Most cinematographers develop a distinctive style of shooting that becomes their signature on a movie. Just by looking at how the shot is framed, how the camera is behaving or how the scene is lit can tell you exactly who shot it. Because a lot of shooters find a particular method or technique that speaks to them. Since I first picked up a camera and started shooting zombie horror and fantasy action films with my friends almost a decade ago, in my mind it was always meant to be moving. So if you've seen any of the videos that I've shot you'll know that I favour taking the camera off of the sticks (that means tripod).
Growing up watching Robert Rodriguez and other action movies, I saw how much moving the camera with the actors can do for the story. In a high-energy chase it can make you feel like you're running right with the hero. As one character encounters his lover whom he discovers has been disloyal to him, the intense emotion can be emphasized by the shakiness of the camera itself as the rocky relationship is torn apart. In a surreal dream sequence, having the camera seem to float and glide through the air helps lend the scene an out-of-body feeling.
Nowadays camera movement is often associated with low-budget, guerilla-style filmmaking since a decent tripod is not something a lot of shooters can afford (upwards of $500-$1,000 for a professional-grade video tripod). But it's also used very effectively in some noteworthy Hollywood films:
- Emmanuel Lubezki, who often shoots for Alfonso Cuarón, has become notorious for his use of camera movement during long shots in films like Ali, Children of Men and Gravity
- Eric Alan Edwards made the breakthrough film Kids look as gritty and realistic as possible by filming it the way you would expect a documentary to appear, with lots of shaky movement and long-zoom shots as though we were viewing it from a distance
- In 2011's The Adjustment Bureau, a star-crossed couple discovers that an uber-secret organization of men exist that keep the world in balance according to the plan of a higher power. This group seeks to keep the couple apart at all costs in their mission to maintain worldwide order. Early on in the movie the camera's movement is very smooth and stable. John Toll (Director of Photography) utilizes long dolly and trucking shots to reflect the Bureau's omnipresent control over humanity. As the story progresses and our two heroes rebel against the Bureau and their enforced control, the camera's movement becomes shakier and more irratic as the system becomes imbalanced by their actions.
While I will always see the value and beauty in well-composed, static shots (to this day I still find the work of Tonino Delli Colli breathtaking in the opera western classics The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and Once Upon a Time in the West) my preference remains to let the camera off the leash (i.e. the tripod) and let it flow with the action; let it move with the emotional swings of the scene just as the music often does. I'll even defend the supposedly nausea-inducing camera work in modern fight scenes.