Saturday, March 10, 2007

Cinéma Vérité: Distraction!

Okay so, I’m a director and as such I have styles I like. I like traditional camera moves with some modern innovation mixed in (a mounted camera, smooth pans plus, rack focus and dollies.) So, when it comes to hand held, steadcam shots and zoom lens pushes, I widely reserve them for action, if someone/thing is watching from afar and if I’m trying to imitate a mechanical/remote camera respectively. You guessed it, Enter: Cinéma Vérité. Or, as I like to call what it’s turned into, the Tourettes Style.

The style, which featured long takes and handheld shots, was popularized by Hill Street Blues as a way to add realism to the show; sorta as if the characters were always being observed by a documentary camera crew. The style has been widely adopted by many cop shows from NYPD Blue to 24 as well as sci fi shows like X-Files and Battlestar Galactica. The thing I dislike is what the style has turned into which is a constantly moving, jiggling, jostling, swish panning camera with quick zooms. It completely distracts me from the story and pulls my attention to the camera itself. Case in point, in 24 Jack Bauer watches helplessly as a nuclear explosion (effects by Zoic) erupts in the distance. He couldn’t get there in time! He’s uhhh…crushed… I think, wait… I can’t seem to tell… the camera’s moving all over, can’t see Kiefer’s face… the shot is now an extreme close-up of Kiefer’s nostril… no his eye… GAH! I could not keep myself in the moment because the camera operator keeps messing with the shot! Not only is the shot moving around enough to make me sea sick, it keeps zooming-in in mechanical little increments; the kind of tweaking you might see while a camera operator sets up a shot. It ends up looking like the camera has Tourettes Syndrome. I don’t understand how this is supposed to make anything more realistic or more dramatic. I mean, it’s like they’re trying to use the camera to produce tension, which really isn’t possible per se. I mean, you can heighten the drama of a scene by using the correct camera angle or move, but it can’t inherently produce tension. For that you need story, acting, light, sound and editing as well. The whole point of film making is to draw you in and make you forget that you’re watching a projected image; a two dimensional flipping of images that fools the eye into thinking it’s motion. Instead, this style completely draws my attention to the camera instead of where it’s supposed to be, in the moment and watching the actors. I have nothing against a unique or beautiful shot although some may say such shots put too much emphasis on the image rather than the characters. But today’s cinéma vérité is a constant distraction with takes that are entirely too long. With takes this long, only a heck of an actor can hold the moment. Unfortunately, and this really isn’t anything against them, most actors on television can’t do it. If 24 was made more conventionally, I think I’d love it. But with the crazy cameras and, what ends up being, mediocre acting (and the silly who’s-going-to-backstab-who-next writing) I just can’t. The same goes for Battlestar Galactica, but that show has a LOT further to go to bring me back. I love the cast (Aaron Douglas is the man) but the fact that it’s written as a by-the-book soap opera will never work for me.

So please, to all you camera operators, DP’s and directors out there, please reconsider if you want to use the cinéma vérité style. Make it more subtle and bring the focus back to the image, not its creation.

Thanks for reading! What do you guys think?

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