Has the use of the handheld camera lost its meaning?

            I think it has.  Instead of being reserved as a Sunday punch – for moments that contrast with the established visual structure – it seems to have become an all-purpose go-to for filmmakers who don’t understand its aesthetic.

            Most productions today display a number of out-of-context shaky-cam sequences, often recording two people sitting opposite from or next to each other.  Granted, there are instances in which this choice is appropriate, but its constant repetition in uncalled for situations has drained its meaning.  In the majority of cases, handheld now comes across as lazy, false or desperate.  I often find myself thinking, “Is that the only thing they could think of to jazz up a poorly written scene?”  By calling attention to itself in such a way, the cure ironically feeds the disease.  Even if the audience is not conscious of it, on some level they can’t help but become aware of the device – and in that moment are taken out of the story.

            Despite popular opinion, handheld camera does not speed up production (anymore than the use of Steadicam does), nor does it automatically add energy to a scene or impart a “you are there” feeling of intimacy or immediacy.  Without a solid visual foundation – and a surrounding narrative that supports it – it’s just another tool that can be too easily misused.

            So, in the interest of bringing some intelligence back to motion pictures, I’d suggest that everyone give it a rest for awhile.  In time, it’s possible that the technique  will experience a re-set.  Then, what we now see as shallow and overused might just become new again.


7 thoughts on “HOLD THIS…”

  1. So true, Richard. You certainly hit a nerve with this post. As a Steadicam Operator, my aesthetics are slanted towards purposeful, clearly stated composition and movement. I am truly offended by the misuse of handheld technique. There was a time, probably in the early 90’s, that handheld use began to surge, and that was when productions, both East and West coast, got together to ‘stamp out’ the high cost of Steadicam Operators by overnight (certainly not collusion) beginning a booking conversation with “we have a Steadicam sequence and this is what we are paying” rather than asking for the operator’s rate. A new common policy was implemented that called for productions to hire an operator only if they had their own Steadicam. I stopped working for many months, as many operators across the country dutifully bought an affordable rig and took a several day workshop. It became clear soon enough that the old adage of requiring 10 years and/or 10,000 hours to become expert in a given skill was applicable. After disappointing results, DPs and Directors began asking for handheld instead of the unsettling results of badly operated Steadicam. I began to get calls to ‘reshoot’ Steadicam sequences and my career began again. Unfortunately, the handheld style became established and accepted as a standard technique, even as it obscured the acting, dialogue, action and storytelling. I agree that it is now most often used to disguise problems with the above, although in rare cases it does serve as a powerful tool – if used appropriately. My aesthetic has steadily evolved and I try to serve as a witness for the audience to what is happening in a scene: I try to show a scene as skillfully, and usually unobtrusively as possible. I try to build in the audience a desire to see something, and then satisfy that desire by revealing it. My hope is that the audience feels like they are actually participating in the scene, and directing what the camera is showing them. I feel it is a disservice to the audience to cause difficulty in that seeing.

  2. I am in full agreement with the above opinion, the use of HH and constantly point this out to my students but I’m finding strong disagreement from the younger generation of filmmakers. Both directors and cinematographers have different opinions on this issue.

    I think that the generation who have been raised with a phone/camera in their hands are caught up in finding the camera not only as a tool for capturing an image but also a way of personalizing the way of capture, I. E. hand holding. They are misunderstanding and often disregarding that visual storytelling is meant for an audience and not personal satisfaction, but on-wards and upwards we go in keeping the hope that there will be an end to that misunderstanding.

  3. Yes, hand held shots are used when not needed. Same with over use of great equipment to move the camera even when not necessary. I learned the later from Robert Wise on a stage at MGM, I was young and Mr. Wise was so quietly experienced and talented.

  4. I agree! Whenever someone says that we have to visually jazz-up a boring scene, I ask why don’t we rewrite it into an interesting scene? In the same vein as pointless handheld on close-ups is pointless slider moves, back and forth.

  5. I will say, however, that the occasional use of a subtle handheld shot can be evocative — in “Cabaret”, there are a few handheld reaction shots of faces in the crowds, and some moves around the stage seem to be handheld from a dolly. It has the effect of capturing the decadent chaos of the club. And in “Blade Runner”, there is an evocative moment when Rachel enters Deckard’s apartment and asks “You think I’m a Replicant?” in a subtle handheld close-up that adds to the unease of the moment.

  6. David – You make my point precisely! In the right “hands,” handheld can be a very affecting technique. Nowadays, it’s used so recklessly that it rarely conveys any meaning.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *