The Key to Good Camera Movement: Motivation
Good camera movement doesn't have to be fancy, it just has to be motivated.
Everyone loves a unique, complicated camera movement. The centrifuge scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey, for example, always seems to delight and confuse audiences, making them wonder how in the hell Stanley Kubrick and DP Geoffrey Unsworth managed to pull it off. However, unless your goal is to use a camera move for mere spectacle (or if you have $750K to burn on a single sequence), then you'll want to learn about one thing professional cinematographers never forget to incorporate into theirs.
In this video, the team over at The Film Look goes one of the most important qualities that most, if not all, shots with good camera movement have, which is, of course, motivation.
What is "motivation"?
When something in a film is "motivated", whether it's the camera movement, the staging, the lighting, whatever, it not only responds to the actions occuring on screen but it also exists to serve the story and push it forward. Take lighting for example: Imagine you're shooting a beautiful and emotional love scene. A motivated lighting setup might include soft light to soften shadows and a warm gel and few modifiers, like a silk and a bounce, to really give your subjects that warm, I'm-super-in-love glow. An unmotivated lighting setup might include— well, anything. Many new filmmakers go with 3-point lighting every time because that's what they know. Others will add too much light and zero diffusers. And still others will put lights in weird places, like below the subject, creating shadows that are probably best kept in the horror genre. In this example, motivated lighting communicates the tone of your scene to the audience, which helps you tell the story visually. (There should never be dialogue like, "Damn, this is so romantic, right? Let's kiss romantically to express our romantic feelings for each other.")
Camera movement works the same way. Every time you move your camera, you're speaking to your audience. It's your job to make sure that you're not only speaking clearly and effectively but that you're also providing important (and only important) information that will help the narrative unfold.
How do you create a motivated camera move?
Okay, so now you know what motivation means in cinema—here comes the tricky part: putting it into action. I'd say the first thing you should do to really learn how to use motivated camera moves is—get a dictionary. Not like, a real dictionary, but a dictionary of cinematic camera movement and learn what different ones mean to an audience. The book mentioned in the video, Christopher Kenworthy's Master Shots is an excellent resource to study for this exact purpose (I devoured it multiple times in college and I still do to this day), but you can also watch your favorite films and pay close attention to how the camera movement is used during certain scenes.
The example from the video is great because it shows you a couple of different ways camera movement can be motivated.
- A moving camera, coupled with a moving subject, increases aesthetic energy, which is great for a chase/escape scene.
- The camera is treated as an obstacle that not only pursues the subject but also stops him in his tracks once he's confronted.
After studying a bit, you should ask yourself what these shots "say." What does a stationary shot say? What does a handheld shot say? What about a dolly-in? A dolly-out? A crane shot? A tracking shot? All of these different camera moves (and many, many others) have their own meaning that can help you communicate with your audience without your subjects ever having to utter a single line of dialogue.
What are some of your favorite examples of motivated camera movement? Let us know down in the comments.