The shaky cam is so common these days it's cliche. In order to curb this trend we've categorized the good, the bad, and the ugly of the candid cam takes. Not all shaky cams are created equal.
The shaky cam, which finds its origins relatively recently, has become synonymous with mockumentaries and "realistic" approaches to fiction.
Movies that use the shaky camera technique strive for a realistic approach to better "connect" with the audience. Sure, in theory it's realistic. People move and so do our eyeballs. But our eyes are so well adapted that trying to replicate them is useless. No camera even comes close to capturing the details our eyes can.
The beauty of film for me has always been seeing and picking up on things you wouldn't in everyday life. Shaky cams are agonizing because you miss as much as you get from a film. Most films that use the technique require atleast a rewatch or even a careful inspection of stills.
That being said, there do exist films which use the realism to their advantage.
District 9 used the shaky cam well, sparingly using the camera to "replicate" the human eye. When it did use the realistic technique, it wasn't distracting and actually added to the storyline.
The camera is not as shaky as in other films and even serves to enhance the viewing as it switches from a relatively still camera taking documentary statements to the 1980s-esque hand held shaky cam.
Even with these action-packed clips from D9, even with their more distracting movements, you don't miss any of the action.
Director Neill Blomkamp keeps the action front and center, never sacrificing the story for "authenticity." Perhaps that's why his shaky cam is less distracting, because Blomkamp seems to understand that while some movement is accepted by the human eye, too much loses viewers as they look away to readjust their eyes.
The recent reincarnation of Battlestar Galactica was critically hailed for it's inventive use of the shaky cam realism, featuring jumps and surprise zooms and using the camera as a translator of the action.
It was quick and fast and yet you never felt as though you missed any part of the important action scenes. Again, a careful juxtaposition of still and shaky shots combined to give us an easy, even pleasant to watch story. BSG and Firefly put shaky cam back on the map for inventiveness and District 9 is taking it even further by using it as an actual enhancement instead of an authenticity booster.
Too often filmmakers seem overly excited by the thought of realism and forget that some people want to watch a movie for the fiction of it all; but yes, the realistic shaky cam does have its advantages.
Remember when Paul Greengrass was set to direct Watchmen? It would have been an entirely different movie if the master of shaky cam action sequences had been at the helm of the greatest graphic novel film. Instead, he tackled the Bourne trilogy.
Greengrass's The Bourne Ultimatum is filled with shaky, "realistic" jumps and serves and zooms. And while, they're not always as bad as those in previously mentioned mockumentaries, there's still something lacking, there's still some action you're missing out on.
The film isn't half as distracting as Cloverfield, but it still never seems to stop moving. There's no break, no pause, very few still shots. With so much movement, you can assume Greengrass wants his audience involved in the action, engaged and invested with his hero. And yet, if I can't see the man I'm supposed to be supporting, how can I root for him?
Bourne is better at giving the audience a glance at the actual action, and yet there's still something missing. An improvement over the shaken more in post-production fests of above, but still not quite perfection. And the problem is that many have tried to imitate what didn't work even for Bourne and end up shelved in the Ugly section.
The ugliest shaky cam abusers are those which have little regard for the actual film they're making and instead are more concerned with the look and visceral feel of the movie.
Mockumentaries have a terrible habit of using the shaky cam to its shakiest to make a scene scarier or more believable. Instead they merely make you angry you're missing what they're supposed to be documenting.
Ever watch an actual documentary? They don't shake half as much as these mocking films would have you believe.
Quarantine coupled the shaky cam with a terrible night vision green hue giving you not only jerky, hard to follow camera shots, but a sickly color throughout much of the film. Of course the camera was often not focused on the scary source of crazy sounds to build suspense and fear, but when it was focused on the action it wasn't even worth it.
Cloverfield is another mockumentary that relied on it's jerking camera shots to make it's realism wildly apparent.
In this clip, the camera is constantly tilted and always moving to remind us that this is "found footage" from a dig site and it was recorded by an regular human being instead of, say, a photographer with a steady hand.
Why eschew established filming techniques in an effort to ruin my experience? Cloverfield had one of the best premises for a monster movie in recent history, the story was engaging and mysterious and required a lot of imagination and extrapolation. It was inventive and steeped in the same lore than makes serials such as Lost work.
So why'd that get thrown out the window when it came time to film the movie? Director Matt Reeves constantly threw around the word "authenticity" when discussing the filming.
If this camera feature is supposed to be so authentic and realistic, how come I always feel like I'm missing so much of the action? Action movies are great; the adrenaline, the jumps, the fights. But with a shaky cam, I feel as though the movement detracts from the pivotal action. I want to see the bad guy getting his face kicked and during car chases; I want to see the car we're supposed to be chasing; I definitely want to see the monster I've been waiting for all movie.
So where do you draw the line; when does realism impede getting the shot?
I'm not discounting every use of shaky cam ever, simply asking for it to be used sparingly, especially with shows like Stargate Universe and the threat of movies like Cloverfield 2 and another Blair Witch on the horizon. Until filmmakers learn to keep us engaged and literally unable to look away, I vote for a moratorium on shaky cam use.