Cinematographers and filmmakers have depended on camera support mechanisms since the beginning of cinema. With tripods, dollies, and cranes, the mechanisms to support a camera have evolved. One method, however, relies on none of these mechanisms and has only grown more relevant with time. The handheld shot. It’s important to understand how filmmakers have utilized the handheld shot to achieve more than just a stylized look, but rather a psychological effect. Before we answer the why and how let’s first address the what. What is handheld camera movement?
Handheld Camera Movement Definition
First, let’s define handheld shot
The handheld shot is notorious for being the overly shaky cam used in modern action films. But filmmakers have utilized it, tweaked it, and innovated the shot in new ways to help them tell their story. From shaky cams, to shoulder mounts and easy rigs, the handheld shot is a type of shooting that does not rely on a fixed camera position.
Handheld shots in movies more recently can be found anywhere from low-budget indie films to big blockbuster movies. Why has the handheld shot grown in mainstream popularity if it has always been available to use? How does a handheld shot affect a story?
Although there may be different variations of the handheld shot, let's begin with a handheld camera shot definition.
HANDHELD CAMERA MOVEMENT DEFINITION
What is a handheld shot?
A handheld shot is a shot taken with the camera being supported only by the operator’s hands and shoulder. Handheld camera work entails camera shake from the operator’s movements. According to the hand held camera definition, the shot relies only on the operator’s body. However, over time as cameras have evolved and grown, operators have utilized a few rigs to achieve the same effects of a handheld shot.
Depending on the camera’s weight and size, operators also utilize minimal rigs such as a shoulder mount or easy-rig to ease the physical burden of an operator as well as give them more control over the amount of camera shake.
Why is a handheld shot used?
- To establish subjectivity
- Heighten intensity or chaos
- Create intimacy between the characters
The First Handheld Camera Movies
The history of the handheld shot
The handheld shot can be found in plenty of mainstream movies today. Early films relied on firm, static shots from cameras mounted to fixed tripods. Many critics and filmmakers have thought of the handheld shot as an artistic venture.
Filmmakers have experimented with handheld shots as early as 1925. It wasn't until the '60s that handheld camera movies entered the mainstream in a significant way.
Experimental filmmaker Jonas Mekas defended the handheld shot as a technique that allowed for greater artistic and financial freedom. Most famously, Jean-Luc Godard, a pioneer of the French New Wave, used the handheld shot at a time when the technique was considered unorthodox.
Godard’s most notable film, and an iconic handheld shot example, is Breathless. Godard’s use of both hand held shots and jump cuts were both a point of criticism and praise. The film would go on to influence an entire generation of filmmakers.
While Godard’s handheld camera work in Breathless holds as a classic handheld shot example within the history of cinema, the technique itself began to truly evolve in the 1980s.
The origins of "shaky cam"
The term “shaky cam” was coined and used more predominantly in films for a more psychological effect. Most famously, director Sam Raimi utilized a camera that was bolted to a piece of lumber in his 1981 horror Evil Dead. The shaky cam rig, as it was called, was held up by two Grips as they ran down a city block.
The result was a shot that complemented the intensity of the scene and influenced future handheld camera movies.
The rig was so effective both creatively and financially that it was adopted by the Coen Brothers in films such as Raising Arizona. This video breaks down the shaky cam from its inception to its influence on more modern Coen brothers films.
Throughout the '80s and '90s, handheld camera movies started to become more apparent in the mainstream. Filmmakers utilized the handheld shot and shaky cam across genres to create more subjective shots or to heighten the intensity of a scene.
Handheld camera movies started to appear throughout the industry. Filmmakers like Woody Allen, Steven Spielberg, and more recently Paul Greengrass have used the handheld shot for its storytelling capabilities.
The handheld shot has become a point of criticism in action films that overuse handheld camera work. Filmmakers still find brilliant ways to utilize the handheld shot by being selective and intentional with their shots. Let’s analyze a few uses of the handheld shot that elevate a scene and some handheld shot examples that demonstrate each.
Handheld Shot Example
Handheld shots heighten intensity
Some action movies are examples of how not to use the handheld shot. Some filmmakers, though, have found opportunities to elevate emotion and intensity. During chaotic scenes of panic, action, or urgency, the camera shake of a handled shot visually adds to the intensity of the moment. One of Spielberg’s best films, Saving Private Ryan, has brilliant uses of this technique.
Spielberg and his cinematographer Janusz Kaminski utilized handheld shots to heighten the intensity and chaos of war.
The handheld camera work was so effective that many historians and veterans of the actual Normandy invasion consider Saving Private Ryan one of the best World War II films of all time for its ability to recreate the insanity. There are countless shots in this opening battle scene that can be seen as the best handheld shot in film history.
The scene would not have been as effective if it been shot on either a static tripod or even a smooth stabilizer. This video dives deeper into the components that made the scene such an accurate portrayal of war.
This opening scene exemplifies the storytelling capabilities of a handheld shot. It's important to understand the emotions of a scene and how the techniques you choose can help elicit those emotions.
While Saving Private Ryan called for emotions of panic and chaos, what are handheld camera movements in less intense scenes? Filmmakers have found that handheld camera work can also be used on the opposite end of the emotional spectrum to establish intimacy.
Effects of Handheld Shot in Film
Handheld shots create intimacy
Intimacy is one of the most valuable tools for a filmmaker to connect the audience to a character and story. They can incorporate it into stories through dialogue, lens choices, and the camera. Tripod’s are often used for static shots with pans and tilts at most. While these shots have their own purpose, they don't mimic how we actually perceive the world. The same goes for stabilizers, Steadicams and gimbals.
This video compares a stabilized shot versus a handheld shot example and how both are the right tool for creating two different emotions.
The handheld shot is a great tool that utilizes small camera shake to create a more natural, almost breathing like movement from the perspective of the camera. Nowadays, operators utilize support systems like shoulder rigs and easy rigs to help carry the weight of cameras while giving them more control over the amount of camera shake.
Handheld shots in movies with less intensity still heighten the intimacy of a shot. A great example of this can be found in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Charlie Kaufman’s best screenplay builds the intimacy and emotion so naturally that director Michel Gondry had to find a way to complement it with the cinematography.
Take a look at how shooting handheld in one of the film’s most memorable scenes lends itself to the intimacy of the moment.
It is hard to imagine this scene completely shot on a tripod or Steadicam. The shake of the handheld shot creates a profound psychological effect that does not distract from the scene, but adds to it. Michel Gondry uses this later in the film in one of the best breakup scenes in all of cinema. And although it is much more subtle, it is still there and still stands as one one of the best uses of a handheld shot in film.
Next time you’re shooting an intimate scene or think your story calls for more empathy from the audience, try finding opportunities for handheld camera movements. They can often be found in regular or extreme close up shots or even insert shots that can make an audience feel an almost physical closeness to a character.
Poor Handheld Shot Example
Criticism of the handheld shot
If you talk to any filmmaker or film critic about the handheld shot, there will inevitably be a point made about its overuse. There are a plethora of examples that support this criticism. Even some of the best action movies are guilty of over using the handheld shot. While this may be true in some instances it is not true in all.
This video from The Closer Look does a great job at explaining the criticism of the handheld camera movements as well as an analysis of a good use of shaky cam.
There is definitely an inappropriate use of a handheld shot that distracts the audience from the story. But there is also an appropriate use of a handheld shot when it contributes to the emotion of a shot. This is important to understand because it will make you more mindful and aware of when to use and not use a handheld shot in film.
If you have a shot or project in mind and are unsure of whether or not to use a handheld shot or stabilized shot, be sure to experiment with it. Ask yourself “What emotions do I want to elicit in the audience? Does the whole scene need to be shot handheld to achieve this? Or just a few shots? If so, which shots?” This mindset will make you a more mindful and intentional filmmaker and ultimately result in better storytelling.
How Steadicam shots work
Now that you’ve learned the importance and utility of a handheld shot in film, you might be wondering about other types of techniques. On the other side of the camera support system spectrum is the Steadicam shot, a completely smooth, but maneuverable shot technique. Read on to learn about the Steadicam shot and expand your filmmaking arsenal.