Shaky camera in American Beauty

American Beauty (1999)
American Beauty (1999)

I find shaky camera to be extremely annoying. Most of the time the camera shakes for no reason and covers basically 3 mistakes (1) (bad acting, bad set design and bad directing). There are only few movies where shaky camera actually serves the story being told (like in Bourne trilogy).

There are movies though, where shaky camera is used in a way that you won’t be even aware of it.

I re-watched recently American Beauty and noticed that the camera was always mounted either on tripod, dolly track, steadicam or crane. There is only one scene, where the camera was handheld (just a note, I don’t count the DV camera that Ricky uses, even though it is handheld).

American Beauty (1999)
American Beauty (1999)

It’s a fight scene between Col. Frank Fitts and his son Ricky. He (Frank) is mad and angry at his son and beats him (Ricky) brutally.
The camera in this particular scene is handheld. It helps to portray his (Frank) anger and it injects more energy to the scene. Just try to imagine the opposite: Camera would be mounted on tripod or would move very smoothly. That wouldn’t work, because conflicts (especially family conflicts) are far from being smooth.

The handheld camera was such a great choice, that I noticed this only recently. It feels so natural; it feels like this was the only possible way how to shoot this scene. Handheld camera is a key to “secret” why this scene works emotionally.

As always, shoot me any comments you might have! 😉


  1. Unsteadicam chronicles


Two worlds in Limitless

When I read articles related to movies, it happens quite often, that I’ll read something like this:

“We used camera to tell a story…  Sound played a really important role, it helped to tell the story…”

And I always get frustrated, because usually (99% of time) it is not clear what they meant by that. The sentences above leave me asking: It’s nice, but what exactly did you do?

Well, the interview by Debra Kaufman with cinematographer Jo Willems at is one of those rare exceptions, where you’ll learn not only what they did to help telling the story, but most importantly – why.

Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper) is a wrecked writer whose life is falling apart. Well, one day he is visited by old friend Vernon (Johnny Whitworth) and he offers him a pill: “You know how they say we can only access 20% of our brain? This lets you access all of it.”  So what this pill does is that it fully unlocks the potential of human brain, in other words, you get access to super human abilities.

Limitless (2011)
Limitless (2011)

When I saw the movie for the first time, I noticed the change in color grading, when he takes the pill – everything is graded towards warm sunny tones (especially yellow and orange),

Limitless (2011)
Limitless (2011)

while when he is not on the pill, there is a lot of cool tones (especially blue), the colors are desaturated, everything seems darker and more contrasty.

Watch the trailer and try to focus only on the tones. I’m sure, that just by looking at the tones/colors you’ll be able to tell, whether he is on the drug or not. But there is more to that, so let’s take a look what else did they do, to differentiate the two worlds:

World 1 – Down and broke (off pill) World 2 – Powerful and charismatic (on pill)
Camera moves hand held dollies, cranes, steadicam
Film stock Fuji Kodak
Lighting uncontrolled (hard and fractured) controlled (softer and diffused)
Lenses longer focal length (tele) shorter focal length (wide)

Ok, the table above sums up, what they (Neil Burger, Jo Willems and others) did, to differentiate the two worlds when he is on/off the pill. But far more interesting is to read why! 🙂


Behind the Lens: DP Jo Willems & Limitless

Watch the trailer and notice the dolly-zoom move at 0:45. You can read more about this technique by clicking here.

Four motivations for shaky camera in the Bourne trilogy

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.


  1. Unsteadicam chronicles