Assigning emotions through the camera

William B. Demeritt III
January 8th, 2013

In filmmaking, we experiment a lot with the audience’s emotions. In less daring instances, we safely assign emotions to each scene, almost like paint-by-numbers: the couple finally gets together, paint scene #31 red, music swells, increase audio mix to emphasize kissing, skin touching, clothes coming off, etc.

In other instances, we leave the audience to navigate the complicated emotional moment with very few cues. Perhaps the scene (or entire movie) has no musical composition like “No Country for Old Men”? Perhaps the composition doesn’t help much, nor do the audio/visual cues. As a result, the audience has to come to their own conclusions, and in the rough seas of personal experience, moviegoers walk out with a “what did you think?” mentality. When it pays off, and the audience puts things together, Billy Wilder would agree it’s a great thing.

As a camera operator, I spend much of my time considering the emotional value of a shot. That emotional value usually results from an equation of variables, each representing a question: “Who is this character?”, “What happened just prior to this moment?”, “What helps the audience understand their headspace at this moment?”, “What does the audience still need to see to help tell the story?”, “What aesthetic options should I present to the director to bring out their vision?”, and many more.

On Christmas day, I went to see “Les Miserables” with my family, and for the second time* this year (that I can remember at this moment), the camerawork did a severe disservice to the emotional power of the film. If you haven’t seen it yet, I recommend you give it a try, if only for the singing performances of everyone involved. For the most part, the musical performance scenes were not afflicted with abrupt camera movement (namely handheld). However, many of the emotional scenes were saddled with excessive camera movement, distracting me from the characters whose emotional experience were so fascinating, any distraction added to my frustration (and not in a good way).

Through the example of “Les Miserables”, here’s my deduction of the decisions for camera movement: the musical, as people who’ve seen it know it, drips with theatrical presentation. In deciding to bring it to screen again, the stagnant audience perspective (i.e. lower mezzanine, row AA, seat 42) was opposite of what was desired. They wanted the story immersive, hence the opening shot of a huge storm and giant sailing vessels hauled into docks by prisoner labor. More importantly, they wanted the camera (and the audience) inside the story: face to face with Jean val Jean, a 3rd party in his duel with Javer, a passerby watching young Cosette sweep the inn, or a citizen in the crowd calling for Fantine’s arrest. Theater is the proscenium, the stage and all characters singing to each other and the ocean of audience. Film, in this case, required more grit, more involvement.

Here’s where the decision fell apart, and where I would argue they lost sight of the cinematic opportunities afforded by the camera. I don’t think ALL of the camera movement (even the handheld) was inappropriate, but I do think that 10-20% of the camerawork did distract too much, and personally, any distraction is too much (yes, I do get pissed when you check your cell for a split second in a theater). The aforementioned multi-variable formula was ultimately disregarded, because the answer seemed predetermined by the overarching formula: we will immerse the audience, and handheld is immersion.

I worked on a student film a few months ago where I overheard the stunt coordinator (not a student, another professional they’d hired for a few hours) make a camera observation: “a bunch of us stunt guys have a Facebook group, and we’re constantly ripping apart movies that use overly-chaotic camera movement in action scenes. I recommend you try to keep it toned down.”

Go for a run, and I mean a full on sprint, turn your head left and watch the world go by. Does the world look jittery? Does it shake like mad? Handheld sure does, but your eye doesn’t. I read a study recently that said the human eye cannot track fluidly without an object to track. Simply put: unless you’re following something moving, your eyes cannot pan/tilt/move “smoothly”. Even if you move your head smoothly, your eyes won’t follow.

Additionally, I submit that handheld movement can, and often does, have a degree of anxiety with it that’s inherent to human physiology. We’ve evolved to track objects with our eyes, and perhaps the inability to track a subject, in real life or in a movie, creates distraction running all the way to our survival instincts. If we can’t track this subject, we’d better retreat to a safe distance so we can properly assess the situation.

Dialogue offers specific types of emotional cues, but we can track so many more: body language, facial expression, movement, etc. In film, we even go a step beyond our natural interactions to show camera movement, further informing the audience of our story. I’m not saying that intentionally conveying a desired emotion through camera is wrong, but I do believe that we need to be wary of what emotion we’re trying to convey, if it tells the audience what we want, and if we’re distracting the audience from so many other meticulously laid cues because we’ve determined a “look” that doesn’t play well with others.

I’m not opposed to handheld. Personally, I think that movies like “Black Swan” are an achievement and a great story told through handheld. I did 3 weeks of handheld last month, and I feel like I’ve learned a lot about bringing intuition and planning into handheld movement. However, I do think it’s a tool whose use should be evaluated per scene, per shot. Cinematic can be handheld, and handheld can be a great story tool. However, the story is still paramount, and we should fight hard to avoid the sin of failing to apply the formula; of failing to determine the proper method for creating each piece of the film.

We all want to create things that become greater than the sum of it’s parts. Well, we should also shy away from creating things that are less than the sum as well.

*first time was “Hunger Games”

William B. Demeritt III