5 PERFECT CAMERA MOVES
by Andrew Root
Some artists have made their mark simply by expressing themselves differently than their peers. Jackson Pollock springs to mind; he was not the first artist to express the type of energy, passion, and intensity that he did, but no one else had done it in Pollock’s definitive “drip” style.
Hendrix played with his teeth. Ernest Vincent Wright wrote an entire novel without using the letter ‘e.’ Daniel Day Lewis lived in a cave for eight months subsisting on hunted deer, berries, and honey in preparation for voicing a cartoon bear (probably).
Given that motion pictures literally couldn’t exist without them, surprisingly few filmmakers make creative uses of their cameras. When a piece of equipment is bottom-line essential to a creative process, it’s easy to forget that the equipment itself can be used for creative expression.
This article is focused (har!) on perfect uses of the camera. It was difficult to pare the list down to include only creative elements which are purely camera driven. The most prominent feature which continually cropped up was when the camera pans, tilts, or zooms to reveal something which was not in the frame previously. This is called a reveal, and while effective, is more about directorial staging than the camera itself. Edgar Wright’s filmography, for example, contains many excellent examples of the reveal. Robert Altman makes masterful use of long tracking shots, following characters in and out of locales, jumping between conversations and giving an overall picture of a sprawling setting, but this approach is designed to reveal what has been happening off screen. It is a collaborative technique between the director, actors, set designers, and everyone else on location, not purely a camera move. See George Clooney’s Confessions of a Dangerous Mind for many excellent tracking shots and other assorted in-camera tricks. M. Night Shaymalan, for all his deriders, is masterful at framing his shots, while Sofia Coppola and the Coen Brothers have their actors move subtly within carefully constructed settings—but again, these shots are examples of directorial skill.
What I was interested in were instances in which the camera itself reveals the emotional subtext of a scene without help from the actor, director, or soundtrack. Here are five instances of superbly executed creative uses of the motion picture camera…
1) The Graduate (1967) – dir. Mike Nichols, DOP. Robert Surtees (nominated for an Oscar for this film)
Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman) has been seduced by Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft) and is now—somewhat impossibly—carrying on a relationship with both the older woman and her daughter, Elaine (Katherine Ross). The affair must out, and Mrs. Robinson threatens to expose her relationship with Benjamin in order to stop him from seeing her daughter (JER-RY! JER-RY! JER-RY!). Benjamin races to Elaine, hoping to tell her the whole truth—he had previously hinted at an affair with an unnamed older woman—before she hears the news in what is conceivably the worst way possible. As he is about to reveal the torrid truth, Mrs. Robinson appears in the ajar door behind Elaine. Benjamin spots her, and Elaine turns, seeing her mother who promptly flees in despair. When Elaine turns back to Benjamin, the scene slowly pulls into focus succulently mirroring Elaine’s dawning realization that her boyfriend is balling her mother. The timing is exquisite, and requires nothing from Ross to sublimely reveal her inner thoughts.
Watch the scene here.
2) Vertigo (1953) – dir. Alfred Hitchcock, DOP. Robert Burks
Hitchcock once said that his camera was “absolute.” The man knew how to manipulate his equipment in order to produce harrowing effects, wringing anxious excitement out of every scene. James Stewart’s John “Scottie” Ferguson is a private detective who suffers from acrophobia, so it’s inconvenient when the anxiety-riddled Madeleine Elster (Kim Novak) rushes up a tall bell tower in a fit of disquiet. As Scottie does his best to climb the wooden stairs, he can’t help but look down. The staircase expands and contracts, the floor rising up and falling away simultaneously, subjecting the viewer to the same dizzying fear of heights that Scottie can’t control. Hitchcock achieves this effect by facing the camera directly downwards in the centre of the stairwell, then zooming in while the camera moves backwards, effectively fluctuating every fixed point, shredding perspective and creating an acrophobic nightmare. It’s possible that the infamous zoom-in/track-out bell tower is the first cinematographic technique that is more identifiable than the actual condition it is trying to emulate.
Watch the scene here.
3) The Shining (1980) – dir. Stanley Kubrick, DOP. John Alcott
It’s a bold move to disorient your audience in the opening seconds of your film, but Kubrick is nothing if not a bold filmmaker. As the film begins to unspool, a small, lonely island moves towards the camera on a pristine mountain lake. Immediately (and I mean immediately) after the viewer takes in the setting, the camera tilts sickeningly which - somehow – allows every aspect of the scenery to move in a different direction. Is the lake rising upwards? Is the island sinking? Are the mountains rushing towards you unnaturally quickly? Yes. All three. The camera – mounted on a helicopter – moving along the surface of the lake coupled with the very specific rotation exemplifies the elegant, psychologically subversive modus operandi of this most famous of horror films. What is right in front of your eyes will turn on you, much sooner than you are comfortable with.
Watch the scene here.
4) Serenity (2005) – dir. Joss Whedon, DOP. Jack N. Green
In X-Men: First Class, by putting his first two fingers to his temple and cocking an eyebrow, James McAvoy succeeded in making telepathy kind of boring. It was an effect that was added in post; intense music, a sound effect or two, and a slow zoom all gave the effect that McAvoy’s Professor X was looking directly into your mind’s eye. The filmmakers required the audience to buy in to the effect, or all was lost. In a different sci-fi film, the much simpler cinematic device of rotating the camera along a silky movement path communicates the same telepathic effect without all the post-production effort. In Joss Whedon’sSerenity, Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) and his crew are robbing a vault, but the vault is locked up tight. Enter their secret weapon, stepping nimbly over hostages on her delicate dancer’s feet; Summer Glau’s River Tam scans the room, hearing snatches of nervous conversation from the frightened crowd until the camera pans, rotates and floats over the room, coming to rest on the man who has the codes (and a gun). The deft camera rotation momentarily upsets the equilibrium of the viewer, but adroitly informs the audience of what it must feel like to have your consciousness drift out of your body and wander fluidly around the room.
Watch the scene here.
5) Punch Drunk Love (2002) – dir. Paul Thomas Anderson, DOP Robert Elswit
Barry Egan is an awkward guy. Director Paul Thomas Anderson puts actor Adam Sandler into some very uncomfortable situations, then zooms in slowly, teasing out the pathologically gauche nature of the central character. Getting up close and personal (and staying there) is a technique which puts the viewer inside the character’s head, whether we want to be there or not. When Barry calls a phone sex line, he paces around his apartment, the camera following intently as he feverishly tries to avoid his own personality. He gives a false name, and is reticent to reveal anything personal about himself to the operator. When the girl on the other end finally backs him into a corner, Barry lies (poorly) about having a girlfriend who is out of town. At the exact moment that he fabricates an absentee companion, the camera lurches to the left before settling back into the strained conversation. Apparently, the camera move was accidental at first (the result of the steady cam knocking into a table), but Anderson loved the effect so much that he kept it in the film, and rightly so. It perfectly captures the character’s aching earnestness. He is ill at ease with his natural personality, but he is clumsy and maladroit when he has to lie about himself. The reeling of the camera is the tightening of Barry’s chest, the falling sensation in his stomach, and the fresh beads of sweat on his forehead.
Watch the scene here (camera move at 8:45)
*For more images of directors using their cameras, I highly recommend checking out Directors Behind Cameras.
Andrew Root is a Senior Editor at Bright Wall/Dark Room.
Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz (1978)
THIS FILM SHOULD BE PLAYED LOUD
by Elisabeth Geier
It starts quiet, with Martin Scorsese’s introduction to San Francisco, a brief journey through the streets surrounding the Winterland Ballroom, where on Thanksgiving Day 1977, The Band played their “final” performance. Various incarnations of The Band recorded and toured through the 1990’s, but this was the last time all five original members would play together, joined by a roster of superstar guests. This was the big show, and the movie became a big deal, but watching it thirty-some years after the action, it’s most interesting as a commentary-free observation of a group of guys going their separate ways, still united by rock ‘n’ roll. It all starts with the journey to the venue, a director-driven ride around the corner. We see members of the audience, briefly. We see the venue sign with its burnt-out bulbs. We go inside and meet The Band.
"You’re still there, huh?"
The first song we hear is the encore — the end is the beginning is the end. “We’re gonna do one last song, that’s it,” says Robbie Robertson. He seems indifferent to the audience, a little annoyed that they’ve stuck around so long. Scorsese doesn’t care about them, either; if not for the establishing crowd shot and some background cheers and applause, we might think they didn’t exist. In a way, Scorsese is the only audience for the show. When Robertson asked him to shoot the Band’s “final” concert, he was just a fan, and it’s evident in how the show is shot: tight close-ups of the performance, deep in the action, with no regard for the ballroom full of ticket holders. This is how every fan wants to feel at a great show: like they are the ones enjoying it the most, like the music is happening especially for them. There’s no room for the thrill of the crowd in Scorsese’s vision of The Band. There’s only room for being caught up and carried somewhere by a song.
"You know what happens when you have too much fun."
One fun game to play during a viewing of The Last Waltz is, What Drug(s) Is the Current Speaker On? The answer is probably cocaine. Another fun game to play during a viewing of The Last Waltz is, Which Song Is Going to Make You Cry? The answer is probably Neil Young’s “Helpless,” particularly when a clear soprano comes in on the chorus you’re not sure who it is until you see Joni Mitchell in silhouette, harmonizing from backstage. Neil Young knows a thing or two about cocaine; Scorsese famously edited a visible rock out of his nostril, but if you look hard enough, you can tell it’s there. Party like a rock star. Party like a film director, too; Scorsese was partaking in the same substances as the band throughout filming, and beyond. A couple years after The Last Waltz, he made Raging Bull, and Robert DeNiro helped him kick the habit. According to most accounts of the time, Marty was in a bad way when his favorite band asked him to film their final show. Still, Scorcese points to The Last Waltz as the most fun he ever had making a film, and we believe him, because of how lovingly he frames the songs.
"It’s not like it used to be."
The Last Waltz is a farewell to an era, as much as a band, and that finality casts a wake-like pallor on the proceedings. We know what happened to these people after the cameras went away. We know that Richard Manuel, strung out and rambling onscreen, went on to commit suicide at 46. We know that Danko died of a heart attack while on tour with a reconfigured Band. We know that Levon Helm hates this movie, didn’t want it made, and doesn’t care for its legacy. We know that Marty and Robbie are still good friends, Robbie is still contributing to Martin Scorsese Films, and The Last Waltz captures their nascent partnership in a way that sometimes seems to cast aside the rest of The Band. This is all on Wikipedia, but before you find it there, you will see it in the film, in how people talk at and past each other, how everyone looks just a little (or a lot) burnt out.
None of these tensions are directly addressed; Scorcese rightly focuses on the songs. It’s easy to get caught up in a particular look between Robertson and Danko, a particular strain in Levon Helm’s voice, the particular way Bob Dylan’s enormous hat and bad attitude commandeer the stage. But then a sweet guitar solo lifts us out of the intrigue, and we’re left with only that sound and the players on stage, where Scorsese holds us to remind us what really matters.
"We wanted it to be more than a concert. We wanted it to be a celebration."
Watching the personalities on film, it’s sometimes hard to spot the celebration. In one of several awkward interviews, The Band recalls their “glory days” of meeting women on the road, shoplifting for meals, playing their first show in New York City (“New York was an adult portion,” says Levon Helm), and it’s all tinged with a bit of regret, a bit of what have we done with our lives? But counter the tension, the visible fatigue, with their performances on stage. Counter the questions (and answers) about what happens to these people after the 80’s arrived and America’s musical taste changed, with the way they play it out.
It has to come back to the music. When Garth Hudson sidles in with his saxophone on “It Makes No Difference.” When Van Morrison yelps turn on that radio! and we get caught up in the swell of the crowd. When Levon gets to yodelin’ at the end of “Up on Cripple Creek,” and Robbie and Rick just grin. These are the moments where it doesn’t matter what went on before and after the The Last Waltz, where viewing feels like dancing and Scorsese’s fandom shines a light on the rest of us and brings us right in to the songs. And what songs they are. What a band. What a show.
Elisabeth Geier is a writer living in Montana. She thinks Rick Danko is the dreamiest, but Levon Helm is the overall best.