Acknowledging the blood, sweat & tears that went into making a head explode on film, among other things.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

How the Camera Moves Matters Most

Fighting the good fight can be daunting. We all know CGI is here to stay. There are signs of practical effects resurgence but they are few and far between. I figure at this point, instead of embracing the beast, why not educate the masses on taming it.

There are two major factors exposing CGI “fakeness”: Physics and camera placement. The latter can be easily rectified and the former is bound by the limits of the craft. We all know that gravity can spoil the illusion. After all these years and technological advances, they still can’t duplicate the physics behind gravity. Spider-Man is a perfect example. On his feet, your friendly neighborhood web-slinger looks great, but get him swinging through the city, and you get a flat, lifeless CGI cartoon. (The Spidey re-boot is rumored to be rectifying this by using *GASP* real stunt work and *SHUDDER* wires!)

With physics out of the question of improvement that leaves us with camera placement. The suspension of disbelief from the movie goer’s eye can only go so far. When you have CGI robuts and monsters or massive armies of extras going into battle, we may forgive digital accompaniment, but it’s in the placement of the camera where the movie magic can be lost for us.

We all can grasp the basic function of how movies are made. There is a camera, and people do stuff in front of it. We know the camera is just as physical and real as the actors. If they need a long shot from up high and need it to end it on a close up of something or someone, we know they have to use a crane or dolly. We may not all know what the tools are called, but we all know that SOMETHING has to make the camera move.

Now, when you use CGI as camera movement you get the instant “fakeness” result. No matter what is on the screen, none of it is justified. Something tells us that the camera cannot fly through the sky and zoom through objects all in one take. We are pulled out of the experience. We are told, “This shot wasn’t really filmed, but it is in your face!” Now, I’m sure there are plenty of people that love that look, I just happen to despise it.

I struggle to find a perfect example on YouTube of what I mean, but this clip from Peter Jackson’s Fellowship of the Ring comes close. Granted, I know it’s a lot of model work but pay attention to the camera and visualize how it could be achieved practically…

Don’t get me wrong. I love Jackson’s work and I understand his reasoning in using CGI. But seeing this in the theater, that first shot of Isengard swirling around and diving underground took me out of the film a bit. I know it’s nit picking, but that’s why I have this blog.

I am a sucker for the elaborate practical shots. The kind that you have to rehearse over and over just to get right. I just wish if a director wants to get really ambitious with a shot, he would take into consideration camera movement. Sometimes it can take the most CGI filled scene and restore a little life back into it if the camera is allowed to be restrained a bit.

That’s just my two cents. I know it doesn’t buy much. But what do you want? I’m a whiner.

I will leave you with this though. Before he died, Sergio Leone’s next film was going to be about the siege of Leningrad. An interview with Claudio Mancini describes Leone’s intended opening scene:

There was a lot of talk about Leningrad. Sergio had a lot of things in his mind, but almost nothing in writing, but he would describe what would have been the opening scene.
It showed a theater where an orchestra was rehearsing. The rehearsal finishes and a man puts his instrument back in its case.
He leaves the theater, the camera backtracking in front of him, that's important.
He starts walking in the street and you can see a devastated city, buildings gutted by bombs etc.
A tram passes by and the man catches it. He sees the ruins from the tram which is now moving.
All this without a single cut: how Sergio intended to do this, I really don't know.
The tram arrives at the end station, the man leaves and walks 100 meters to a small house; he enters and there is a woman.
While they embrace, the camera turns and you see a window, then a river and across the river 1.500 German panzers in position.
I said: "Sergio, you wouldn't be able to frame 1.500 panzers not even if they were small cardboard models! On screen you could probably frame 150!" But he envisioned 1.500!"

How would this have been pulled off today without CGI? I don’t know. If anyone could make it work though, I bet it would have been Leone.


  1. Children of Men had an awesomely long camera sequence when he's running through the city near the end. There were a few cuts and then put together to make it look seamless, but for the most part it was a series of really long ass takes. Plus, i don't remember an abundance of CGI in that one either, but it's been a while since I saw it.

  2. Since nit-picking seems to be the order of the day: There were nothing like 1500 panzers at Stalingrad, and the river Volga is on the EAST side of the city.