Five Categories of Camera Movement: Human Support, Wheeled Vehicles, Levers, Wires and Aircraft by George Avgerakis

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Reference: StudentFilmmakers Magazine, April 2007. Five Categories of Camera Movement: Human Support, Wheeled Vehicles, Levers, Wires and Aircraft by George Avgerakis. Pages 16, 18 – 19.

One of the most effective means of enhancing a film production’s professionalism and production value is camera movement. Camera movement can be broken down into several categories based on the method of movement. Here, we will focus on: human support, wheeled vehicles, levers, wires and aircraft.

Human camera movement depends on the musculature of the human body, as the camera is supported by an operator, usually on the shoulder, and moved through the scene. The late Ed Emshwiller held the record in this category having shouldered a blimped Mitchel BNC, through much of Hallelujah the Hills (1963, Adolfas Mekas, Director). (Early film cameras were not soundproofed, and the Mitchell required a large, plastic cover, or “blimp,” to muffle its sound.) This method is often referred to as “hand-held” and is often used to imitate a character’s point-of-view (POV) because it is extremely difficult to hold any camera steady enough to avoid some degree of unintentional wobble.

Hand-held camera technique has had many eras of popularity since the invention of film, most recently in television crime dramas, where the wobbling and quick panning between subjects is intensified to add dramatic intent.
One form of human camera movement yields incredibly smooth movement. The Steadicam (invented by Garrett Brown, now off patent, and being imitated by a wide range of manufacturers) uses an array of weights, levers and springs, all attached to a form-fitting, molded plastic “body armor” worn by the cameraperson. If well-trained, the camera operator can smoothly guide the camera from the ground to about 9 feet high, even while running! The availability of this invention made it one of the most demanded tools in Hollywood. In its first year, 1976, it was employed on Marathon Man (John Schlesinger, Director), Rocky (John G. Avildsen, Director) and Bound for Glory (Hal Ashby, Director). Most people, however, remember it most from The Shining (1980, Stanley Kubrick, Director) when it was used to capture the POV of the boy, Danny Torrance, as he pedaled his trike through the hallways of a haunted hotel, and for Jack Nicholson’s chase scene in the maze.

Wheeled vehicle camera movement depends on the smoothness of the floor and the wheel mechanism. A dolly is the most common mechanism, upon which a camera tripod, or short hydraulic boom, is mounted. Dollies come in a wide range of sizes, from simple frames that clamp on the feet of a tripod, to “door dollies” that are designed to roll through a standard 32-inch doorway, on up to large dollies that require two operators to move.

Dollies generally employ two types of wheels to achieve smooth movement. Pneumatic rubber wheels require a smooth floor, most favorably troweled concrete, to achieve a smooth shot. Tracked dollies use smaller, neoprene wheels that fit snugly into customized tracks that can be assembled on nearly any flat surface. Tracks are usually metal tubes, supported, like ladders, by horizontal cross supports. Straight and curved track elements are assembled to create a kind of railroad, over which, the dolly is pulled. Tracked dollies provide the smoothest shot, but delivering, assembling and striking the tracks add considerably to the on-set labor cost of such dollies.

Levers used to move a camera are called jibs, booms and cranes. The trick of levers is that the weight of the camera at one end of the lever is balanced by a similar weight on the other side of the lever. Once the camera is balanced, it takes very little effort to move it, and the movement is incredibly smooth. Jibs, the smallest, can mount on a heavy duty tripod. They are handy for moving a camera through a small space, such as a kitchen dining scene or a hot romantic scene on a bed or couch. Jibs usually allow the camera operator to guide the camera with deft finger touches, while swiveling it on its “y” axis to keep the subject in frame. While jibs are often rented, they are inexpensive enough to be purchased by many craftspeople and often provide a means of “sweetening” a freelance job offering.

Booms are long enough to require some form of remote control for the camera. The remote control, usually mounted at the weighted end of the boom, includes a means to rotate and tilt the camera, and to zoom and focus the lens. Obviously, all this remote operation requires a monitor, mounted where the operator can see it. Operation of a boom is usually complicated and requires a trained specialist. Expect to pay several hundred dollars per day for a boom and operator, and don’t forget the time and expense required to deliver, set-up and strike this large piece of hardware.

Cranes are really large booms, and some can go several stories up into the air. Great, sweeping shots can be achieved with cranes, sometimes starting with an intimate close-up before pulling back and way up into the sky to create a stunning dramatic effect. Again, cranes are highly specialized equipment that are usually rented, along with a seasoned operator and can cost thousands per day.

Directors of Photography are usually the individuals who demand a boom or crane on film projects. Los Angeles-based Director of Photography, Edward Pei (Streets of Laredo, 1995; Steven King’s The Stand, 1994), is known for his sweeping crane shots.

“I think crane shots have to do two things. First, they should do more than simply go up and down or right and left. They should be used to follow a character or action,” says Pei, working on the set of the recently released thriller, Primeval (2007). “Second, they should convey some aspect of the storyline.”

When pressed for an example, Pei noted two: “In The Ten Commandments [2006] I started one crane shot of an extreme close up of Moses weeping. You didn’t know what he was crying about until the crane pulls up, revealing hundreds of Moses’ dead people around him.”

Most of Primeval’s action occurs in, on and under water. “Most of the time we were shooting from a barge in the river,” Pei reveals. “So it was really practical to mount a crane on the barge. This allowed us to position the camera anywhere above the water’s surface with very little additional work. So one important advantage of a crane is that it can get your camera into places that would be difficult or impossible any other way.”

Wired camera supports, such as the Skycam (also invented by Garrett Brown), are primarily used in large venues like football games and rock concerts. These rigs support the camera from four cables, anchored at opposite corners of a stadium. Each cable is wound around a motorized drum that is controlled by a central computer. As one servo-drum pays out cable, the opposite drum takes it up, keeping the camera at a controlled altitude above the action, while moving the camera in any direction. The Superbowl and most NFL games feature a wired camera flying over the field as running and passing plays are executed; and to date, the camera and its wires have always been able to adroitly avoid becoming an obstruction. The results of wired camera supports are spectacular. They take the audience to new perspectives. Soaring like a hawk over scenes that could only be imagined prior to the invention of this tool.

Aircraft camera movement is almost exclusively the domain of rotary aircraft – helicopters. While one can certainly mount (or hand hold) a motion picture camera in a fixed wing aircraft, the results are never satisfactory because too much vibration and too little motion prevail. There are two ways to mount a camera in a helicopter. The traditional way is to use a small boom mechanism that hangs the camera out of the side door of the helicopter, while the operator (well anchored to the floor!) sits on the edge of the open door with his feet resting on the landing skids. The more modern way is to employ a remote camera, mounted in a rotating ball beneath the helicopter (usually just under the nose) and operated remotely from a completely enclosed position within the aircraft. This method uses sophisticated vibration dampening mounts and special lenses to provide incredibly stable shots from as high as several thousand feet above the action.

My personal preference is to hang out of the door, simply because it is such a thrilling way to see the world! On one occasion, however, the boom and its operator seat were not so well secured and our cameraman was shouting in a rather energetic fashion as we started climbing into the sky!

Helicopter shots are the most expensive forms of camera movement, since they require an expensive aircraft (well over $250 per hour, including the time to get to the location and return to the home airport), a well-trained pilot, an operator, and of course, the camera and rig. If you’re using a rental rig, you also have to account for the time to deliver, mount, test, strike and return the rental equipment. Remote controlled helicopter cameras are nearly always permanently mounted in the helicopter and are usually included in the aircraft’s hourly rate.

One last comment on camera movement. Over-enthusiastic, novice scriptwriters (I know – I was one!) often incorporate detailed camera movements in their directorial notes. Unless they are absolutely essential to understanding the action of a scene, camera movements are a sign of an amateur scriptwriter. Most frequently, the decision to move a camera is determined by the Director in concert with his/her DP, and often moderated by the Producer and his/her representative, the Production Manager, who keep control of the budget.

Frequently, in post-production screenplays (the kind you get from the library, that are written AFTER the film is edited), the terms for camera movement will be employed. Until that time, however, they are rarely written, but frequently spoken. These terms, for those who wish to use them on the set include the following.

• Pan: A horizontal camera move on an axis, from right to left or left to right.

• Tilt: A vertical camera move on an axis, up or down.

• Track (in TV, “Truck”): Moving the camera left and right or forward and back on a dolly.

• Dolly: Any movement executed on a wheeled mechanism, such as “Dolly in to a close-up.”

• Ped: A term common in TV studio scripts, and based on the capability of a studio camera to rise straight up and down on a pedestal mount, as in “PED UP.”

• Boom Up, Down, In, etc.: Describes a motion using a jib or boom, such as, “BOOM UP AND OUT from ECU to a wide sky shot.”

Always remember, the most common way to position a camera is at eye level, looking straight ahead. Anything else, demands your imagination. The more imagination you apply to a camera’s position, the more you are going to require some mechanism to put the camera where and when you want it. Now, go out there and think of something that has not been done before! Just imagine.

George Avgerakis is VP Creative Director of Avekta Productions in Yonkers, New York, an e-media production company that produces video, CD-DVD, web content and print in English and all foreign languages. George’s email is [email protected]