Movies and Film: The Camera Moves in Relation to Something

The Camera Moves in Relation to Something

Another way to think about movement than the purely technological means is the kinetic relationships between the camera and the elements it photographs.

Movement in relation to the camera traditionally takes five forms:

  • The camera moves in relation to people.
  • The camera moves in relation to the objects.
  • People move in relation to the camera.
  • People move in relation to each other and other objects in the frame.
  • Framing elements move in relation to themselves or each other.

The most important elements for this chapter, and the ones we will treat at greatest length, are the first two, because they are most purely about the camera, and because the other dynamics are treated more fully in the section on mise-en-scne (see "Film Composition and Cinematography").

But to generalize about all, the significance of each kind of movement is dependent both on the shot itself, and on its context. For example, the aerial shot is probably most often associated with "epic" actions or vistas: the view of earth from a space shuttle, for example.

Second Take

Though associated with the epic, the aerial shot can suggest that epic quality ironically, undercutting the grandeur suggested by the shot. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch (Great Britain, 1971) begins with a nighttime aerial shot of what looks like stars in the sky. As the camera approaches the scene, however, we see that the stars are actually the floodlights of a gulag, or prison camp. The "reaching-for-the-stars" utopian sense of Soviet Russia is undercut by a cruel social reality. The Birth of a Nation (1915) pans from a medium shot of onlookers on a bluff viewing a battle with fear and sadness to an aerial shot of the battle itself, and back again. The battle looks epic, but our sense of its glory is utterly deflated by the knowledge that the family at home will suffer no matter who wins.

The Camera Moves in Relation to People

As the last example suggests, camera movement in relation to people can be thematically meaningful beyond simply following them around to let us in on the significant actions of significant characters. In His Girl Friday (1940), the camera tracks ace reporter Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell) and her editor and ex-husband Walter Burns (Cary Grant) as they move through a fast-paced city paper newsroom buzzing with activity. We understand that the relationship between these two characters will be equally fast and furious. In Eric von Stroheim's Foolish Wives (1922), the camera tracks in on a character's face as she goes from grief at her abandonment to the very obvious emotions of rage and vengefulness.

Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music.

Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music.

For an utterly opposed meaning, the camera dollies in a full circle around Julie Andrews onstage in drag in Victor Victoria (Great Britain, 1982), first showing her in isolation, but gradually revealing her onstage to an appreciative on-screen audience. Or again: The camera swoops from an aerial shot of a mountain top to the twirling figure of Julie Andrews (the woman just begs dramatic representation) at the beginning of The Sound of Music (1965) in order to give us a sense of the expansiveness of her soul and emotions.

Cameras move not only with characters, but from their point of view. In most horror films of the past 25 years, some of the camera movement is photographed from the point of view of the monster/slasher; we are in the eyes—and so minds—of Michael Myers in the Halloween movies, Freddy Kreuger in the Nightmare on Elm Street series, and Jason (or his mom) in the Friday the Thirteenth series, as they track their prey around their various neighborhoods, bedroom communities, and summer camps. The filmmakers want to give us the odd feeling of identifying with the slashers while at the same time feeling horror at their actions.

Director's Cut

In a more high-minded but famous sequence in The Graduate (1967), Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman, in the role that made him a star) wanders slowly and aimlessly around the bottom of a sterile, blue swimming pool in new diving equipment he doesn't want. We see his sense of the sterility of suburbia from his eyes, behind the scuba mask. He becomes for us the perfect icon of 1960s late adolescent alienation from a barren suburban culture.

The Camera Can Move in Relation to Things

Citizen Kane's camera seems always to be tracking in through windows and over fences to voyeuristically let us in on the private and secret life of its principal character. (This shot is satirized in contemporary moments like Saturday Night Live's "Wayne's World," where the camera sneaks up on and gets literally in the face of the show's guests. Mel Brooks loves using this device; in High Anxiety [1977], for example, the camera crashes right through the window.) One of Spike Lee's signature shots is a camera seeming to vertiginously circle over something in order to make his audience feel a discombobulating sense of vertigo.

One early master of the pan and tilt, Jean Renoir, can make his camera's trip across a room tell you everything you need to know about a character before you even meet him, as when the camera pans the bedroom/office of Rauffenstein in Grand Illusion (1937). Before we see him, we see the cross on a wall, a picture of the Kaiser, a copy of The Memoirs of Casanova, a framed picture of a pretty woman, traditional military accouterment like saber, and equestrian equipment like spurs, a military aid cleaning a pair of white gloves, and so on. We understand that Rauffenstein is part of World War I's German military elite, fancies himself a ladies' man, is intensely patriotic, and excessively neat. In short, a perfect representative of his class and time. (In a similar manner, opening credits to television's Murder She Wrote tells us everything we need to know about Angela Lansbury's character.)

Zooming and Steadicam shots feel more contemporary and realistic because they are more recent technologies than panning and tracking. Steadicam shots can feel especially realistic. Again, because they are associated with location shooting, nature documentaries, and crime-scene, prime-time journalism, they feel more aleatory. The camera work in prime time's NYPD Blue is jumpy to really give you a feeling of anxiety-ridden cops on the mean streets of New York. The littered alleys and weathered apartment-building facades emit grit all over the place, but that jumpy camera gives a strong sense of something real happening.

Director's Cut

Sometimes the easier movement choice is not the right one. The cinematographer for The Godfather (1972), Gordon Willis, discusses camera options: "Period movies are a tableau form of filmmaking. They are like paintings. If you're going to move, don't move with a zoom lens. It instantly lifts you right out of the movie because it's such a contemporary, mechanical item. It's not right for the turn of the century. Tracking can work. You lay it in at the right level and you're not really aware of it." (In Vincent LoBrutto, ed., Principal Photography [Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1999], p. 22.)

This Steadicam sense of realism can give a sense of freedom, as when it follows a character running through an open field, because it allows the cinematographer to leave the sound stage. Or this realism can be depressing because we associate it with the crimes and disasters portrayed on evening the six-o'clock news.

People Move in Relation to the Camera

Sometimes the camera is fixed while the characters in the frame change their relation to it. In Annie Hall (1977), Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) and his friend Max (Tony Roberts) walk toward the camera on a New York street from some distance. We can barely distinguish them at first, but they get clearer as they approach. In the meantime, we have been able to hear their conversation at precisely the same level. The photography establishes them and their interests as both idiosyncratic and typically urban: They blend into this street scene at the same time they are individuals. (The same type of shot is used on a Paris street in The 400 Blows.)

Characters Move in Relation to Each Other

Though we have discussed proxemic patterns—the distance between characters and the camera and each other in Film Composition and Cinematography—it is worth noting that the movement between characters and things is also significant. And not just to tell us something about the plot of the film: two characters approaching each other and kissing passionately. When we watch the scenery go by from the point of view of the weekend warriors in Deliverance (1972) we are struck with the beauty of the disappearing Southern landscape. But when we are seeing the canoes move from the point of view of the forest itself, their position seems fragile, the forest sinister. The boats move so slowly they barely seem buoyed by the water, and we are not terribly surprised at the accidents toward which they are slowly drifting downstream. In one sequence of the otherwise black-and-white Schindler's List (1993), a very young child is colorized so that her movements in the drab ghetto surroundings become even more significant than they might otherwise seem.

The Framing of a Picture Can Move

The most straightforward examples of the changing frame are the iris in and iris out. The black frame ("mask") around the picture gets larger or smaller, making us concentrate on the single element within the frame the director wants us to notice: the melodramatic sight of a mother's hands wringing over the fate of her son. But various editing transitions are movements as well: the "wipe," in which one picture lays over another from one side of the screen to another, as if being imprinted on the screen by a windshield wiper. The "push," in which one picture pushes another picture off screen in one direction. Or, when there are multiple images within the frame, one can enlarge while the other reduces.

A few films play with the idea of multiple frames on one screen. These include films as otherwise different as the Rock Hudson-Doris Day apple-pie vehicle Pillow Talk (1959), and Peter Greenaway's intensely erotic The Pillow Book (1996), for example. Rock Hudson and Doris Day speak in different apartments but to each other on split screen, while the gorgeous manuscripts of The Pillow Book "speak" to and about the action of the principle characters. Elements of different frames move in relation to each other as well as in relation to elements in their own frames.

No Motion Is Good Motion

Sometimes the camera is perfectly immobile to make a point. Jim Jarmusch (whose minimalism we will visit in our section on editing, "Film Editing"), sometimes keeps his camera and actors perfectly immobile as a way of emphasizing thoughtfulness, indecision, drunken indecision, mindlessness, or whatever other state of mind—most often comic—seems to suggest contemporary deracination and inertia.

Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Movies and Film © 2001 by Mark Winokur and Bruce Holsinger. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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