Friday, April 24, 2009

Shaking bad cinematography.

Remember the first time you ever held a camera as a kid? Some adult was probably hovering over you giving you instructions... "look through the viewfinder, make sure you see everyone, don't put your finger in front of the lens... HOLD THE CAMERA STILL".
Just when was it exactly that film school forgot about that last part? Yes, they're moving pictures - that's because the things in the movie MOVE. That doesn't have to include the furniture, the wall hangings and the floor. It doesn't mean the camera should make actors shake, jitter, jump and generally go spastic - though that seems to be the job of the cameraman nowadays. On at least some sets, the most inaptly named piece of movie equipment today is the Steadicam. "Steady" doesn't even enter into it. All the work that was done to develop a stabilized handheld camera rig and all anyone seems to do with the damn thing is deliberately shoot nauseatingly wobbly pictures. Welcome to Water World where the movie screen floats and bobbles like a toy boat.

I get the hand held video camera, handi-cam schtick. I hate it, but I get it. If you want to make clever movies that ape technique from the likes of The Blair Witch Project, you can be just like Brian DePalma who made a whole 65 grand from his camcordered Redacted. (Which I'm sure anyone involved would love to have redacted from their resumes.) In the meantime, most of us would like to sit down in a movie theater and expect that for our ten bucks, we'll get to see a movie made with equipment we can't wander over and try out in our local Best Buy. What's worse is when the gear is first rate and the shaky lenses are obviously just a cost cutter for lazy filmmaking (0r abominable direction), and it becomes a signature of the picture.

Case in point - This past week's new release State of Play. From the earliest moments of following reporter Cal McAffrey (played in nearly emotion free one note by Russell Crowe), to a crime scene in downtown DC, we get jittering motion and near car sickness. Following a vehicle through city streets, gritty street scenes, news-like camera footage, I'm tolerating the cliches waiting for things to settle in. Except they don't. Even when the gear goes all dollies, cranes and Chapman/Leonard on me, director Kevin McDonald can't seem to resist having his cinematographer (Rodrigo Prieto) keep inching the camera one way or another as if it's trying to play hide and seek with the on screen cast. Annoying doesn't begin to describe constantly being reminded that I'm watching through a lens. The effect becomes so troublesome that a half hour in, I move eight rows back and to the side wall, just to gain a little distance from the quake zone.

None of this should be surprising as Rodrigo Prieto was also the cinematographer for Babel, 21 Grams, 8 Mile, 25th Hour, Original Sin, and Alexander, all of which, to some degree, suffer from the shakes. That's one helluva list of credits (with 25th Hour a personal favorite). Some excellent films that share the glaring flaw of being shot by filmmakers who can seem obsessed with ripping an audience away from a story by calling attention to the fact that they're using lots of movable hardware to make a movie. State of Play, not a great film but a fair one, jumps onto the list as being on the high side of annoying.

Lots of years ago, sitting in a darkened theater completely dazzled by the first run showing of Apocalypse Now, I was immersed, completely inside the movie, witnessing, spellbound, the finest helicopter attack sequence ever put to film. Francis Ford Coppola had somehow, on retrospect seemingly impossibly, orchestrated an extended aerial attack on a Vietnamese village to Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries. At once, as an audience, Coppola put you inside the helicopters, on the ground, running desperately over bridges and even into a bombed chopper, all while feeling like you were dodging bullets and mortar fire in your theater seat.

Then, inexplicably, as a landing boat hits a beach and soldiers pour out, racing into action, the shot is full on of a film director shouting at the soldiers not to look into his camera. Except, the director is being "acted" by the very recognizable Coppola and we're no longer there. We're seated in a dark movie theater, watching an talented director's creative brain fart, playing himself as if no one will get the "inside" joke, shouting at extras in wardrobe who now look nothing like soldiers. We are completely and utterly removed. We've been slammed back into our seats and electro-shocked back into the reality that we're watching flickering light on a movie screen. It is a godsend for both Coppola and his audiences, that Robert DuVall's iconic portrayal of Lt. Colonel Bill Kilgore almost immediately rivets us back into the story with the simple flips of death cards on corpses and his character's fascination with surfing a "hot" beachhead under fire. Within minutes, Duvall nails his immortal line and the smell of napalm as a description for the horror of war is cemented into cinematic history.

When I'm at the movies, the very most I can hope for is to be transported into a great story. Nothing can piss me off faster than having the director decide to keep reminding me that I'm watching a movie. Hold the damn camera still. Make camera movement subservient to story. When there are characters I'm trying to follow, let's not block them out of the shot with walls, furniture or the back of some other character's head. If you want to be creative with camera movement, have Skip Foose design your dolly cart. Please, let's stop all the extraneous shaking and slow motion dollies & pans and just shoot the story. It seems to me, as obvious as reminding a child to keep his finger off the lens.

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