We move the camera constantly: to follow the action to a new location; to create a shifting perspective; or literally, to induce movement into a scene. Camera movement is unquestionably one of the great storytelling devices available to us.
There are moments that are unimaginable without camera movement playing a leading role—such as the opening sequence of Touch of Evil (Orson Welles 1958). Yet much camera movement is meaningless, as in the opening sequence of Sudden Death (Peter Hyams 1995). We get the impression that both directors strive with the same intent: to create a beautiful master-shot that sets the scene for the coming action. Although the Sudden Death opening seems to include all the right elements, it completely fails to entice, whereas Touch of Evil brings us to the edges of our seats.
view Touch of Evil
view Sudden Death__
Camera movement is not essential for narrative development, and in some cases it is superfluous. In Tokyo Story (Yasujiro Ozu 1953) the camera placements are simple and static, yet powerful. In Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (Kenneth Branagh 1994), the rationale behind the camera movement is difficult to imagine, unless the intention is to show the magnificent set.
view Tokyo Story
In these clips, the difference between what works in advancing the narrative and what doesn't is clear. In Touch of Evil, camera movement has a meaning. In Sudden Death, the camera wanders like a child's balloon. In Tokyo Story, movement is simply unnecessary. In Frankenstein, movement becomes a protagonist, but the whirligig perspective of the circling camera has no narrative significance. Who or what is watching? What does it have to do with us, the viewers? Camera movement without justifiable intent is simply distracting.
But it is trivial to compare such sequences as these. What is harder, is to compare sequences that are similar to each other in style, form, and quality, and then to attempt to guess why one works better than the other. In comparing like with like, I want to touch on subtleties of camera movement that affect different people in different ways; but first, let’s explore what it means to move ‘the moving camera.’