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Saturday, July 9, 2016

Steadicam

LOIS: Peter, there’s a hooker on the bed!
PETER: Stay perfectly still, Lois. Their vision is based on movement.
(silent pause)
HOOKER: Where’d ya go?

Recently I was over at Red’s blog and watched a video he had posted from Audrey Knight. While the content of the video felt more ‘real’ than most contrived spanking scenes, the editing of the piece made me nuts. It made me think of how often lately I have turned off a movie in the first five minutes based solely on how shaky the filming was, or how frenetic the cuts were. In an effort to be ‘real’ (or slick) these film-makers have created a nauseating world where nothing resembles the way I see the world around me.

If you are jogging to catch a bus, jostling your body with each stride, why doesn’t the world appear like a bad cell-phone video? It’s a bit complicated, but basically our brains are ‘wired’ in such a way so that the cerebral cortex enables sight neurons to anticipate eye movement and smooth out the transition from one image to the next. It’s a cerebral ‘steady-cam’ we own from birth.

In 1975, a cameraman named Garrett Brown invented the cinematic steadicam. Prior to Brown’s invention, movie-makers used camera dollies to allow for cameras to be rolled about fluidly, creating an even transition from location to location. Before that studios strove to hire individuals particularly talented in holding cameras steady. However, even armed with dollies and steadicams, certain directors began to experiment with the hand-held ‘shaky-cam’ technique to achieve intended results as early as the 1960s. Some very fine movies have incorporated jittery imagery to useful effect. But……………………….fast-forward to 2016 and it has gotten ridiculous.

Certain movies and shows have become unwatchable due to unrealistic camera shaking and even stranger and more disjointed cuts. The ‘cut’ is a somewhat unnatural experience to begin with. The closest thing to a natural cut would be when we happen to blink as we look from person to person in a conversation. But that’s very different from a complete change of perspective or even an entire scene change. Those cuts are cinematic devices, and as quick-learning, movie-loving creatures, we have learned to accept and appreciate all sorts of cuts through hours of watching things on a screen. Still, there are good cuts and bad cuts. ( remember that awkward “this is what happens” scene in Jaws?)


Most people can spot a bad cut as expertly as any movie critic. The perspectives just change in a way that don’t work or feel right. Do it too often and some folks even feel nauseous.

The idea of using film to represent the world we know in the way we experience it is as old as the camera itself. Breaking those visual rules for special effects, however, is just as old. There are always those who strive to duplicate life as exactly as possible and those who want to see how far they can use a particular medium to explore all of its surreal possibilities. Art does things like that. But I’ve always been a big believer in the old “just because you CAN do something, doesn’t mean you should” school of thinking. Using a technique with purpose can be genius. People who just use slick techniques willy-nilly are like those neighbors who keep adding more gnomes and pinwheels to their gardens even after every open spot has been filled.

With the advent of widely-available computer editing programs, most anyone can employ special cuts, changing perspectives, bouncy images, studio-slick fades, and much more……and it is like putting sophisticated Special Forces-grade weaponry in the hands of any teenager with a laptop. They may not be killing people, but they are recklessly murdering art.

The problem I have is not so much with the use of shaky filming or weird cuts for specific reasons. I’m not a purist. But watch a show now and see how a simple scene of two people calmly talking is filmed. The camera moves about side-to-side and back and forth even when focused on the one actor. Why? When I am listening to a conversation, that’s not how I see the speakers. My eye may shift from one to the other, but unless I develop Parkinson’s, my perception of the speaker I am looking at is pretty steady. (Thank you, cerebral cortex.) If you want to use shaky-cam for an action scene, I may still not like it, but I can at least understand the rationale. What is the possible reason for all that wandering during calm discussion? Is the director trying to visually compensate for mediocre dialog?

Given the popularity of this offensive style, I have come up with a theory for why this trend…..which makes people of my generation seasick, is so popular. I’ve already mentioned that in the past, the majority of film-makers employed techniques to render a cinematic experience as close to real life as possible. When ‘surreal’ effects were used, they were an intentional departure to illustrate a dream, a hallucination, an altered experience, or the world of the supernatural. Within these contexts, it all made sense. But since the camera was also used very early on to record news, raw footage of war, disaster, and the human condition as it unfolded necessitated forgoing the niceties of studio-smooth filming to tell a story. The information imparted in a documentary outweighed the need for a steady image. People forgave the shakiness in light of the conditions being filmed. 

Over time the shaky camera in the midst of action became synonymous with the news story or documentary. If, as a film-maker, you wished to convey this same feeling you had a new option for filming. But later shaky-cam techniques were used to show scenes from another perspective humans were rapidly becoming more familiar with: the home video. (Blair Witch anyone?)

Now the personal video and screen media are so rampant that many people spend more time watching a screen than seeing the world as it is, sometimes even while driving. (I remember having to record every recital and graduation for a posterity no one really wants to see and in the process ‘missed’ experiencing these things first-hand. Given the chance to do it all again, I would not. If someone else wants to experience everything through a lens, let them. I would rather have real memories than a video sitting on a shelf.)

‘Screen imagery’  is the new normal way to experience the world. (selfies, YouTube, Instagram, etc.) I went with some family to see the circus a few years ago. From my seat I could look down and easily see all of the lit-up cell screens in the laps of kids for whom three simultaneous presentations of acrobatic entertainment simply wasn’t enough. These weren’t kids trapped in some boring lecture or family function. This was a fucking circus! A THREE-RING CIRCUS! I see this often. Kids just don’t see the world around them anymore….only the screen in front of them. Drive them 1000 times to a local store or school and many would still not be able to find their way home. The colors and textures of nature or even of the man-made world can’t compete with a three inch screen. That’s beyond sad.

In the “Matrix” Neo risked everything to overthrow a world of illusion in favor of reality and yet, from what I see, entire new generations seem eager for the opposite. Given the chance to sit back and experience life from a chair, I believe the cellphone&video-dependent kids of today would gladly volunteer to be plugged-in. They would probably tar and feather Neo as some heretical troglodyte (virtually. Not one of them is going to actually get up and locate the tar or feathers for real).


So, what we have now are a whole lot of people whose visual life experience is more media-driven than natural. And to hold their interest, directors need to dangle things and shake them. Like the T-rex in “Jurassic Park”……their vision…….and attention spans, are dependent upon motion. And yet, they think of people my age as the dinosaurs of the world.



6 comments:

  1. There was a police (?) program in the 90's where the cameras jiggled and swung wantonly (giggles) from place to place. I didn't make it past the first 10 minutes,.

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    Replies
    1. "swung wantonly"? Hell, it must have been a full-time job just to keep cleaning the broth and scallions off the lenses!

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    2. I'll have you know that I am currently in hotel room with Shilo and laughing my ass off at your comment. I'm going back to my vacation now!

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    3. OK, at least I have the pleasure of knowing I can comically intrude on your most private moments no matter where you happen to be.

      Seriously though, enjoy your vacation.

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    4. We did! And I'm sitting much more comfortably now, thank you.
      I see that you mentioned "Blair Witch Project." My girlfriend and another couple we were with saw that in the theatre and almost, but not quite, got up and walked out.
      "Cloverfield" ... I enjoyed, by myself, in the theater.

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    5. I thought the rationale of the 'found video' worked fairly well in Cloverfield, but there were a few moments where I was thinking 'enough already!' (even an effective and justifiable technique can be overdone.)

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