The Modern Moving Camera

One of the classic examples of great motion picture photography is Orson Welles’s breathtaking tracking shot at the opening of his film, Touch of Evil. The camera, mounted on a Chapman crane, begins on a close-up of a ticking time bomb and ends a tense three-plus minutes later with a blinding explosion.

During this scene, Welles uses the slowly moving camera — along with a tense, pulsing musical score — to create anxiety, build suspense and cause us to live out every second on the bomb's ticker. The camera travels at a high angle, then descends and rises again, each time revealing characters and a town street about to be shaken by the explosion.

This legendary shot by Orson Welles has much to teach today's videomakers. It offers a clear example of how the moving camera, when properly motivated and precisely controlled, can be a key to unique and compelling video images.

How many times today do we see the work of videographers whose idea of camera movement is to repeatedly zoom “in” and “out” on their subject from a stationary tripod? Though this kind of camera work may be essential in certain uncontrolled news situations, it has become the sign of an amateur at work on more sophisticated productions.

Travel Jib

Travel Jib

Of course, we have come a long way in camera support from the making of Touch of Evil. Today’s cameras and support accessories are smaller, lighter and much cheaper, while allowing the creation of more powerful shots.

Still, a zoom lens — with its continuously variable focal lengths — cannot make a successful moving shot. By simply zooming in and out from a stationary position, the camera operator is changing the angle of view of a scene without changing perspective. This is why the resulting images often seem dull and two-dimensional.

The perspective of a scene can be altered only by physically moving the camera. Through camera movement, the videographer can make three-dimensional images and create dynamic, high-impact television programming.

Horizontal to/from camera movement is called tracking and is usually executed with a movable dolly. Vertical — up and down movements — are called booming or craning and are traditionally made using a crane or jib. Dollys, cranes, jibs and zoom lenses can be used in combination with each other to create a vast range of moving shots.

Camera Slider Dolly

Camera Slider Dolly

Dollys range in size from massive, steerable, motor-driven units to small, inexpensive, suitcase-sized portables designed for field video production. The camera operator sits or stands on the dolly as it tracks across a smooth surface or on pre-laid railroad-style tracks.

On low budget productions, any smooth-running wheeled device can serve as a camera dolly. Many successful dolly shoots — with the help of image stabilization — have been made from wheelchairs, children's' strollers, shopping carts, toy wagons and bicycles.

The main obstacle with any tracking shot is to keep the camera smooth. Professionally-designed gear and even low cost gimbals make it easier to achieve steady shots. With enough time, however, tracking shots can be perfected with the crudest equipment.

Tracking shots can be used with both stationary and moving objects. Since perspective changes with the movement of the camera, slowly tracking the camera around a stationary object allows the audience to discover, explore and get a “feel” for the mass, texture, form and other characteristics of the object. Moving subjects can also be tracked with the camera, keeping the distance between subjects and camera the same.

Ronald Neame teaching students how to move a camera

Ronald Neame teaching students how to move a camera

Zooms can be combined with tracking shots. “All the zoom does is to magnify the scene. It looks very mechanical to zoom by itself,” the late British cameraman director Ronald Neame told his directing students in a workshop. “You should never use the zoom lens unless you incorporate it with a tracking camera. I very seldom use a camera that doesn't move in some way.”

Neame cited a situation where an extreme close-up was required of the subject but there was not enough time to fully track from a full length shot into the close-up. “In this case, I zoom at the same time as tracking. That covers up the zoom. The mechanical effect is disguised,” Neame explained.

The crane — or a smaller jib arm — is used to move a camera up or down for panoramic elevated shots. Most also allow sideways motion as well. Small cranes are often found in television production facilities where additional height is needed over standard studio pedestals.

Larger hydraulic cranes are frequently used for high shots during video coverage of outdoor events. A new generation of small, portable jibs, which offer the capability of crane shots with a single operator, are now available for video production in the field.

Dolly

Dolly

For low budget videographers, make-shift cranes are easily devised. Escalators, elevators, forklifts and “cherry-picker” arms can be put to work to move the camera.

For those wanting to revisit childhood, a wooden “see-saw” with a plank and saw horse can even be used as a suitable crane. Just have the camera operator lie on one end of the board with the camera and have an assistant counter his or her weight on the other end of the board. As the weight is shifted, the camera can be raised or lowered.

Shots made from cranes often result in dramatic, sweeping images which elicit specific audience responses. It is especially important for the videographer to use crane shots with reason and motivation.

Garrett Brown training the author on the Steadicam

Garrett Brown training the author on the Steadicam

Perhaps the best new invention for video camera movement is the gimbal. When I trained with Steadicam inventor Garrett Brown on his Academy Award winning invention in the early 1980s, we carried cameras weighing as much as many small people. Though Steadicams are still used, much of that kind of movement has been reduced to a small, foldable gimbal.

Regardless of your budget, it is now easier than ever to keep the video camera in motion. It is essential to achieving a professional production. 

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