THINGS I WISH I LEARNED AT FILM SCHOOL: HANDHELD SHOOTING AND SUBJECTIVITY IN FILMMAKING

Before you go out and shoot a film, music video, documentary, or really, any video of any kind, at some point you’ll have to ask yourself how you’ll shoot. You might have predetermined restrictions in time and/or budget, in which case, you might not have the funds to pay for a crew. You might not have the money to rent an Alexa. You might not have the money to rent any peripheral accessories whatsoever. The scale of your project might just be you and a camera.

 

And maybe a tripod.

 

This is the standard set-up for most freelance videographers, and even independent filmmakers. Not everyone can shell out $5k+ for a gimbal. If you can, then godspeed to you.

For the sake of this piece, regardless of your actual situation, we’re going to assume you just have the basic set-up. Which means that when you shoot, you’ll have the choice of either shooting handheld, or using a tripod.

But just because you might have one, you should still ask yourself:

Why am I using a tripod?

 

If you’re recording a live 2+ hour conference from a single point of view, then pragmatism suggests that you’ll probably be using a tripod. Unless you have incredible quads and disciplined control over your bladder.

If you’re moving locations frequently, or even trying to catch moments as they happen, you might be slowed down by having to set up and pack down the tripod each time you want to get a shot. They’re also heavy.

These are situations that might affect your decision from a practical perspective. If you don’t tire easily, and maybe you have a car, then sure, there’s nothing wrong with just bringing a tripod with you – just in case.

 

But again — if before you go out and shoot, you take the time and think about how you’re going to shoot, how you want the finished product to look and feel, then you might decide that you don’t need to bring the tripod with you on your shoot, or on any other shoot, ever again.

It’s all a matter of style.

 

Before you go shoot, you’ve most likely watched some references – either given to you by a client, or things you’ve just stumbled upon on YouTube or Vimeo. If you decide that you see something you like, and you want to reproduce the aesthetic of the video, then by all means, nothing is stopping you.

But if you want to develop as a visual storyteller, it’s important to know fundamentally what it means to shoot handheld, or on a tripod, as a form of visual language, and how these visual decisions affect the audience watching it.

Firstly, I just want to establish that I’m not talking about the differences between frantic POV handheld camerawork, and a camera that’s completely locked off. Visually, the contrast is obvious. What I want to discuss is the more subtle differences between the two modes of camera operating. In your shot you might just want to slowly pan from a subject’s face, to what they’re looking at. You can do this both with a tripod, and also handheld – so what’s the difference other than the time it takes to set up the shot?

 

It comes down to objectivity and subjectivity.

 

The following is a quote from Polish director of photography, Slawomir Idziak – long-time collaborator with director Krzysztof Kieslowski (Three Colours: Blue, The Double Life of Veronique) and also DP of such films as Black Hawk Down and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix – talking about why he prefers to shoot handheld versus using a Steadicam (I wrote a post about him a few years ago with the same quotes):

 

“It’s something to do with a certain sense of rhythm, you adapt easily to the actors’ rhythm. The Steadicam dampens the rhythm between the actor walking and the cinematographer walking. So I am trying a different technique, I am trying to adapt my way of working to the actors. I am breathing with them, I am walking the same steps and in my opinion you are getting the identical effect, and much faster because you don’t need all the preparation, or a special operator.”

The key line here is Idziak saying that he is “breathing with them”. When you operate camera handheld, the camera is subject to the same small movements, ticks and faults that you are. If you hiccup, so does the camera. If something unexpected happens behind you and you pivot around, so does the camera. The camera becomes an extension of your body. Filmmakers with documentary backgrounds like the Maysles, the Dardennes and Kieslowski all utilise handheld camerawork because of the immediacy and the intimacy that handheld camerawork invokes when executed properly. It puts the audience in the shoes of the cameraman, experiencing things first hand as they happen. The question of where the cameraman is, is another thing entirely (we’ll talk about focal lengths in another post).

On the other hand, the function of the tripod is to strip away the human aspect from the camera. The camera becomes an omniscient spectator on the action in front of the lens, like an audience watching a play. Good composition is rewarded with a static camera: each shot is more akin to a moving painting (Movie trivia: Martin Scorsese used to be a painter before he became a filmmaker. He still views his films as moving paintings – this is why his opening credits say “A Picture by Martin Scorsese”). An objective camera emphasizes the image itself – the mise-en-scène – and opens the gate for a more expressive style of filmmaking. It’s another ballgame entirely when you add dollies and cranes – but you don’t need to be Tarantino or Wes Anderson to elicit emotions from your audience. A slow pan from one hand to another can convey all the emotion in the world. So in essence, you’re removing the immediacy, and replacing it with expression.

 

It’s important to note that this isn’t an argument about realism or formalism, or which is better. There’s no reason why you can’t use both static and handheld camerawork in the same film/video if it makes sense to you. Stories are about emotions, and camera movement is simply a tool among many to service the story you’re telling and the emotions you’re trying to communicate. If you know the story you’re telling, you should be able to identify how it will look, sound and feel from the ground up.

 

One more quote from Slawomir Idziak:

If the visual side of a film is not conceived before shooting, then it will never come into being.

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HELL OR HIGH WATER

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Directed by David Mackenzie

Set in the endlessly cinematic backdrop of West Texas, Hell or High Water is classic, bareknuckle filmmaking helmed by director David Mackenzie (Starred Up) and writer Taylor Sheridan (Sicario). It almost seems like the Western genre would find a difficult fit in contemporary times, but the economically-stunted locations (the film was shot in New Mexico) serve as fitting scenery for two brothers forced to push back against the banks that are bleeding both their family and their community dry. Ben Foster – arguably one of the best character actors working today – continues to chew the scenery like nothing else, as the loose-cannon brother who lives for the thrill. If that sounds like an archetype, it definitely is, but the film doesn’t seem to care to shy away from it. You also have the soulful, pragmatic brother played by Chris Pine, and the rugged deputy ranger on his last case before retirement, played by Jeff Bridges. Lo and behold, things turn out probably how you expect them to. But Hell or High Water sticks to its guns, and by taking time to shine a light on the forgotten citizens and communities of West Texas, the film transcends cliche to provide a far more authentic experience. The cops-and-robbers genre still has juice left in it.

B+

THE LOOK OF SILENCE

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Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer

The companion piece to Joshua Oppenheimer’s last documentary The Act of Killing, Silence is yet another piece of brave, harrowing filmmaking that not only manages to be engaging, but ultimately finds itself in the elusive category of being a real document of human history. It’s a difficult film to stomach, but necessary viewing to perhaps understand the world a bit more, to see the effects of fear, hate, authority and rejection of responsibility that led to a genocide of more than a million civilians in Indonesia. No one sees themselves as an evil person, as the film argues, but anyone can assert that same evil onto their neighbours. Can we forgive those that have committed atrocities, that have murdered, and tortured, under the pretence that they were simply following orders, not knowing any better? Can we forgive ourselves for continuing our lives, not doing anything about it? Can we really resolve ourselves of guilt, and if so, at what cost? This is not simply a film about evil, but a film about being human. It’s a part of all of us, and it’s only up to us to be able to open our eyes and face up to our actions past, present and future.

A+

 

MISSISSIPPI GRIND

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Directed by Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck

Mississippi Grind is like drinking a bottle of bourbon: it’s warm, familiar, and you know you’re gonna have a pretty good time until you’re about two-thirds of the way through. But you’re gonna still drink it all the way, aren’t you? Because hey, life’s short, and by the end of it, you’ll most likely know more about yourself, and what you’re capable of. You’ll face your demons, and maybe you’ll call an ex-girlfriend. Maybe your parents. Reality can hard to face, but maybe it’s for the best if you’re happy to just sit there and drink a bottle of bourbon, right? But maybe you don’t need to change, or even want to. Maybe you are the bottle of bourbon. Drink up.

B+

JOY

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Directed by David O’Russell

It’s no secret that Jennifer Lawrence and David O’Russell are made for each other. Without batting an eyelid, Lawrence can transform effortlessly from comedy to drama, a method O’Russell’s films always seem to prescribe to. Joy is certainly no exception to the rule, and yet, upon viewing the film there were some discernible differences to his previous films that made it feel like a David O’Russell film, but perhaps without the best parts. Most notably, this is his first film in a while that rests it’s weight predominately on the shoulders of it’s protagonist, rather than an ensemble cast. It also spans over more than two decades, rather than anchoring itself around a single moment or period of time.

It’s a relatively biographical story about Joy Mangano, a woman who exceeded against all odds, which were mostly in the shape of other people. So much of the film’s running time is Joy being constantly put down, slandered, ignored and disrespected from almost all angles. While this may be true to life, and raises the stakes of her journey, I couldn’t help but feel like it created such a black-and-white tone for the whole film, where we could only sympathise with the one character, because the rest were made out to be so awful, bordering on cartoonish. I’m not saying Joy is a bad film by any means – the performances are spot on and it looks stunning the whole way through, but it felt like we were treated to what felt like half of what a David O’Russell film can be: a sweeping, musical world of complex, deeply funny and unpredictable characters that feels more true to life than this biographical film ever did.

B+

TANGERINE

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Directed by Sean Baker

What could I possibly say about Tangerine that hasn’t already been mentioned? The little engine that could, Tangerine fires on all cylinders from the get go, with an infectious energy that practically bursts off the screen. Indie filmmakers everywhere surely must have let out a collective sigh of relief, knowing that a feature film produced for $100,000 and shot entirely on iPhones could still make it’s way around the world. But the magic of the film doesn’t bank on it’s use of technology – as it shouldn’t – but on the esoteric nature of it’s characters, story, and style. Clocking in at a brisk 88-minute running time, Tangerine somehow balances moments of complete hysteria and comedy with moments of pain and vulnerability, crafted by incredible performances and fully-realised, complex characters. This is one of the most authentic portrayals of Los Angeles I’ve ever seen. This film is Los Angeles.

A-

CREED

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Directed by Ryan Coogler

Just two years ago, Ryan Coogler made his feature film debut with Fruitvale Station, which had, as I wrote about in 2013, “naturalistic and compelling dialogue, [with] warm, complex characters. The fact that this is a directorial debut absolutely astounds me. Ryan Coogler and Michael B. Jordan are destined for greatness.” Cut to the present, and Coogler and Jordan are back, guns blazing. When I see the work they do, I’m so thrilled by the fact that there continues to be young, fresh filmmakers that set the bar exceedingly high with each film they put out. The writing, direction and performances are just so beautiful, that I can’t help but feel like Creed has become my favourite Rocky film by far. It manages to do what all of the previous films in the series seemed to struggle with: it makes you truly care about the characters.

Coogler brings real warmth and sensitivity into the story, bringing Sylvester Stallone back from the dead, and basically reminding us that we still have actual affection for the underdog story. This film is a hundred-percent determination, and it never lets up. Shot beautifully by Maryse Alberti (The Wrestler), Creed feels so incredibly human the whole way through: a sense of pain and longing, but with a pace that that keeps you glued to the screen. Easily the most emotional I’ve been in a cinema, since seeing the Amy Winehouse documentary. Ryan Coogler is set to next direct the Black Panther film for Marvel, confirming that he’s certainly not the underdog anymore.

A+

THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY – PART 2

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Directed by Francis Lawrence

I had a quick trace back through previous journals to see what I rated the other three entries of the Hunger Games series, to see how they stacked up against each other. I rated Catching Fire, the second film in the series the highest, at a B+. I liked that they raised the stakes of the first film, and made the original story expand into greater territory, much like the Harry Potter series would go on to do. Suddenly, the decision was made to split the last book, Mockingjay, into two separate parts. Harry Potter did it, and did it rather well. But that’s Harry Potter, which probably unto forever, will be heralded as a cultural treasure.

Where else has the novel-to-two-film formula really paid off? We have to try and forget the three films in the The Hobbit trilogy, and people might have already forgotten which part of Breaking Dawn they hated more. With respect to The Hunger Games, they committed one-hundred percent to maintaining the look of the dystopian world of Panem, and as far as I remember, the story does find endings for all of it’s characters. But if we are to look at the series as a sum of it’s parts, I can’t help but feel so disappointed by what was meant to be the climax of the series, after having such a strong start.

Now, I don’t mean that in a way to suggest that I had an issue with the ending itself, but Mockingjay Part 2 just didn’t actually feel like The Hunger Games. It felt like a slasher film, and treated the characters like a slasher film would. The film moved in a way to conveniently push the plot forward, with things never resolving out of character action or logic, but through absolute arbitrary coincidence. I felt like you could put any of the first three quarters of the film into any order, and it wouldn’t make any difference. There was never consequence, or momentum – just a character or two getting picked off during a CGI-heavy set piece. I understand if the underlying message of the films is to say how pointless and cyclical war is, but you can still do that without making the actual films themselves just as pointless to watch.

To this day, I haven’t ready any of The Hunger Games novels, but I’ve been told some adjustments to the story have been made to the film adaptations, which doesn’t surprise me, but makes me want to know what they are, because I have to believe that it’s better than what ended up in this film. This is the most I’ve written about any of the films this year, and it’s unfortunate that most of it’s negative, but it’s not meant to be scathing, but just an expression of my own frustration because I know that Hollywood can do better than this. I had high hopes, which sadly crumbled before my eyes, with this disjointed, messy film. Ah well – at least we still have Harry Potter.

D

MISTRESS AMERICA

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Directed by Noah Baumbach

With two films released in the same year, Noah Baumbach could be the most productive director working at the moment. Following While We’re Young, Mistress America slots itself effortlessly into Baumbach’s previous explorations of growth and maturation, self-inflicted anxieties and disappointments – continuing his interest in the ongoing “coming-of-age-that-never-ends” that we all experience. Once again, Greta Gerwig injects a shot of puppy-dog adrenaline into her performance, at any time instilling responses of joy, loathing and sympathy. Noted as a screwball comedy by many reviewers – a genre that was at it’s height during the 1930’s and 40’s – Mistress America does feel like a throwback to the storytelling of early Hollywood, with farcical situations and rapid-fire dialogue that people should be able to enjoy once they let go of the idea that Mistress America is trying to present reality. It becomes clear that Mistress America is but an acknowledgement of cinema, a representation of reality that audiences can let go and lose themselves in the story and the characters, before the river runs dry and we finally do have to grow up.

B+

THE LOBSTER

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Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos

Within the first five minutes of seeing The Lobster, it becomes abundantly clear that it’s a film like no other. It occupies so many genres, whether it be comedy, drama, sci-fi, fantasy, satire – all situated in a dystopian near-future world much like our own, that almost forces us to laugh, if at least, to tell ourselves that these situations couldn’t possibly happen to us. But depending on who you are, you can either cackle obliviously along to the absurdity of the characters and plot, or you can stare in horror as you see what the filmmakers are trying to show us through these exaggerations: the truth about our world, our society, and the terror of isolation and exclusion that comes with our existence, and need for companionship. This is what director Yorgos Lanthimos has crafted, as his first film about love. Is it optimistic, pessimistic, or absolutely crazy? Probably all of the above. But that’s what makes Lanthimos such a compelling director, and The Lobster such an idiosyncratic film: he applies the theory of film being both a mirror and a magnifying glass, and then absolutely burns the subject into a fiery hell. His films don’t have heroes, they have victims – and isn’t that who we all see ourselves as?

A