Motivated camera movements can add another layer to your visual storytelling.
Movies have a lot of motion, and finding the best camera movement to tell your story is crucial. The way a camera moves shouldn’t be a decision made on a whim. Instead, a camera's movement should be an extension of the director’s vision for the film. The camera, in a way, should be treated as if it were another character in the scene.
Each choice made by a cinematographer or director should be a deliberate one that is responsible for visually communicating information and emotional tone. The camera’s position has a different impact on how a shot is perceived by the audience. The way information on the screen is presented and in what order that information is presented can be controlled by the motion of the camera.
Knowing how to achieve and communicate different emotional tones and information can be done through basic camera movements. Let’s break down the four common types of camera movements that every filmmaker must know, and what you’ll need to create these movements.
Panning and Tilting
The easiest camera movement to achieve is the pan and tilt. Panning directs the angle of the camera from right to left or left to right while tilting the camera moves it on a vertical axis. Both a pan and a tilt are usually used in combination to achieve motivated camera movement—a camera motion that mimics that motion on the screen. This is done to keep the focus on a character who is in motion so they do not break the frame.
By following the motion, the camera takes on a more subjective visual language that is more focused on a specific individual and their actions. A tilt can also direct the audience’s eye to an important detail or piece of information in the story.
The speed at which the camera tilts or pan can also create different tones. A slow pan over a landscape may be used to build a sense of anticipation or gradually reveal the magnitude of space while a quick whip pan makes a shot feel much more dynamic and stylized.
These movements are often done on a tripod head, which can easily pan or tilt the camera in a smooth motion without a shake. Other types of gear can be used to pan or tilt such as a stabilized remote head, by whipping a gimbal up or down, using a Steadicam to control the motion of the camera, or panning or tilting the camera with your own hands.
Push in and pull out
A push-in physically moves the camera closer to its subject at a gradual speed. The opposite is a pull-out where the camera steadily moves out from the subject. The faster the motion is, the more abrupt, stylized, and impactful the movement becomes. The slower the motion, the more emphasis is put on the character’s emotional and mental state.
The push-in pushes the audience into the headspace of the subject in the frame and is usually done at a pivotal moment in the story or the character’s development. The push-out has the opposite effect, pulling the audience away from the mind of the character until the two are detached. The pull-out can also reveal a space or information that serves the story.
These moves can be done handheld, and they are commonly done with rigs that keep the motion smooth like a dolly, a slider, a Technocrane, or a Steadicam. Using a rig can create a smooth and slow movement that feels natural and subtle.
A tracking shot is a camera physically moving through space, often tracking the movement of its subject.
The tracking shot can be motivated by the movement of the characters, putting the audience in the literal footsteps of the characters. You can also do a counter track that sees the dolly moving in the opposite direction of the subject’s movements. The counter track is normally done in a swift move to increase the energy and tempo of a shot.
Usually, a tracking shot is done by pushing a dolly along a line of tracks. The positioning of the tracks can also be diagonal, allowing the camera to track sideways while gradually getting closer or further away from its subject.
This move can also be done on a Steadicam, which is handy for longer sequences that have different axes of movement or where the location might not allow for tracks to be laid. You can also use a Russian Arm when filming car sequences to replicate the feeling of motion and speed.
Booming refers to moving the camera up or down the vertical axis. Booming up and down is not often motivated by movement, and should be used sparingly to avoid minimizing its impact.
A boom upwards can be used to reveal more information, often pointing out to the audience that there is a connection between two subjects in the frame. An upwards booming shot can also reveal more of a landscape or setting.
Boom shots are usually associated with camera cranes that lift or drop the camera using an arm. A more practical boom shot is done with a dolly, which has a smaller, hydraulic arm. These two methods are popular for their stability and smoothness of movement that is easy to control. You can also use a drone, a spider cam, a rig on a pulley system, or a Towercam.
These four types of basic moves can be used to control how information in your movie is presented. When interpreting what a camera’s movement will be, think of the movement within the context of the story.
Ask yourself why you are deciding to go with that specific camera movement and how it serves the visual storytelling. If you can’t justify the camera’s movement, then don’t do it. Filmmaking is a delicate craft that requires attention to every detail, so make sure your camera’s movement is motivated by the story’s context.
Do you have any tricks to up your camera movement game? Share them in the comments below!