The Unsettling Nature of Shaky Cam
A supercut titled The Art of Steadicam made the rounds a few weeks ago. As SlashFilm puts it, it's a fitting tribute to Garrett Brown's innovation, which made it much easier for filmmakers to simulate motion without relying on a handheld camera or a dolly on track, and it deserves its own attention. But I'm not going to give it all that it deserves. Instead, I'm going to use it as a jumping-off point to discuss a particular, and only tangentially related, pet peeve of mine -- shaky cam, a dis-innovation that has become gallingly prevalent in films of late. Both Steadicam and shaky cam are methods used to simulate motion. Both are effective when used in the right context, but should be used sparingly (seriously, go ahead and watch that 10-minute Steadicam montage and try to avoid feeling at least a little bit disoriented). But only shaky cam is being used as a crutch for entire films at this point.
I think you can probably trace this all back to The Blair Witch Project, which used shaky cam almost exclusively and gave rise to the found footage phenomenon, but I think it was Cloverfield -- another found-footage vehicle -- that really lit the match here, using that confusion and disorientation that the shooting style creates -- regardless of whether a monster is attacking New York City or a toddler is opening his birthday presents -- to create enough mystery to turn that film into a smash hit at the box office.
I get the appeal from a filmmaking perspective. I just wish we didn't see quite so much of it. And boy do we see a lot of it nowadays. Three 2012 releases that I quite liked relied heavily on it -- those being Chronicle, End of Watch and Zero Dark Thirty. Only ZDT used it in an appropriate manner (during the raid on the Osama bin Laden compound during the film's climax), and even then it pushed the envelope. Chronicle married found footage with another tired Hollywood trend -- that of the superhero flick -- and while it did feel fresh, I don't think it was because it stuck two unlikely cliches together; rather, I think it was because the dark soul at the center of it was an especially compelling character. End of Watch, meanwhile, did something similar, mixing found footage elements with a cop movie. It wasn't purely found footage like Chronicle, but that influence still dominated the film. It too was excellent because of the characters involved, not because of the way it was shot.
In both cases, the films might have been better had they been shot in a much more straightforward manner. Shaky cam, like Steadicam, is fine in small doses. It's meant to elicit a particular emotion -- maybe even just a guttural feeling -- at a particular time, not form the spine of an entire story. Hollywood would do well to remember that.