Shaky cam, also called queasy cam, is a cinematic technique used to give a scene an ENG (electronic news-gathering) or documentary look to persuade viewers that the subject or scene being filmed was happening live without rehearsal or any artifice. It is often used in fights and other action scenes. When used to excess, the shaky cam technique can make viewers feel sick.
The original film cameras used for shooting movies with sound were too large for handholding so nearly all shots were made from a tripod, dolly, or crane. In the 1960s filmmakers had the advantage of using smaller cameras that could easily be handheld. Feature films that used handheld cinematography include such titles as The Miracle Worker, The Blair Witch Project, Easy Rider, Seven Days in May, The Battle of Algiers and Dr. Strangelove.
The American documentary style called “cinema verite” was often shot handheld as were the films of the French New Wave. See The Art Of Film And Video Editing – The Director Becomes Editor. Handheld shots bring an immediacy to a scene, but they can be overdone.
There’s a trend in modern action-adventure thrillers to use shaky cam and very fast editing. One film franchise that best exemplifies this style is “The Bourne Ultimatum which is the third in the Bourne film series, preceded by The Bourne Identity, The Bourne Supremacy, and The Bourne Legacy. In an article called “The Shaky-Queasy-Utimatum,” the late film critic Roger Ebert writes about a letter he received from a renowned film academic who saw the movie in an IMAX theater, but the person sitting next to him threw up all over his leg as a result of the exaggerated shaky cam and fast editing. The Ebert article includes quite a list of reader complaints about the style. It’s possible that seeing this film in an IMAX theater exaggerates the issue, but even so there is a great deal of shaky camera movement in that film.
There are certainly some scenes where handheld is the perfect way to tell the story, but not to the point of making the audience seasick. On the other hand, The Bourne Ultimatum did $70 Million during its opening weekend. At the time this broke the record for the highest grossing August opening so maybe it’s OK to make some of the audience sick for higher profits.
How To Make A Steady Handheld Shot
There’s a difference between shaky cam and handheld. Most non-fiction shooters I know try to minimize the use and especially appearance of handheld footage. They want the frame to be steady or to move smoothly. So the audience is watching the subject rather than the jumping frame. To make a pleasing and effective handheld shot, try these tips:
Look for something to lean against or a sturdy object in your vicinity. You can hold the camera against the steady object, lean your body and camera against a wall.
Instead of zooming in and using a long lens which is very hard to hold steady, keep the lens wide, walk closer to the subject and then film.
There are some real advantages to shooting handheld. It can be much easier to capture those spontaneous moments which would have been lost if you had to set up a tripod. Being handheld allows the cameraman or camerawoman to blend in. This puts the subject more at ease. Handheld can also help you find interesting angles that are more creative.