Description image

A Masterclass in Handheld Camera Operating from 'Place Beyond The Pines' DP Sean Bobbitt

sean bobbittThese days, there aren’t many DPs doing more inspired work than Sean Bobbitt. From his absolutely stunning collaborations with British artist Steve McQueen (of which 12 Years A Slave is the most recent), to his work with masterful filmmakers like Derek Cianfrance and Neil Jordan, Bobbitt has defined one of the most unique and compelling cinematic voices in recent memory. At last month’s Cameraimage festival in Poland, Bobbitt conducted a truly excellent hour and a half workshop about handheld camera operating. For camera operators and DPs alike, this is a must-see workshop. Check it out:

What I absolutely love about this workshop is that Bobbitt talks not only about handheld technique, but also the reasons and narrative motivations for shooting handheld. In a generation where pretty much everyone has access to a camera of some sort, the handheld aesthetic has become wildly overused and oftentimes misused, simply because it’s considered quicker and more efficient than shooting on sticks or a dolly. In regards to how handheld should be used, Bobbitt had this to say:

The first and most important consideration should be, “Does it help to tell the story?” Operating should never draw attention to itself. It should always be about the character and the performance.

One of the most powerful things that an extended handheld shot can do is to grip an audience and hold an audience and pull them into the action, and to actually magnify the emotional content of the scene. Because it’s one shot and because there’s no edit, at no point are you subconsciously reminded that you’re watching a film. So you’re not given an escape, you have to watch it or you have to turn away. This is a tremendously effective way to portray violence on-screen.

Here’s the opening shot from The Place Beyond the Pines (or at least part of the shot), which gives you a brief idea of Bobbitt’s handheld sensibility:

Something else that Bobbitt talks about at length, something which isn’t often mentioned in handheld conversations, is just how physical shooting handheld is. He spends upwards of 20 minutes talking about the tremendous physical stresses on the body that come from shooting handheld, and more importantly, how to avoid, or at least temper, these stresses.

He recommends all of these basics like lumbar support belts and gloves (for preventing blisters and maintaining a firm grip), but also developing an in-depth stretching routine prior to shooting that focuses on your shoulders, neck, back, and knees.

What do you guys think of Bobbitt’s handheld philosophy? When do you like to use a handheld camera, and when do you avoid it, and why? What do you do in order to reduce the physical stress of shooting handheld? Let us know in the comments!

Link: ARRIChannel — YouTube


We’re all here for the same reason: to better ourselves as writers, directors, cinematographers, producers, photographers... whatever our creative pursuit. Criticism is valuable as long as it is constructive, but personal attacks are grounds for deletion; you don't have to agree with us to learn something. We’re all here to help each other, so thank you for adding to the conversation!

Description image 36 COMMENTS

  • This was excellent, thank you.

    Does anybody have an “in depth” stretching routine that they’d be willing to share? I was never really a stretcher, but would love to start and hear what works for other people.

    Thank you.

    • I can’t say I have an experience in the matter, but I would assume you want to stretch areas of heavy use – arms, legs, maybe torso and neck?

    • Check on youtube, there’s hundreds. Don’t search for especifics like stretching for camera operators, instead search for the parts you need to stretch. It’s not difficult at all.

    • I shoot pretty much only handheld doc and have to keep in shape. Try a one hour a day power yoga DVD
      I use this one:

      … or class and if you can take up boxing and light weights a few times a week. It really helps. I have done 14 hr days were your back goes into cramp at 1am and you literally cannot hold the camera for longer than a minute before crying.

    • Pilates also works the spine and the core pretty well. The basic routine is quite easy and effective (a bunch of videos available, this one is pretty good:

    • I have tons of experience with this. Do this when you wake up and before you go to sleep. Every day. In three weeks your entire life will be different. I literally cannot stress this enough. You’ll be a different person:

  • More recent sports research suggests you should do dynamic stretching before exercise (warm up) and static stretching afterwards while your muscles are still warm (has something to do with static stretching temporarily reducing muscle strength).

    • This is fairly old proven research, really, but you’re right. Bruce Lee was the person who helped popularize it in the 60′s/70′s and today along with strength and conditioning coaches helping educate the higher profile athletes, it’s becoming more common knowledge too thankfully.

  • Thank you so much for posting this. I was supposed to be there and I was curious what exactly have I missed.

  • Raoul Coutard on 12.14.13 @ 5:28PM

    That looks like Steadicam footage rather than handheld to me. A big distinction.

    • In the “Pines” shot? if you watch closely you’ll see the horizon lines bob with each step and the vertical lines of poles and building edges sway side to side. It’s well done handheld, but clearly handheld- not steady. Steady cam flies & glides, this has bumps and jostles. It doesn’t look like DSLR handheld because it’s not jittery and light, so maybe that’s what you’re reacting to.

  • pure gold, thanks!

  • This was a joy to watch! Learned so much or at least got reminded about things that I’ve forgotten. It’s really important to take care of your body in this line of work, even more if you’re in post-production. Get a good chair to keep your back straight, joints in 90 degrees and screens high up enough to keep your neck upright. And get a threadmill if your not an outdoor person.

  • Stu Mannion on 12.15.13 @ 1:27AM

    Fantastic. Love this guy’s work.

  • Great video and well worth watching, now only if my DSLR could weigh a little more and be less awkward to operate.I mean the Alexa looks like it works great for handheld stuff when operating on the shoulder but are there any budget cameras that can do that. I’d rather see ergonomics in the next generation of cameras rather than 4k and raw.

  • I just shot 2 gigs on consecutive nights on a BMCC handheld.

    Didn’t think it would be a problem, but my back was killing me a day later.

    Any camera can catch you out!

  • Roberto Baum on 12.15.13 @ 10:18AM

    Does anyone know the brand of the gloves that Bobbitt was wearing?

  • AMAZING MASTERCLASS !!! Thanks so much for posting it!

  • Derek Cianfrance talked about the Motorcycle dome where Sean wanted a shot from inside and everyone refused. He insisted and they let him have his way, the cycles started and Derek said everything was looking great on the monitor until the next thing was just static. After the commotion cleared and Sean got back up, he wanted to retake the scene again, but everyone refused.

  • This chap might be a brilliant cameraman, but I wouldn’t take his advice on biomechanics! As he self-deprecatingly notes, he isn’t an athlete.

    More than likely wearing supports will actually weaken your joints, because they relieve the muscles of the job they should be doing. The result is that these muscles get weaker, making it more injury more, not less, likely.

    Much wiser to get in shape (lose weight!) and develop stronger muscles that will do the job they were “designed” to do: keeping your joints aligned. Ask a physio.

    Also, stretching is not in itself warming up. Warm up first – jog, stride, skip, swing your arms – then stretch. Otherwise, again, you might do more harm than good.

    And we thought this was a filmmaking blog!

    • What about exercising and building strength though training, and then still using the braces and supports just during the job? Do you think that would still be bad for your alignment and joints; is your point more in the sense that one shouldn’t rely solely on the supports in place of proper fitness and exercise, or that they should never use them?

      • Maybe a bit of both might be right. I’m one of those idiots who enjoy running barefoot, so take my admonitions about natural being best with a pinch of salt!

    • Erik Stenbakken on 12.19.13 @ 9:58PM

      What Graham is saying is pretty much how my trainer makes me do a workout (at least the warm up parts!). I would add that they have *banned* the use of lumbar belts at their gym. Their reasoning is that they do indeed act as an active crutch, allowing muscles that should be working to slack off, and making muscles that should learn to share the load not work as they should. Something of that nature. Short of it is, warm up, get in shape, stretch, and ***use proper biomechanical technique!*** Not sure how to do that? Meet up with a friend who is a physical therapist of similar and ask them how to stand, bend, lift– or hold a camera. Doing it right mechanically can be a back-saver, quite literally.

  • As a relatively inexperienced director, I found this fascinating, especially the last 15 minutes when he breaks down a scene from a shooting perspective. This helped me better understand what I might be asking a camera op to be doing and why they might suggest alternatives :^) thanks a bunch for posting!

  • Good tips all around. However, I agree 110% with David Fincher that handheld is pretty much a lazy way of scripted film making. The other problem: up on a large screen, a great amount of handheld cinematography can make me almost sick.

    I like fluid motion and looking at that clip of “Place Beyond The Pines” I would have rather the DP had shot the opening with a Steadicam or other gyro stabilizer device. Also, using a dolly, jib, locked down tripod, etc. gives a far more pro look. You want the motion to come from within the frame, rather than have the camera jostling around. Otherwise, it’s almost like looking at 5 O’Clock News footage.

  • One thing that should be mentioned, I shoot a lot of action, is the lag time on digital cameras, depending on the camera, the monitor can be up to 12frames behind the action. Alexa is about 6 frames behind, it doesn’t sound like much but when someone punches or falls 6 frames makes a huge difference, so you have to be prepared to operate without looking at the monitor.

  • Great seminar Sean, but I want to offer this feedback re:breathing: it’s not necessary to breathe by expanding the ribcage and opening out the chest. You can breathe more efficiently using your diaphragm only — with the added benefit of imparting NO movement to the camera. If you want to see how it’s done, watch a two-year old breathe. Or lie down on the ground, put your hand on your stomach and breathe by expanding out your stomach (diaphragm) while relaxing your chest. Diaphragmatic breathing = better oxygenation, lower stress level (never a bad thing on a film set) and less camera movement.