Hong Kong cinematographers have a neat saying about shaky camera: “The handheld camera covers 3 mistakes: Bad acting, bad set design, and bad directing (1).” However, in certain cases, the shaky (handheld) camera can be used to tell a story, instead of covering the mistakes.
Paul Greengrass (director of the Bourne trilogy) certainly didn’t invent the shaky camera, but he definitely popularized this technique. If you’ve seen the Bourne trilogy, you’ve probably noticed, that the camera almost never stops moving. But there is always a good motivation behind this movement.
Motivation for shaky camera in 4 points
1. World he lives in
Jason Bourne (the main character) is constantly on the run, chasing or being chased by somebody, escaping from somewhere, looking for or protecting somebody. The shaky camera helps to portray the world he lives in – fast paced erratic world.
2. His inner conflict
Additional motivation for the shaky camera comes from his inner conflict – he doesn’t know who he is, what he has done and why, because he suffers from amnesia. This certainly adds to the shakiness.
3. The way his mind works
At certain point there is a dialogue scene between Jason Bourne and his former collegue Nicky Parsons. The camera is constantly moving, which would be really annoying in “normal” dialogue, but in this case, it’s perfectly ok. It shows how his mind works. Even if they are just talking, he is always alert. He is checking the escape routes, looking for people who might be dangerous etc. His mind never rests, and so does the camera.
4. Shaky cam as a stylistic choice
Finally, shaky camera was a stylistic choice. In action scenes, (together with fast editing) it injects energy to the scene, creates chaos (which is sometimes desirable) and in a sense, it may add more realism and authenticity to the specific scene.
When it bothers me and why
- Unfortunately, the shaky camera became really overused. Sometimes, I am watching a (dialogue) scene and the camera is constantly moving and that really annoys me, because I can’t figure out, what was the motivation behind it (and I don’t count covering mistakes as a good motivation).
- Second reason why it bothers me is that it takes away from the actor’s performances, if the camera is always moving, I just can’t pay attention to them (because I’m trying to figure out, why the camera is moving).
- Finally, making the camera steady is far more difficult than making it shaky. That being said, shaky camera will always look cheap to me, unless it is used on purpose, to tell the story.
Also, when I did my research on this topic, I’ve found, that it makes certain people physically sick and spoils the movie for them.
Anyway, I wouldn’t say that shaky camera is necessarily a bad thing, but it can be really annoying if used randomly and without any purpose. If you haven’t watched the Bourne trilogy yet, or if you are looking for good examples of shaky camera, watch the story of Jason Bourne.