Written by Michael Rabiger
How you shoot handheld footage—whether documentary or fiction—can either mesmerize or irritate your audience. For great handheld work, see an episode of Carrier (2008) or any Maysles Brothers film. For work that misses the mark, surf YouTube. Here are some keys to successful work.
Ideally, choose a camera with accessible controls and that is easy to hold for long periods. Even if you’re using a smartphone supplemented with a handle grip, you can share the heart of a family reunion, inject us into a political showdown, or make us guffaw at competing cooks. Using just a wide-angle lens, you can develop skills that immerse us in the psychological center of any human situation.
For a street fair or demonstration, handheld cinematography becomes a creative asset because it complements volatile subject matter. You might have to move close to participants to hear them above from the general din. And as you pan between marching demonstrators, you naturally cover whoever speaks. Yet onscreen, it looks oddly limited. Why?
Imagine instead you’re covering a baseball game. Would you show only the bowler, not the batsman? Of course not. At any time in human interchange, one person acts while the other is acted upon. Usually, they switch roles. Most develop intentions, emotions and pressures under the surface, known to dramatists as ‘subtext’. How to find and capture them? You can begin practice, wherever you happen to be, by noticing in detail how your senses gather evidence. Your hearing seems to take in everything while your sight probes the situation independently, digging into all its nooks and crannies. Moving around with a handheld camera, you aim to gather the myriad impressions we need to interpret these invisible subtexts. By walking the camera closer to the scene axis (the imaginary line between participants) you can relate to the contestants separately or together in a single frame (in a two-shot or over the shoulder shot, say). Seeing them together or apart, we compare their demeanor and intentions.
To avoid unwelcome surprises, you keep scanning the entire viewfinder frame to anticipate how the action may change or to anticipate new events in the background. Then, before you pan to a new image, you glance past your camera to see where you’re going; then you can make a targeted transition. Oops, you misjudged framing? Hold the shot for a few moments, then slowly creep the camera to the preferred framing. Given the redundancies in so much human interchange, you’ll often be able to edit out your bumpier transitions, especially if you remember to shoot some safety coverage of cutaways and reaction shots.
If a secret emerges at a family gathering, whom you show at different moments will be very telling. You can improve how you do this well by silently talking yourself through the process—something done by actors to lock themselves into their character’s present. Only by making yourself fully aware and cognizant can you anticipate what your audience needs, moment to moment. According to the prevailing mood, your camera movement rhythms can be quick or slow but err on the side of minimalism unless the situation demands otherwise. Practice by finding situations to shoot and screening your coverage for critical partners.
By now you can see that cinema became a great force by learning to reproduce the flow of human consciousness. The handheld camera operator, who necessarily combines the roles of cinematographer, director and editor, comes closest to deploying everything that influences a film’s authorial ‘voice’. It’s a rare skill.
Michael Rabiger began in the cutting rooms of England’s Pinewood and Shepperton Studios, became an editor and BBC director of documentaries, and then specialized for many years in the US as a production and aesthetics educator. He has directed or edited more than 35 films, was a founding faculty member and then Chair of the Film/Video Department at Columbia College Chicago, won the International Documentary Association’s Scholarship and Preservation Award, and was also awarded the Genius/Career Achievement Award by the Chicago International Documentary Festival. He is author of the book, “Developing Story Ideas;” and co-authored, “Directing the Documentary,” with Courtney Hermann, and “Film Techniques and Aesthetics,” with Mick Hurbis-Cherrier.