Smooth Camera Movement
Big budget film studios have professional rigs available to them that make it easy to move cameras around and capture sweeping, dynamic shots. A highly specialized piece of equipment such as a jib, dolly, or steadicam is going to be prohibitively expensive to buy, as you might imagine.
Unless you’re able to rent one, it’s unlikely that you’ll have access to any of these items. They are made to be used specifically for filmmaking, and therefore are in fairly limited supply. You’d be surprised though, at how many different motion rigs you can build out of objects that are substantially easier to find.
Controlling Camera Motion
Timing and jitter are the two main factors affecting any camera movement in filmmaking – in other words, how the camera covers the desired area in time with the action happening on-screen, and the degree of smoothness of that movement.
Motion is difficult to achieve successfully without the aid of some foreign device that allows the lens to maintain stability while the camera itself is rotated or moved in physical space in a variety of ways. Term definitions for the various basic camera movements are covered in our filmmaking glossary.
Let’s move on from the overview now and get into some specific tips and ideas for working with camera movement from a technical standpoint.
Handheld Camera Movement
Pro-grade steadicams can cost thousands of dollars. They use sophisticated mechanisms to hold and balance the camera so that a person wearing one can literally jump up and down and cause minimal jitter in the shot. Pretty amazing stuff, but unfortunately you and I don’t necessarily have several grand that would be well-spent on one of these contraptions.
The biggest problem I come across with handheld shots is that it often looks like the cameraperson was having an epileptic seizure while they were recording. Consumer camcorders are small nowadays – sometimes ridiculously so – and you can’t expect to hold one of these things steady without at least some additional support. See our page on basic video camera techniques for tips on how to properly support a camera with only your hands.
There are two things that, if added to a camera, will immediately reduce jitter – good old fashioned weight, and a lowered center of gravity. The quickest and probably the most readily available method you can use to get both of these things is to attach your camera to a tripod, and then fold up the legs.
A tripod is great for side-to-side pans and up-down tilts. But if you pull up the legs and keep that extra couple of pounds beneath your camera, you’ve made yourself an instant pendulum. In other words, with additional weight concentrated toward the bottom of this rig, the unit is less prone to wiggling and being shaken than the camera alone. Try it sometime. Actually, your tripod should be attached nearly every time you get set up for filmmaking.
High Angle Shots
Now, with your closed-up tripod holding your camera, you can tighten up the adjusters and use this as a height extension. A ladder, stool, treehouse, or the top of your neighbor’s car (while they’re out, of course) are all great places to get high-angle shots from.
When you’re dealing with heights though, don’t be dumb. I mean that. It’s usually wise to find a way to get the shot you need without risking your life.
Low Angle Shots
This is one of those rare instances where you’ll probably need to remove your tripod. You can’t rightly have the thing sticking out the bottom and still get your camera right on the ground. With low-angle shots, the closer you can get to the ground, the better.
Ah, now this is probably the most asked-about type of camera movement there is, and it’s the main reason I’m writing this in the first place. Trying to walk, jog, run, or perform any other type of unaided bipedal movement tends to be a pretty bouncy endeavor, especially when cameras are involved.
If you want to dolly toward or away from a subject or truck along beside it, you’re going to need a smoother ride than that. The keyword here is ride, because there are so many things you can use to get smooth movement out of a camera that you may not have ever thought about.
Your use of any of the items below will depend on the surface you wish to use, the speed of movement you want to reach, and the level of noise interference you can afford to have in your shots.
A skateboard may be a good dolly, although they can be noisy unless you’re on a completely smooth surface – and you can’t really use them at all on carpet, dirt or grass.
A wheelchair will give you a smooth, relatively quiet ride. Don’t go down stairs with it though, and definitely don’t steal them from old ladies. Unless you really, really need one.
Your car can even serve as a fantastic dolly. With electric and hybrid automobiles in growing abundance, yours may have the benefit of emitting a relatively low level of noise. Hatchback and half-door vehicles are great at slow speeds because you can open the trunk and film out the back.
Any wagons, carts or rolling stands/desks you’d find in a home office or kitchen could find limited use as a dolly or truck. Watch items with casters on them that have rotating wheels, though – they may be somewhat unwieldy to manipulate.
Sporting equipment such as bicycles or rollerblades could prove useful, although the noise level may be prohibitive for some applications.
In most of these examples, arm yourself with a can of WD-40 and you may be able to eliminate a lot of the noise from your dolly. You’ll be best off if you can film shots where you’re able to remove the production sound and replace it with a combination of other sounds to get rid of dolly noise entirely.
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