on a platform on a set of tracks, no matter what direction. But, there’s a different name for a dolly shot that moves from side to side, that’s trucking, I’ll get to that later. The physical camera is moving in a dolly shot rather than having the camera be stationary and zooming into the subject. These shots can be used for anything like following a character walk through a door.
- Truck shots are very similar to dolly shots. The camera is placed on a tripod, then onto a platform and is physically moved along tracks. But, this time the camera movement is from side to side, not forwards and backwards. These shots would be good for having the camera beside a running/walking actor and getting a clean shot of the actor while they run/walk. A dolly or truck shot can help get a moving shot more stabilized. It produces a much more smooth shot as opposed to handheld.
- Zooms are similar to dollying. But instead of moving the physical camera closer to the scene, the camera is stationary in one spot and zoomed in closer to the scene using the zoom feature on a camera.
There are more advanced types of camera movements. Like handheld, crane, and Steadicam shots:
- Handheld is exactly what it sounds like. The camera is physically in the hand of the camera operator. Handheld shots move more freely since they are not constricted to any tripods or cranes with limited space. But, handheld shots tend to have more camera shake involved. But there are ways to get more smoother handheld shots. You can use a “fig rig” which is almost like a steering wheel that you hold on to and place the camera in the center. Or you can use a shoulder rig where the rig rests on your shoulder while the camera is attached to the rig. I’ve got a three-in-one DSLR camera rig that I got as a gift. It’s called a “Spider Steady DSLR Rig”, it costs about $55, and it has a shoulder rig, fig rig, and an “action cam” rig (used for lower angles to catch action, the camera operator can run with an action cam rig). Handheld shots are more common in action films, war films, or low budget films. Action and war films heavily use handheld shots because of the camera shake so the scene can seem much more intense.
- Crane shots are more of a luxury in filmmaking. The camera is attached to a crane and can get a wide array of camera angles while being operating by controls. A low budget filmmaker would have something called a “jib” which is a smaller version of a crane shot. Jibs can still get a wide array of camera angles, but it can’t get in higher locations if the jib is placed on the ground.
- Steadicam shots are frequently used in Hollywood. This allows the camera to move in any direction and still produce a very smooth shot. The camera almost seems like it’s floating. A camera operator can walk or run with this and still get a clean shot without camera shake. The Steadicam was invented in the early 1970’s by Garret Brown. The Shining is the first film to excessively use a Steadicam to film. Normal Steadicams can be very pricy, but there are many great tutorials on YouTube on how to make your own DIY Steadicam for extremely cheap costs (the lowest I saw was $10 and a trip to the hardware store). Tracking shots will use Steadicams if the director wants the shot to be close to the actor and other people. The Steadicam is merely a stick with the camera placed on top, and on the bottom of the stick is a weight to balance the camera. The weight is very important. It has to either match the weight of the camera or be slightly heavier, then the camera can produce more steady shots.
There can be meanings behind each camera movement, it all depends on how you move the camera. Each moving shot will mean something different when used in different context with your story. Camera movements can show happiness, sadness, intensity, fear, or something else. It all depends on how YOU use your camera.
Now a some of these shots are harder to accomplish because not everyone has the appropriate equipment to get these moving camera shots. Like dolly/trucking shots for example. Getting tracks to move your camera along can be very expensive, but there are ways to get dolly shots without spending the extra cash. You can put the camera on a tripod, put the tripod on the hood of your car (or the top of your car if the scene is very large), and have somebody move the car at a slow speed (and make sure the camera operator has a hold of the camera and tripod), you can have a dolly shot. Or you can make a trip to the hardware store and pick up supplies to make your own dolly. There are tutorials online, especially YouTube, to make cheap dolly equipment. And if you can’t afford a shoulder rig (I mentioned earlier about the Spider Steady rig that’s only $55 on Amazon.com), you can use a tripod. I did this for a short film called Plunged before I had my shoulder rig. I put my camera on the tripod, closed the legs of the tripod, rested the tripod legs on my shoulder and tilted the camera up, and I got a smoother handheld shot. You can also make your own shoulder rig from tutorials on YouTube. Pretty much any filming equipment can be made for cheaper costs and with help from online video tutorials. But, I wouldn’t use DIY equipment for everything. Once you are able to upgrade to professional equipment, DO IT. DIY equipment is helpful, but professional rigs are made to last. I made a DIY slider last summer, and now it has shifted and I can’t get the same shot that I used to (it was made using PVC pipe).
So I hope this helps out with your projects. Camera movements are very important and can make your short film less boring. I’m not saying to not use static camera shots, I’m simply saying that moving cameras make the film seem more appealing and interesting, visually that is. It’s all about how you use your camera to tell a story. Telling the story is key.