Unshackled Camerawork

Just made up that term. Wonder if it will stick.

As a 30 year career cameraman, I thought I’d share a few thoughts on camerawork for the one-man-band videographers and small video production companies out there.

It’s a many-faceted subject, but like any subject, it has fundamental rules. And while this isn’t meant to be a dissertation on the rules, I thought I mention one that probably isn’t written anywhere anyway as a foundation for my comments, and that is: the purpose of camerawork is to forward the message of the script or production (and that goes for every other department–sets, props, costumes, make-up, lighting, sound, music, editing, etc.).

The corollary might be: The purpose of camerawork isn’t to call attention to the camera or cameraman.

That said, there are probably few camera support systems I haven’t extensively used in both film and video production–from geared heads, the most expensive fluid heads and tripods, dollies, cranes, camera cars and steadicam. But I used them toward contributing to the overall message of the scene.

In the mid-90s I changed over to video, traveling the world in small teams of 2 or 3, self included, with an 18 pound Sony Betacam. The work was fast and often “ninja style”. Little preps, lots of thinking on one’s feet.  My biggest impediment annoyance? Tripods.

So early on I ditched that $7,000 carbon fiber tripod with the Sachler head for everything except sit-down interviews and I learned to do everything hand-held. Not “shakey-cam”, just a nice, steady hand-held. I’d prop that big Sony on my foot, on the ground, on a ledge, on my knee, hip or shoulder, lean against a pole or fence or building or sit it on a small bean bag I carried and shot stuff that few ever realized was hand-held.

But the main point was, I was able to shoot un-impeded. I didn’t miss those fleeting shots on location because I was setting up a tripod and introverted into my equipment.

Then came the digital revolution.

And now most of the cameras we used have built-in stabilization and most of the editing programs we use have camera stabilizer programs to boot.

Better still, the cameras themselves are light-weight with rotatable flip-out monitor screens. What more can you ask for?!

Ok, so now let’s re-visit that fundamental above about the purpose of camerawork.

Camerawork (or lighting or editing or any of those other departments mentioned) is good when it involves the audience in the story; when it helps to impart mood or emotion or direct attention.

And, (corollary), these things are bad when they call attention to themselves, or worse when they call attention to the operator showing off his technical prowess.

In fact my view regarding camerawork had always been that it’s best when it’s “invisible”–when it seamlessly becomes the eye of the audience.

That doesn’t necessarily mean perfect camerawork. It just means appropriate to and not distracting from the message.

It’s quite alright if someone after the show remarks that the cinematography was excellent, but by that they generally mean that everything contributed to the message or story and they were wowed by it all, not distracted or knocked out of the show by it.

Don’t be fooled into the notion that to appear “professional” you’ve got to have all these cool rigs and techniques. You don’t even need it to impart a “cinematic” look.

Think about all the lost opportunities to catch snippets of life and reaction at a wedding or great B roll of people working at their jobs in the office or on an industrial site while you were busy setting up that fancy shot. Instead keep your attention outward. Be invisible. Catch the stuff that only happens when no one thinks you’re watching.

Get your technical expertise up as high as you can get it without losing site of why you’re there.

I’m not saying get rid of all your cool stuff and I’m not saying don’t buy it. Just don’t get the notion that you need it to be professional. Far more important is obtaining total command over your camera so that it becomes an extension of your eye which is always outward looking, and then with it you capture what you came for better than your client ever expected.

Message is senior to technical rendition. In fact it trumps it.

If you capture something in a way that screams the message or mood or emotion, it will resonate with the audience even if faulty.  They didn’t come there to watch and critique your camerawork or technique (unless that’s what your video message is about!).

My two cents.

UPDATE:  While this was the subject of my last post, it occurred to me that it’s, at least, a current sample of an 11 minute video that’s entirely hand-held except for the sit-down interview (as all my videos are , to be honest). I link to it here as, unlike most of the corporate and wedding videos I do, I think it would be of interest to anyone. It’s a mini-doc on the making of a bronze statue by my wife, international sculptor Laury Dizengremel:

7 responses

  1. I have always wondered how sculptors did what they do. I came here wanting to learn from an expert, especially in relation to the Sony HXR-NX30, what an unexpected suprise that I learned something unexpected, something i have many times wondered about. So, learned from 2 experts :). Thank you Joe, much appreciated.

    Coenrad
    Cape Town, South Africa

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    • Thank you. Please note that Ken Jones memorial video was not shot with the NX30. (I wish I had it then!) The degrading image quality of my old Canon XHA1 was the primary reason I looked for and found the NX30.

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  2. A dear friend, a cameraman for 30+ years who like you has filmed and recorded with everything in the world at one time, or another, recommended the NX30 as a replacement for my PD150 miniDV camcorder because I want to offer my programs in HD. A search led me to your site and your two-part dissection of its benefits. I also poked around other topics of your site (to my great pleasure, thank you). Anyway, regarding the NX30; obviously, your handheld Steadicam-look reflects your wealth of experience and fortunately, I only occasionally need a few seconds of this kind of thing. It certainly seems like the NX30 will make it easier for a duffer like me to achieve better results, thanks for taking time to share your thoughts, well done. However, while I was marveling at your skill, the one thing I wished for was b-roll of your technique because it would have helped me glean further insight from you. Consider this a future subject, please.

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    • Don’t worry. Even I would never use anything more than a few seconds. I explained that in a later post (Sony HXR NX-30 Image Stabilization in Perspective). You’ll be quite happy with the NX 30 or NX 70. One of the subscribers to this blog just bought the NX70 and his sample footage (all hand-held) was impressive indeed.
      Your timing is perfect John. I was just wondering what I should write about next, and while I did cover a lot of it in Unshackled Camerawork, there is one little piece of magic I didn’t mention. It’s one of those things you don’t think about and I have a feeling a lot of professional cameramen work the same way without ever having thought about articulating it.
      I’ll give it a shot later tonight.

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  3. Thanks for your thoughts on camera work, the are really helpful. And many thanks for the video on Ken Jones. It did just what it should do: make me say: wow, what a great sculpture and what a work. And secondly: ”let’s please make beautiful things in this world”. There is a great need for that.

    Wim,
    the Netherlands

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