Dear Hollywood, reality is not shaky

With the end of 2009 rapidly approaching, many prognosticators are looking back on the decade to decipher its trends. In the realm of film, the 2000s saw many things occur — comic book fare became cool, horror movies became generic and indie cinema reemerged. But one thing happened that threatened to bring the industry to its knees — shaky cam.

For the uninitiated, here’s a brief explanation of shaky cam. Shaky cam is the stylistic choice to not invest money in a dolly or any other instrument designed to keep the camera steady during shots. Shaky camerawork has its roots in realist and neorealist aesthetics — the notion being that film aims to capture realism and since real life is shaky, films should be, too.

The resurgence of realism in European cinema in the 1990s, notably Dutch and German cinema, preceded an insurgence of European filmmakers into North American cinema during this past decade. The result? A notable tinge of realism in many films of the period. The odd thing was that the influence wasn’t merely felt in independent productions, but rather in many of the features made by transplant directors for big studios.

One prime example of the effect of shaky cam is Paul Greengrass’ Bourne Identity and its sequels. The films follow a bad-ass amnesiac spy throughout his struggles to find his true identity. As a result, this bad-ass spy engages in some impressive action sequences, often pitting him against several adversaries in gunfights, car chases and hand-to-hand combat. The only problem with this concept is the cinematography, as Oliver Wood elected to shoot every action sequence up close with no steady-cam. As a result, critics and audiences alike complained that it was terribly difficult at times to tell what was going on. On the surface, the justification of using hand-held cameras — to immerse audiences in the action — makes sense, but when it gets in the way of the story, it’s a mistake.

Sadly, the Bourne films aren’t the worst example of shaky camerawork. No, that belongs to J.J. Abrams’ brainchild Cloverfield. Aiming to put audiences on the ground level of an alien invasion in a manner to similar to Abrams’ television project LOST, Cloverfield cinematographer Michael Bonvillain made liberal use of hand-held cameras. The unfortunate side effect was wide-spread nausea amongst audience members — a Google search yields nearly 200,000 hits, some of which contain video evidence.

That’s not to say that hand-held camerawork is altogether bad. Much like other trends in European cinema, shaky camerawork became popular in part because it was tremendously effective in some kinds of films. While Paul Greengrass’ choice to use so many hand-held shots in the Bourne films was ill-advised, he utilized the same tool to great effect in United 93, chronicling the last hours of the passengers of United Flight 93 on September 11, 2001. The technique was tremendously effective in creating the illusion that audience members were on the plane with the film’s characters. The rebooted James Bond series also used hand-held work in many scenes to great effect.

Perhaps the lesson to take away from the past decade’s usage of hand-held camerawork is moderation — had w or The Bourne Identity had fewer of these shots, the films would have been more enjoyable. At the very least, fewer people would have suffered from motion sickness.

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