January 24, 2014

Dynamic camera work vs. abuse of editing

I was watching some old Magnum PI episodes at home during Christmas vacation, and couldn't help but notice how creative the camera work was for a TV show. And hence how much basic technique has been lost over the past couple decades.

The Thor movie was playing on cable then as well, and there was hardly any use of the camera. It looked so static, not that I tuned in for very long. There's one scene where Thor and several others are assembled in what looks like a sacred hall, perhaps seeking advice on what to do next. And they're just standing there perfectly still with hardly any emotion showing, while the camera makes slow swoopy moves toward them from one angle, and then another. Get it? Slow = trembling, gravitas. Swooping = approaching with trepidation. Why not show the characters approaching something with trepidation showing on their faces?

I could be wrong, but I think that's how they were shown entering the hall as well. It felt like they were shown entering, then an edit to when they were about halfway down the aisle, and another edit to when they had reached the final spot. Why don't we ever see a character moving from point A to point B anymore? Tracking motion keeps the viewer's attention (if there's a point to it), whereas the motion-through-edits is like a fading in and out of consciousness, catching glimpses of their path.

Sometimes that makes me feel sleepy and disengaged, and other times it makes things feel rushed -- even when the tone is supposed to be grave, as in that hall scene. It's like, "Yeah yeah, they began their path, here they are after bit, and now that that boring stuff is out of the way, here they are at the end, seeking advice." Give them something to do along the way and you can shoot a longer stretch of movement. Or if all action would seem forced, have the camera study their faces for reactions as they explore this sacred space.

The audience takes their cues about how to respond to a place from how the characters, who are actually there, are reacting. With movement-through-editing and blank faces, we in the audience can never feel connected to the place being shown. It's just some neat-looking background prop that the actors are treating like a hunk of stage dressing, not real.

By contrast, here are just a handful of the camera techniques that the crew used on Magnum PI in the early 1980s, whether for purely visual entertainment ("cool!"), to set tone, or to advance the story without boring exposition.

A medium-length shot in profile on a nervous man sitting in his car, talking to someone over the phone, thinking no one is watching or listening to him. Zoom the camera out slowly, which builds anticipation -- why are they bringing more of the setting into view? Wait just a moment, and a car lurches into frame from left to right, and stops so that now these newcomers are near the center of the composition, while through their window the original man can still be seen. They exchange sinister looks and a few words about what they have in store for the oblivious man now in the background.

Formula: begin close enough to establish familiarity with a target, move slowly back to unsettle the viewer, introduce a threat to pay off the audience's suspicion that something's up, and juxtapose the target and the threat within the frame to heighten the tension.

Sounds simple, but you rarely see stuff like this anymore, when it used to be standard for an action TV show. Today's cop shows like Law & Order use either a static camera for dialog-only shots, or follow them around all panicky when there's commotion. Because shaky cam = tension (no, just fidgeting). Obvious, lowest-common-denominator stuff like that turns off viewers who had been used to at least some style in camera work from cop shows of the '80s.

Not only do we rarely see characters moving from point A to point B, we don't get to see dialog exchanged at a distance from the camera. Usually we want to be closer up, to see their facial expressions and body language. But perhaps the two do not want to be heard, in which case letting them walk away from the camera makes us feel like they're trying to avoid being overheard. If the camera followed them -- let alone going up close as though it were right there in the confessional with them -- it wouldn't feel like they were trying to avoid us eavesdroppers.

Even better if the scene around them is bustling with activity. Breaking from constant close-ups lets the audience take in more of the setting, not in the Lord of the Rings style of nature / travel documentaries, but as places where real human social activity is unfolding. Conveying the secretive nature of their conversation often requires us to see them hidden within a larger swirling crowd. It heightens our anxiety that they might be overheard, and if they are not, it can strike a wonderfully disturbing tone -- these two just planned out a cold-blooded murder in the middle of a crowded party. Is God watching any of this on his big security camera up in the sky? Is he going to do anything about it? These characters have quite a set to think they won't get found out.

Then there are simpler techniques to make the action look more dynamic. One trick that gets used at least a dozen times per episode of Magnum PI is when a car is shown on its way toward its destination. It enters the frame from one side, and the camera is already panned in that direction. As the car moves toward the center of the frame, the camera pans with it, facing straight when it's in the center, and then panning the other way as it leaves the frame on the other side. No dollying, no crane, no other movement. It's mounted, only panning from one side to the other in the way that a NASCAR audience would watch a fast car approach, arrive, and zip away.

It does get tiresome after the tenth time it's used in an episode, but it does get the job done. How is speed and single-minded movement conveyed these days? Again by following the fast car around and seeing shit zip by in your peripheral vision. Or if the camera's mounted, it doesn't pan -- speed is conveyed by how little time it took for the car to enter and leave the frame. As though the viewer were reduced to a stopwatch. Both of these common techniques cannot produce the build-up and release that simple panning can accomplish. "Here it comes! Whoa, there it goes!" When the camera trails a fast-moving car, albeit with lots of quick edits to change angles, there's a constant level of (over-)stimulation since we are always with the car, not a build-up and release that comes from approaching and then leaving behind.

There are undoubtedly more examples of what looks lame today and what used to look cool yesterday. It's bad news when even a cop show on network TV shows more creative camera work than a giganto-budgeted Hollywood action movie.


  1. Good observations

    I grew up watching Rockford files, Magnum Pi, Simon and Simon, Remington Steele, moonlighting , Hart to Hart, Riptide, Hunter, the Fall guy, The A Team, Mike Hammer, etc.. All these shows were similar and used the same camera techniques

    Do they even have PI shows today ? I am surprised how fast this type of show vanished from the airways by 1991, while the cop shows survived and continue to be made. Could be related to the drop in crime, in the 80s we did have Hill Street Blues and some other cop shows, but we seemed to have many more PI type shows, the Polish were not glorified so much in the 80s. Even Miami vice glamorized the criminals and smugglers somewhat

    PI shows have many more plot capabilities than Police shows, and PIs can work outside the law , con the criminals , play games with the cops, save damsels in distress. I hope they revise this genre on TV before I get old

  2. No PI shows today that I know of... not ones popular enough to make the top 30 ratings like most of the ones you mentioned.

    Now they glorify the courts and law enforcement (Law & Order, NCIS, CSI, Crossing Jordan, Cold Case, etc.).

    When the crime rate is rising, it gives people strong evidence that state agencies are not as all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-caring as you might have thought. Police departments are beleaguered (like Hill Street Blues, early Law & Order), and the courts were seen as weighed down by bleeding-heart holdovers from the '60s who kept letting criminals get away on technicalities (Dirty Harry). Like the vigilante cop, the PI is someone who can circumvent many of these obstacles to righting wrongs.

    When the crime rate starts falling, people start to assume that, hey, maybe the police and courts are more wise, powerful, and caring than we thought in the '80s. The staff of state agencies are portrayed as angels whose tireless work protects us against the demons.

  3. You could also blame CGI for this. As a CGI artist myself, I find it much easier to work with static camera and breaking up the scene into several segments rather than one long tracking shot. With just a few basic editing skills, you can make a scene look very busy.

  4. One current show which reminds me of the 80's PI programs is Psych on the USA network. Although it is more of a comedy, and they always work with the police to solve crimes.

    Today's cop shows are like propaganda, with the police shown as being super intelligent, with advanced technology like in CSI. What bothers me most, the criminals are so often wealthy , few cop shows today focus on what they actually deal with, which is low life criminals who are poor and live in the hood. The typical law and order, or CSI criminal is successful businessman, lawyer, doctor with a upper middle class background. You rarely see shows about the actual criminals doing most of the murders, extortion, rapes, drug dealing etc..while the victims are usually middle class or lower, and they somehow get murdered by a powerful man as part of some vast conspiracy or a cove-up of another crime. So predictable, the bad guy will be a white man who is successful, but evil and ruthless.

  5. It's really annoying that in the epic battle movies like Man of Steel and Pacific Rim there are so many cuts you can't see what's happening. The special effects are basically wasted.

  6. Sadly that's what the mainstream audience wants. They equate the Sublime with being bewildered rather than overwhelmed. The former lets them stay in control (OCD control freak issues), while the latter requires you to let go and trust that the filmmakers aren't going to harm you.


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