Friday, August 30, 2013

Celluloid Soapbox: Am I The Only One?

Celluloid Soapbox is a new feature on SOC.  Normally I keep things pretty positive around here.  Every now and then, however, I need to blow off a little steam.  From now on, any time you see the words "Celluloid Soapbox," you'll know that I'm about to launch into an angry tirade about someone or something that I feel is a blight on horror movies or the horror community.  I warn you Cellmates, it's rant time...

As I read reviews of You’re Next, a movie that I enjoyed, I’m noticing something that, in all honesty, has irked me for a long, long time.  There’s an element in that film which illustrates a trend that I feel is a cancer eating away at the heart of modern filmmaking.  It’s something that has all but ruined the fine art of cinematography and threatens to negate the artistry of fight choreography and visual effects in general.  What bothers me most is that I don’t see anyone else mentioning this blight on modern cinema.  I’ve been accused quite a few times of sounding like a broken record about this subject, but as long as it persists, I’m going to call it out.  I’m speaking, of course, about shaky cam and the silence of my fellow shaky cam haters.

As a FFF, Cloverfield gets a pass.
I do have to qualify my hatred a bit.  While I’m not a big fan of most found footage flicks, that’s not what I’m talking about at all.  You see, when the film is shot from the actual perspective of a character in the story, it makes sense.  Even in a movie that’s not a FFF (found footage flick), if we’re supposed to be seeing the action from a character’s point of view, it makes sense.  When the camera is the omniscient cinema gaze of the audience, which is a pretentious, film school way to say that the camera is outside of the action representing the viewer who sees it all, there is no excuse for it to be bouncing around like Mohammad Ali shot it.

I get the theory behind why people do it.  It’s supposed to make the scene seem frantic and intense by not allowing the viewer to get a good look at what’s going on or take in all of the information on the screen.  You know what else that’s a description of?  Poor framing.  Bad camera work.  Crappy directing.  If your camera tricks basically have the same effect as a good old-fashioned Ric Flair thumb to the eye, maybe you shouldn’t do it.  Actually, the real reason a lot of directors employ this technique is to mask their inability to build tension or properly choreograph an action sequence.  Yeah, you heard me.  Most of you use shaky cam because you suck.  Here’s a rule of thumb; if you take 10 screen shots from any scene, you should be able to tell what’s happening in at least 8 of them.  In You’re Next, there were times when you couldn’t even tell what character you were looking at.  Is that really supposed to add realism?  Sorry, but at the first sign of danger I don’t suddenly turn into an epileptic bobble-head.

For those of you who say that it really does lend energy to a scene, I want you to watch this.  In my mind, this is one of the greatest action sequences ever filmed.  It’s from The Wild Bunch.  Just watch…

What did you see?  Motivated camera movement.  Rapid fire editing with expert timing.  Amazing shots.  A truly adrenaline-pumping action sequence.  You know what you didn’t see?  Shaky cam.  Now explain to me again how you need it to convey the intensity of a scene.  Name ONE action sequence where some inept cameradolt is shakin’ it like a Polaroid picture is as effective as that.  Yeah, that’s hat I thought. Make an actual shotlist, hold the damn camera still, and have a little respect for your craft.

I’m well aware that shaky cam is not a new phenomenon.  Hell, its use was being argued in Cahiers du Cinéma decades before I was even the fetus of Celluloid.  The difference is that back then it was used occasionally.  Now virtually every new film I see employs it to some point.  The vast majority of what I watch is horror, so logically that’s where I ‘m assaulted by it the most. Honestly, what percentage of kill scenes in horror flicks from the last 10 years didn’t have shaky cam?  Ten?  Twenty?  It’s a freakin’ epidemic!  The first time I really noticed it was in 28 Days Later, a film that many consider a modern horror classic.  I can’t stand it.  I remember leaving the theater and saying “why the hell did they spend money on good zombie makeups and not even let us get a good look at them?

Chernobyl Diaries, a definite shaky cam offender.
Shaky cam action/chase/kill sequences aren’t even the biggest offense.  What makes my blood really boil is when nothing is happening and the camera is wobbling.  Even if you subscribe to the argument that shaky cam helps action, what’s the excuse for that?  If two people are having a calm conversation, the camera should not be bobbing and weaving.  That’s just bad camera work.  You used to get  fired if you couldn’t hold the damn camera still. Now it’s a prerequisite.  If you want to shoot hand-held, find someone who can do it well.  Otherwise, bite the bullet and get a tripod.  Don’t tell me it’s a budgetary constraint.  You can get one at Walmart for twenty bucks.

Don’t get me wrong; there are rare occasions when shaky cam can be effective in the hands of a skilled craftsman.  There’s shaky cam in Dr. Strangelove.  It fit the gimmick of Natural Born Killers perfectly.  The Cohen Brothers use it with varying results.  The opening battle scene of Saving Private Ryan is brilliant.  Kinji Fukasaku used it in almost all of his movies, from the underrated Battles Without Honor and Humanity to the landmark Battle Royale.  Then again, shaky cam also caused his prostate cancer.  No, seriously.  It actually says so on his Wikipedia page.  Look it up.  You can always trust Wikipedia, right?  Anyway, the difference is that they used it to flavor already great films/scenes.  Take the Saving Private Ryan scene for example.  The shots themselves, the editing, the sound design, the performances; they were all great without the shaky cam.  It wasn’t the driving idea behind the look or action.  In far too many scenes these days, shaky cam is the only thing it has going for it.  If the camera was still, it would look like shit.  Then again, there are some otherwise great scenes that are ruined by it.  I guess what I’m saying is that it can be good as an occasionally used tool.  The problem is, it’s the only thing in a lot of filmmakers’ toolkit. In cases like Michael Bay, shaky cam is a lame-ass tool weilded by a lame-ass tool.  I couldn’t resist that one.

Maybe I’m just behind the times and just not down with the way movies are made these days.  Am I just an old schooler yelling at those damn kids on my lawn?  I mean, people in the 30’s said James Whale was destroying the art form by moving the camera too much. Today, film buffs, including me, consider him a visionary.  In his heyday, people said Mario Bava’s swooping, flowing, fluid camera work would make people sick.  The maestro’s camera acrobatics are a far cry from the quease inducing extent it’s gone to now.  These days there are filmmakers who build an entire career out of looking like their cameras are mounted on jackhammers.  And NO ONE calls them on it.  That’s how bullshit like Battle Los Angeles happens. 
Side note, I'm not even taking into account all of the issues raised by movie goers who are susceptible to motion sickness.   That's a whole different can of worms.  I'm just arguing for those who, like me, are sickened by crappy craftsmanship on the screen.
So I guess my question is this… am I the only one who loathes third person shaky cam?  I never see it mentioned in reviews, and I can’t help but wonder why.  Do you truly think it’s an effective cinematic technique?  Do you just ignore it?  Have you just accepted that it’s the way things are and there’s no point in bitching about it?  Is there a widespread Parkinson’s outbreak among cameramen and I’m just being an insensitive asshole?  These are not rhetorical questions, Cellmates.  I implore my fellow movie fans to sound off.  I want to know what you think about this.  If you’re sick of it like me, let’s take shaky/wobble cam to task.  Let’s do our best to drive it back to the cinematic hell it came from.  If you’re not, please enlighten me as to the style’s merit.  In the meantime, I’m going to keep the horror world accountable.  Edmund Burke once said “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”  Shaky cam is a true evil (and not in a good way) threatening the artistic medium I love.  As long as hack filmmakers use it to hide laziness and good filmmakers kowtow to the trend, I’m going to do the only thing I can… continue to be the lone voice crying out in the wilderness.


Karl Kaefer said...

Well done sir, well done!!

Karl Kaefer said...

Well done sir, well done!

Cash Wampum said...

This has come up a few times in our discussions. To be honest the first time it really bothered me was Transformers. The opening base attack with the helicopter was beautiful and powerful. It allowed wide angle depth shots where all the action was in the frame and it kept the shaky shit to a minimum. Zero nausea and total entertainment. I thought at that point we were going to get a great film and then the shake-a-cam got way out of hand. State of the art CGI action wasted with a camera that's A) Too close to the action and B) shaking like a mother fucker. Truly upsetting. Ever since then I've noticed the problem grow. I'm certain it was an issue before 2007 but I've never watched Transformers 2 or 3 because reports of that horrible shooting continued and I'm not buying it. Dare I say this new technique is yet another ploy to get more young, low-attention-span ticket buyers in the theatres? Movies are made for acute ADHD anymore. Shit, Why dance around it? It's Generation Fail's fault. You know what I'm talking I'M pissed off!!

Kerra4 said...

I have written extensively about this subject. The shakey cam is a blight on filmmaking. Its use demonstrates nothing less than a director's fear that he can't get his point across. Look to my blog at to see that you are not alone in the dislike of shakey cam from hell.

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