Now consider two clips from Children of Men (Alfonso Cuarón 2006), a dystopian fantasy set in the near future. Although the cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, wanted to shoot the bulk of the film on Steadicam, the director opted for mostly hand-held.


view Children of Men clip 1


The first clip bristles with excitement. Though registering the surroundings, such as the refugees cowering in the bus, the shot never degenerates into pseudo-POV, thanks to the masterful synchronicity of the operator with his subject. The quality of the work is outstandingly reactive, taking its impetus directly from the narrative driving force—and the dash across the street is sensational in this respect.* Now watch the opening sequence from the same film.


view Children of Men clip 2


The shot begins with a powerful, above-eye-line perspective tilted down to fill the frame with concerned faces. We move off now, sinking below eye level to hold the TV screen top of frame, but we hold it to the point of diminishing the protagonist as he exits the café. Now we loose him entirely as the camera pauses to scan the beautifully-dressed set. We catch him up now and wheel around, so as to be well-placed for the explosion. The shot must have been exciting to choreograph, but it feels contrived—and now the camera barrels along, waving from side to side in a way that draws attention to its presence. What is the language of the shot? It begins like an omniscient storytelling perspective, gliding over the counter, and it's certainly omniscient in that it knows where to be when the bomb goes off. In between, it seems awestruck and a little lost, until finally comes the uncomfortable POV.

Hand-held camera does not approximate how the human eye sees. When we walk down the street, the world does not shake so. The director perhaps wanted to impart a 'documentary feel,' but this is hard to reconcile with gliding through the counter, and anticipating the explosion. This might be one of the moments the cinematographer would have used Steadicam, but it's hard to guess why it wasn't shot as a series of reverse-angle shots cut together as a sequence. The uncertainty of the camera work almost prepares us for the explosion, which might have remained more of a surprise with judicious editing of tripod work. One point in the shot's favour, is that by making it one move, we might experience the feeling of our having just been in the now gutted café—but even this is ambiguous. The magic of moving the frame through space is sometimes just too compelling.


* The blood spatter on the lens was unintentional, and had to be digitally removed from the remainder of the shot.


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