Why Shaky Cam Sucks - A Thesis

In the past decade or so, is seems that an insidious horror has crept into cinema.  A horror that can debilitate dozens of people in one fell swoop (usually those in the first few rows of the theater).  A full blown fad that, unfortunately, cinematographers/directors/whoever-the-hell has decided en masse to be the next big thing in making their movies "real", or "edgy", or "able to cover up poorly shot scenes".  Of course, I speak of shaky cam.

You must have seen it before.  An action scene builds suspense as the heroes finally have their climactic battle with the enemy… only to have the cameraman decide to play make believe and pretend he’s some random guy who wandered onto the battlefield with his Handycam.  I get the idea behind it – the director wants to make the audience feel like they’re involved in the scene.  Like the action is so lifelike and chaotic, you have to duck and dodge to get out of the way of all the crap flying around you.  It’s too bad the effect is so detrimental to the film.

Though the concept’s been around awhile, the style seems to have been popularized by the Blair Witch Project (in movies) and Battlestar Galactica (in TV).  However, it’s been brought to new amounts of absurdity by films like Cloverfield and *sigh* even Star Trek.  Watching those movies, I never got a good look at the really great effects I was looking for: neither the monster nor the starships.  In fact, even trying just gave was a severe headache.  Judging by the warnings posted outside some movie theaters showing Cloverfield, at least I know I’m not the only one.

Even worse, you’ll find a lot of subdued shaky cam used during non action scenes to provide that "realistic" fake documentary feel.  Usually this’ll be done by just making the cameraman hold the camera.  To me, that doesn’t look cool or gritty – it looks unprofessional.  I can’t concentrate very well on the hard work being done by actors when the camera’s wobbling to and fro like the cameraman just got intimate with the bottom of a Tequila bottle.  But, works like the aforementioned Battlestar Galactica take it a step further (read: too far) by doing this even with outer space CGI scenes.  If there’s a ship flying through space, I would really like to see what the hell it is, instead of OH-GOD-LOOK-THERE-A-SHIP-NOW-ANOTHER-FLYING-THERE-WOW-YOU’RE-A-SHAKING-GUY-WITH-A-VIDEO-CAMERA-IN-SPACE-CRAZY-CRAZY-CRAZY-DONE.  I think it was the third season before I ever really knew what the Battlestar Galactica actually looked like (and yes, I AM counting random zooming in and out as part of the unnecessary madness that is shaky cam)

You can’t even tell what’s going one most of the time because you aren’t in control of the movement, so you don’t know how to compensate your vision to be able to see things correctly.  Try this experiment.  Look at something.  I don’t care what.  Now move your head around, while still looking at the thing.  Getting sick yet?  Of course not, because YOU are moving your head, not some ass in Hollywood.  Your eyes know your head will move up, so they shift down to adjust.  That’s how the effect shaky cam is trying for would work in the real world.  Unfortunately, because of the limitations of looking passively at a 2D (or 3D) screen – the effect is just a jumbled mess to your poor confused brain.  Keeping up with the experiment, now try keeping your eyeballs still while moving your head and trying to look at that same thing.  Congratulations!  Now you too can be an Oscar winning cinematographer.

The idea is that if you were a part of the action, you wouldn’t hold your head perfectly still – you’d be going a little nuts and moving around to compensate for that.  Here’s the problem that makes people sick – you have internal mechanisms that can balance your senses so that you still have a bearing of where you are (i.e. your inner ear).  Mess with that, say by shaking around your vision in a way you can’t control, and that’ll screw with your balance, not to mention cause some ill side-effects, such as nausea or headache.  This is at least part of the reason why some people get seasick or carsick.

But, like those ailments, not everyone feels their effects for whatever reason.  Some are just more prone to it than others.  And it seems to be the same way with shaky cam – some don’t mind, and some are sickened to the point of rage.  But rarely do you see someone come of out a movie and say, "Wow, that part where the camera was just going nuts and I couldn’t tell what was going on was great!"  The two modes people seem to have concerning shaky cam are either apathy or anger.  No one except overcompensating producers/directors/whatever seem to think it’s a good idea.  So, please.  If anyone out there ever has control over the decision to include shaky cam in anything – be it motion picture, TV show, student film, I don’t really care – just say no.  Let’s end this terrible fad as soon as we can so that we can move on to the next one.  3D movies integrated with vibrating seats that spray smells in your face are just waiting for their chance to shine.


  • TommyJames
    Posted August 19, 2010 at 3:44 AM | Permalink

    The true, original culprit is NYPD Blue. 

    The whole series was shaky cam.

  • Roo Roo
    Posted August 19, 2010 at 3:48 PM | Permalink

    I knew there was a reason I didn’t like that show.

    That and Dennis Franz’s nude posterior.

  • TommyJames
    Posted August 20, 2010 at 3:29 AM | Permalink

    At the time it was considered groundbreaking and more realistic.

    I was a kid and I knew that was BS.

  • dragono1130
    Posted August 20, 2010 at 5:17 AM | Permalink

    Okay So when I heard about the Shakey cam in cloverfield I thought…meh.  I had no intentions of seeing it before and no intentions after that.  However, everyone was going on about how great it was going to be.  When it came out.  they said it wasn’t that great.  In fact, I think most people I know actually hate it.  It doesn’t make since to put something into a movie that you know more than half of your audience hates, and from what I’ve obtained, most, if not at the very least 80% of movie goers hate Shakey cam for the exact reasons you stated.

    as for the thin you said at the end about the 3d vibrating chairs and smells…I think they got something like that at Disney world.  I beleive it’s Muppets in 3D or something liek thta (last time I went to disney world was about 10 years ago).  What they would do during the show is , for example, when they blew bubbles, bubbles fell out of the ceilin, giving the illusion the film was real.  Another I think, and htis could just be false memories, is that miss Piggy put on some purfum and they sprade it around the theater.  also the hecklers were funny to see, they were in theb ack of the theater as were some of the other muppets.  I dont remember much of the movie but I remember the special effects. 

  • Roo Roo
    Posted August 21, 2010 at 9:47 PM | Permalink

    You know, I do remember that same Muppet movie thing at Disney World.  It was fun – but only as a stand alone amusement.  I certainly hope nothing like that would try to be widely applied to movie theaters.

  • TommyJames
    Posted August 21, 2010 at 11:16 PM | Permalink

    There is a movie about that type of thing with John Goodman, I think.

    *runs to check IMDB*

  • TommyJames
    Posted August 22, 2010 at 12:02 AM | Permalink

    I couldn’t find it in the synopses, but I recall that the theatre owned by Goodman’s character had seats with electrodes that would shock the audience during surprising parts of the movie, among other house enhancements.

  • Roo Roo
    Posted August 22, 2010 at 2:00 AM | Permalink

    Matinee… yeah, that was an interesting movie all around.  Quite the ensemble cast, including the Doctor from Star Trek Voyager.

  • Arkus
    Posted August 23, 2010 at 2:24 AM | Permalink

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