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Basic Camera Movements: Everything means Something

Early movie cameras were limited by their size and weight. And by early, I mean for the first 150 years of cinema. Throughout the golden age of hollywood a camera was a device often ridden across train tracks by a camera operator and a focus puller. Camera movement was bound by this technology, but that didn’t stop cinematographers from moving their cameras — along tracks or with cranes — the smallest amount of movement required an astounding amount of preparation, planning, dedication and off-camera assistance.

The basic camera moves were all developed in this age of cinema; cameras could move up, down, left or right. They could tilt or pan if you had the proper mount, and zoom if you had a zoom lens. Each movement interprets a meaning now, and cannot be just for the heck of it. Each of them says something about what is happening on the screen.

Here are the interpretations of the basic camera movements in Cinema:

PAN

The horizontal movement of a camera from left to right or vice versa, where the camera base is static.

With this movement, new information is revealed to the audience. It could be about the parameters of a location, an important clue, or a hidden character. It is like watching Tennis, as your eyes go left or right with you being at the same place. And every time you look at one side, that player’s movement is revealed.

TILT

A camera movement in which the base remains stationary, but the head of the camera moves up and down.

It id used as a reveal to give the effect of sizing up anything. It can be a building, another character or height. Imagine you standing in front of the Eiffel Tower and you admiring its structure, from top to bottom. There can be a twist at the end, if you find a girl standing in front of you once complete the whole movement from top to bottom. That’s a reveal.

TRACKING SHOT

A camera movement where the camera follows the action on rails or tracks.

It is often used to follow action. It can be someone walking, or a Car racing towards finish line. The camera always has a subject to focus on when it moves. There’s creative room for having multiple subjects to focus on and each of them is emphasized as they come in the frame.

DOLLY

A platform on wheels, on which a camera can be placed in order to allow more freedom of movement during filming. Not restricted to simple rectilinear movements.

It is also used to follow action of a character or emphasizing any other subject. The Dolly and the Track are sometimes used as interchangeable terms, but the top-notchs prefer the term “Track” for horizontal motion along the subject, i.e. left to right or vice-versa. And “Dolly” is for a vertical motion along the subject, i.e. Dolly-in(closer) or Dolly-out(farther).

CRANE

The camera is placed on an arm and allows it to be lifted into the air, often for high-angle shots.

It is a set-up which can be used to reveal secrets and pertinent events. Best used for extreme high-angle shots which shows the timidity of the subject to the situation. A follow shot with the high-angle to low-angle or vice-versa, with no boundation to move the camera rectilinearly, it can be used wildly.

STEADICAM

It has the freedom of a handheld shot but its stabilisation device smoothes out the bumpiness of the handheld shot.

It can be used for point-of-view shots, but also used to suggest dreams and fantasy. If a character is walking in to a new place, and you want it to be revealed with the eyes of the character, Steadicam can be used to follow the character and slowly Pan and Tilt at times to reveal elements around it.

HANDHELD

The camera is literally handheld by the camera operator which is often bumpy and jerky.

Used to suggest instability, the jerks in the camera’s movement suggest a state of frenzy or motion. An action scene where two characters are having a brutal fist-fight, the Handheld motion will give the whole sequence a raw feel and a sense of urgency.

 

ZOOM

A single shot which moves towards a particular subject.

When done very quickly it can displace the audience, but it can also be used to concentrate the viewers’ gaze on something specific. So when there’s clue lying on the table for the mystery to be solved, and it goes unnoticed to the eye, a slow zoom towards it can feed information to the audience. It is always great to use zoom to either give a piece of detail to the viewers, or to be focused on a character showing their introspection.

REVERSE ZOOM

A single shot which moves away from a particular subject.

Similar to zooming-in, when done very quickly it can displace the audience. But it can also be used to show the wider picture or context of an image. A reveal of the whole scene or just showing solitude of the character, Reverse Zoom or Zooming-Out works wonders when we feel the need of giving a larger sense of what’s happening around to the audience.

And that’s the way the cookie crumbles. These are the basic camera movements and their dramatic significance to the eyes watching them. Though they are great, it is never a bad idea to experiment. Many great filmmakers have created stunning visuals by combining these movements. Most famous can be the “Vertigo effect”, where the camera Dolly-outs and Zooms-in at the very same moment, giving a warped look around the subject.

So keep on fooling around, and the cosmos only knows what you may stumble upon. Also check out our diligent use of camera movements. It might be helpful to you.
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