Posted in: Review

The 10 Best Uses of the “Shaky Cam” Technique in Films

While we like to think of it as a recent development in the history of cinema, directors have been experimenting with handheld camerawork as far back as the ’40s. Usually employed for a singular effect, it wasn’t until the ’60s, and the dawn of the cinema verite movement in documentaries, when filmmakers in general felt they could employ the device to feature -length ends. Now, handheld photography is a regular part of the Cineplex experience, especially popular with action films and horror offerings employing a first-person POV perspective to up the audience’s identification with the events onscreen. This time around, we’re not focusing on the “found footage” idea. Instead, here are our Top 10 picks for the best use of the shaky-cam in creating thrills. No matter if you get nauseous or not, its use in these titles argues for its viability as an approach and artistic statement.

#10 – Cannibal Holocaustshakycam10

Along with The Blair Witch Project, this Italian splatter film is often considered the granddaddy of shaky-cam efforts. Throughout its defiant dissertation on the heartlessness of the media, we witness a group of TV execs as they screen footage taken by a missing camera crew tracking tribes in the Amazon. The results include animal atrocities, human horrors, and enough jitterbugging viewfinders to send audience clutching for their barf bags. Even today, there’s too much focus on the grotesqueries and not enough on the movie’s message.

#9 – Cloverfieldshakycam9

What if Godzilla arrived in NYC and a group of partying post-adolescents were there to capture the destruction? That’s the basic idea behind Matt Reeves and Drew Goddard’s 2008 hit, a combination of big budget building collapses and incoherent Gen-Y screams. Sure, we constantly question why conscientious cameraman Hud doesn’t just drop the device and run like hell, but hey, it’s a movie. The technique works here, and the results are frequently breathtaking.

#8 – The Kingdomshakycam8

A suicide bombing occurs on a military base in Saudi Arabia, killing dozens and injuring many more. The FBI sends in a team of experts to decipher what happened, coming face to face with the kind of clash of cultures you expect when West meets weaponized Fundamentalism. Along the way, director Peter Berg stages several sensational actions scenes, all utilizing a kind of frenzied filmmaking style meant to mimic the confusion that comes with being a preyed-upon stranger in an even stranger land.

#7 – Chronicleshakycam7

Three high school friends stumble upon a fallen meteor while at a party. They are immediately infected with the alien object’s “powers,” gradually turning them into superheroes. Along the way, we experience the levels of discovery and distance these guys feel as they experiment with and gain power over their abilities. Naturally, we end up with a good vs. evil beatdown, all of it captured on cameras cleverly explained away to avoid that “why are they still filming?” problem that many of these movies suffer from.

#6 – The Battle of Algiersshakycam6

In the early ’50s, the North African country of Algiers hoped to remove itself from the strongarm tactics of its colonialist occupier, France. So a revolution occurred, creating the foundations of urban guerilla warfare that are still in use today. Italian filmmaker Gillo Pontecorvo, inspired by the recent trend of cinema verite in documentaries, decided to shoot his reenactment of the events in a newsreel like fashion, placing the viewer in the middle of both the mayhem and the more mundane elements of war.

#5 – District 9shakycam5

The premise here predicates the use of a handheld ideal. Writer/director Neill Blomkamp wanted to provide a more factual approach to his speculative fiction, telling the story of the aftermath to an alien “invasion” from the standpoint of individuals documenting a proposed relocation of some intergalactic refugees. The trick works, and eventually we forget the device and focus on a message meant to mimic our current concerns over immigration and the treatment of the itinerate. As a moviemaking metaphor, it works wonderfully.

#4 – Battle Royaleshakycam4

Kinji Fukasaku’s take on Koushun Takami’s novel is the real Hunger Games, down to its original use of a wild, frenetic filming style. While much of the movie is told in sedate set pieces, the various kid-on-kid killings often go overboard, hoping that the more personalized approach will increase the overall impact of the subject matter. While it’s hard to define this film as purely part of the shaky-cam world, its use of the technique (and its overall greatness) requires its inclusion.

#3 – Saving Private Ryanshakycam3

Steven Spielberg used to be the king of the awe-inspiring establishing shot, actors and F/X merged to make us drop our jaws in wonder. But when taking on D-Day and the Invasion of Normandy, the seasoned director dropped most of his mannerisms and gave us what could best be described as a reporter’s “you are there” POV. Bodies and blood fly past the lens and the cameraman desperately tries to keep things in frame. The chaos of battle has never seemed crueler.

#2 – [REC]shakycam2

A female reporter, stuck doing a regular report on firemen during the late shift, takes her cameraman into a seemingly normal apartment, only to have a horrific zombie plague break out. As they rush from floor to floor, looking for survivors and a way out of quarantine, the viewer feels trapped as well. This is one of the best uses of the technique since it allows for both a clear idea of what is going on while offering all the jumps and jolts of a limited, jumbled perspective.

#1 – United 93shakycam1

If there is anyone to “blame” for the now commonplace use of shaky-cam tricks as part of an action film or thriller, it would be Paul Greengrass. He took the Bourne franchise away from Doug Liman and infused it with enough jittery stunt sequences to make even the hardiest stomach develop a clear case of queasiness. But here, working from a script depicting the fictionalized last flight of the title plane on September 11th, Greengrass puts his penchant to perfect use. The chaos only adds to the story’s sense of heartbreak.

Comments (8) on "The 10 Best Uses of the “Shaky Cam” Technique in Films"

  1. I’m going to have to respectfully disagree with you.

    Nothing ruins a film quicker than shaky cam. It is used to save time and money, maximizing profits. Camera tracks don’t have to laid for handhelds, saving filming time. Also, the constant jiggling prevents the eye from focusing on details—making shaky cam the perfect technique for hiding poor choreography, bad props, and sloppy acting. It hides poor editing, and quickens the editing process. It also bypasses the actors, storyline, and scenery in an unsuccessful attempt to create a mood through motion.

    In short, shaky cam is a lazy director’s best friend.

    I have yet to see shaky cam done well. The movies listed in your ‘review’ were horrible, all due to the distracting jiggling and swimming. It’s quite sad, as some of those movies had great plots, decent actors, and a lot of potential.

    1. Paul Greengrass is the only director who can make shaky cam an art form. Like United 93 and the recent Captain Phillips had a documentary style and felt real because of the shaky cam and in the action films he’s done he uses it to bring you into the action.

      1. I must disagree with Daniel. The handheld ‘shaky cam’ does NOT “… bring you into the action.” Rather it forces you to be only an observer — much too aware that you are seeing the action through a lens and not with your own eyes. The ‘shaky cam’ is nothing but an unnatural, gratuitous artifact that gets in the way of the viewer’s full participation in the film’s story. The worst idea to come along in the history of film-making.

  2. I agree with Jess; shaky cam is so horrible that I don’t believe there’s anything “best uses of” about it. Along with all the points Jess mentioned, watching stuff film with the technique gives me a headache behind my eyes. I struggled to get through the last couple of seasons of Battlestar, often averting my gaze. I now refuse to watch anything that was shot this way.
    Hopefully, it’s on the way out

    1. Iif you haven’t seen United 93 then watch it because not only is it a masterpiece but it’s shaky cam done right. It felt like watching real recordings of the event and theretofore felt real and that’s why it worked.

  3. There is no best use of the Shaky Cam, Vomit Cam technique. There is no done right shaky cam. It is not a technique it is an amateur trying to make up for his inability to make a good film with real action scenes. They have to try to fake action by shaking the camera because they have no talent. Forget Paul Greengrass and forget United 93 that is crap. I have quit going to movies because it is being used universally. Also the extreme closeup all the time technique so you are looking up peoples nostrils and focusing in on their armpits. This stuff is so amateur. I can’t believe people in Hollywood think all this crap is quality movie making. I can[t believe sponsors are willing to pay for it. Was not the outcry against the first Hunger Games movie some sort of clue? Yes they got a new director for the second movie. Of course they said it was for some other reason. But the huge numbers of people who say they had to leave the theater because of nausea and also the woman who vomited all over a man in front of her should be some sort of clue. The human eye simply not work that way. The human eye does not pan and it does not shake all over the place. Hollywood can you not see all the people online blogging about how they are being made to vomit by your crap. Are you blind? Please for all our sakes get a clue.

    1. I fully agree with anotherfatherof4. Shaky Cam/Vomit Cam is the modern scourge of moviegoing… inflicting pain and suffering on a helpless audience. How can we get this message to where it might make a difference? Is there some office or organization to which a petition may be sent? There are online sites that will help start a petition and get it circulated, but to whom should it be addressed to be most effective? Would it help to approach universities, colleges, and art schools that have filmmaking/cinematography programs? I am going to contact the chair of the Dept of Cinematic Arts at The Univ of Iowa about this issue and see if she has any thoughts or suggestions for us. Maybe I can also discover what, if anything, is being taught about this “technique.”

  4. I really wish TV sets would have an image stabilization feature to kill the shaky cam effect so I can watch more TV shows and movies. I’d pay twice as much for a TV with that feature.

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