While our last blog post discussed how camera angles are employed in cinema to bring about emotion, this post will extend our analysis of camera techniques to include movements.
Camera movements are just as important agents of emotion as angles are, and while it may seem obvious, movements differ from angles in that they are specific to film alone. Camera movements are a key artistic element that sets cinema apart from its static counterpart– photography. They work in tandem with the movements on-screen to give the film a life of its own.
It has been said that “motion creates emotion,” and while this was originally coined in the context of lifestyle choices, this phrase is as true to film as it is in everyday life.
Let’s take a look at the most common camera movements used in cinema that function to bring attention to, amplify, and engender viewer emotion.
Static shot.As we did with camera angles, we’ll start off with the most basic type of shot: the static shot. Static shots are primarily achieved by using a tripod or a dolly that remains stationary during the entirety of the shot. It may seem counterintuitive, but sometimes a lack of moment can be just as powerful as movement itself– it’s all about knowing when is the best time to use each technique. A static shot effectively draws attention to the movements already present on the screen and is best used when the action (or lack of action) on screen is all that is needed to tell the story. Without a moving camera as a distraction, static shots can intensify the emotions that the audience is already experiencing, drawing the audience deeper into the film’s narrative. Static shots are useful tools in any genre but are especially common in comedies, as the actors and their performance typically supersede any camera techniques. Camera movements would be an unneeded distraction to the humor on-screen.
Zoom shot.Zoom shots are achieved with the help of a zoom lens, something that effectively alters the framing of the shot by adjusting the focal length of the lens. The camera itself typically stays stationary in a zoom shot, and it is only the lens that is “moving.” Similar to if you were looking through a pair of binoculars or are zooming into a photo on your iPhone, the perspective of the shot doesn’t change– what’s in focus in simply being magnified. This effect can result in either a zoom out or a zoom in, and the speed of the zoom can widely vary. Depending on how they are employed, zoom shots can generate a variety of emotions. A slow zoom into a character can draw the audience into this character’s emotions, giving them a closer look into their current feelings by isolating their expression from the surrounding environment. Zooming into a character can also make this person appear more foreboding, powerful, and “larger than life.” In another context, zooming into a character can make the audience empathize with a feeling of being trapped or claustrophobic as if their surroundings are closing in around them along with the compressed lens. A zoom out, on the other hand, can present the scale of the environment in relation to a particular character, making this character appear small or insignificant. A quick, sped-up zoom, otherwise known as a “snap zoom,” is typically employed for comedic or dramatic effect, intensifying feelings of shock or surprise.
Dolly shot.From the outset, a simple in and out dolly shot may seem like a very similar artistic technique to the zoom shot, but the main difference lies in the mechanisms of how they are created. In a dolly shot, the whole camera physically moves forward and backward through space, while the camera remains stationary in a zoom shot. The camera itself thus “zooms” in a dolly shot in the same way that the lens zooms in a zoom shot. This is achieved by mounting a camera on a dolly, a type of wheeled cart or track that creates smooth, horizontal camera movements. In contrast to a zoom shot, the world surrounding the subject moves along with the camera when using a dolly. This can give the impression that the viewer is walking closer to the subject, developing a feeling of intimacy between the two. It functions to pull the audience closer into the dialogue or action taking place and can give the viewer greater insight into the character’s current emotional state, making the audience more empathetic to the character’s condition. Dolly shots are wonderful tools to help reveal major plot points as well. It’s important to note, though, that the term dolly shot is a very broad, overarching label that can technically encompass any type of shot that employs the use of a dolly. While we primarily focused on the “dolly in” and “dolly out” shot, the term dolly shot includes but is not limited to other uses of the dolly, such as a 360-degree dolly shot, dolly zoom or vertigo shot, and tracking shot.
Pan and tilt shots.Pan shots occur when the camera swivels side-to-side on a flat, horizontal axis, while tilt shots occur when the camera swivels up-and-down on a vertical plane. These types of shots are both very common techniques and can be achieved with the use of a tripod. The camera itself remains in a stationary position in both of these shots– much like if you remained standing in a single spot but swiveled your head from side-to-side to get a better view of your surroundings. Pan and tilts are typically employed to reveal a particular aspect of a scene that the filmmaker wants the audience to pay attention to. These techniques tend to build anticipation, leaving the viewer asking, “What’s going to happen next?” Just as is the case with any type of shot, the speed of pan and tilts shots has a strong influence on how the audience is feeling. A quick pan or tilt, otherwise known as a “whip pan or whip tilt,” can convey feelings of urgency, shock, or excitement. A slow and steady pan or tilt, on the other hand, can convey feelings of relief or foreboding dread, entirely depending on the context of the film. Like tracking shots, pan shots are also often used as a means of following characters as they move about in a scene. This effect can make the audience feel as if they are a more integral part of the action or dialogue taking place on-screen. If there is plenty of foreground between the camera and the central characters, it can also make the viewer feel as if they are an eavesdropper or a “fly on the wall.”
Tracking and crane shots.Tracking and crane shots, like the traditional dolly shot, require physically moving the camera through space. In doing so, tracking, crane, and dolly shots all allow the filmmaker to maintain the same frame size throughout the scene. Tracking shots typically involve moving the camera side-to-side as they closely follow or “track” the movements of a character, while crane shots involve moving the camera up-and-down. Tracking shots are normally employed to follow a specific action, making the viewers feel as if they themselves are components of the scene, active participants in the narrative. Crane shots, on the other hand, allow the audience to better understand the scale of a setting in relation to particular characters. For example, if the camera starts out trained on one specific character and is then craned upwards to reveal more and more of a scene, the shock, horror, or grandeur of the scene– whatever it may be– is magnified as the camera ascends. A camera being craned downwards from the same scene would have the opposite effect. By gradually reducing the scale of the viewer’s perspective to focus on a single character or characters, the viewer’s focus changes from being trained on the collective to the individual. Our emotions and empathy respond to this perspective change.
There’s so much room for creativity within the world of camera movements beyond that which is presented in this blog post.
Renowned directors like Stanley Kubrick, Spike Lee, Quentin Tarantino, and Wes Anderson have produced their own unique and recognizable takes based upon these fundamental shots. Dolly, tracking, crane, pan, and tilt shots can and have been all used together within a single shot. And all of these shots can be achieved using a variety of equipment, from gimbals and Steadicams and drones to professional dollies and sliders to cranes and jibs.
With each choice that is made in the production process, a slightly different visual outcome and a slightly different emotion are constructed.
So next time you find yourself crying, laughing, doubting, or cringing while watching a film, you’ll know how to connect your emotion back to the motionthat engendered it.