UNITED 93, Audience Surrogacy, and the Art of Shaky-Cam

Over the last ten years, several cinematic techniques have gone from being the exception to the rule, perhaps the most obvious and frustrating to most people is the “shaky-cam”–which is shooting a scene like it was shot spur-of-the-moment by a documentary camera unsure of where the action is going.

Everybody has an opinion about shaky-cam and its many appearances in everything from mockumentaries (Blair Witch Project, Cloverfield) to big-budget blockbusters (Battleship, The Hunger Games). Most people seem to be growing tired of it, as some action movies have been accused of being lazy with its use instead of allowing the audience to understand the geography of the scene. Some people get sick because of all the motion. Some people just want to see all the action at one time happening on screen.

But have you ever seen shaky-cam used effectively? Has a film ever been improved by the verite style? What are the benefits of throwing your audience into the unknown and never helping them find their feet?

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I read an article recently about how “The Office” soured its use of an audience surrogate by revealing the documentary crew and breaking the wall that it took Greg Daniels nine years to build. It got me thinking about not only the mockumentary form, but of the shaky-cam form as a whole. The entire purpose of shaky-cam, from the digital noise of the Duplass brothers films to the sophisticated motion-sway of Paul Greengrass’s Bourne films, is for the audience to be in the scene. The camera is you, acting as a version of you within the universe of the film.

For something that started as early as Man With The Movie Camera and was perfected during the French New Wave, shaky-cam is still weirdly stigmatized as a lazy effort to make action scenes more exciting without thinking about the context of why it moves us.

That doesn’t mean it hasn’t been used out of laziness. Of course it has. But so have tripods, steadicams, dollies, and all other forms of cinematography. When was the last time you saw that final crane shot in a romantic comedy and rolled your eyes? Forced whimsy. Lazy.

Shaky-cam itself is not symptom of laziness, but the means of which it appears in the film can be. Perfect example: Battle: Los Angeles spends the last third of the film in what can only be described as sound and light blurring together to the sounds of gunshots. This isn’t because the audience is in on the action (Bourne Ultimatum) or because the film is giving us a message about the pervasiveness of data recording in our culture (Chronicle), but because the stunt coordinator didn’t have enough time to adequately choreograph fight scenes. You can tell by the fact that there are no establishing shots of any kind. By the way we are clearly watching stock footage and b-roll from a shoot that went wildly off the rails. This and movies like it are reason enough for people to dismiss shaky-cam as nothing other than “something movies do now that I think are stupid,” even though this effect has been around for decades.

In 2006, Paul Greengrass wrote and directed United 93, a film about the only hijacked plane on 9/11 that didn’t hit its target. The movie takes place in real time, is shot completely hand-held, uses (at the time) totally non-professional actors as well as the real United Airlines ATC that worked on the day of the attacks. It’s a narrative feature film that could easily be categorized as a dramatization, but it becomes something much more than just a simple reenactment by the time the credits roll. This isn’t because the story is gut-wrenchingly sad and performed well by non-actors. Plenty of dramatizations about important events are terrible. You’ve seen them.

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What makes United 93, one of the most suspenseful and emotionally jarring films I’ve seen, so cinematically compelling? If you look at the film’s Oscar nomination, you’ll probably be able to guess. Greengrass took a serious risk in two significant ways. The first risk is the aforementioned choices in actors. The second risk is how he chose to shoot it.

The entire film is handheld, and, in some scenes, so out-of-focus and severe that the audience is actively oppressed by the visuals. There are times that you forget you’re watching a narrative film. You think it’s a documentary. The actors mostly ad-libbed their lines, giving us strained, gear-grinding faces as they attempt to survive an impossible situation. The camera rests on faces for sustained periods of time. The angles feel improvised, sometimes focusing on extremely unfortunate angles that you usually only see on youtube videos about spiders under your house.

The camera is you, and it’s focusing on whatever it can to absorb the situation. There are no establishing shots. None of the characters have names. You avoid looking out the windows. You avoid looking directly at the terrorists as they threaten you. Faces are too close to you. You’re crowded and hot and confused and angry and exhausted and you don’t know where to look or who to listen to or who to trust. It’s all ending, and you don’t know what to do with whatever time you have left.

Greengrass shoots the film like a news camera catching a riot in Egypt. All you get is movement and the pained sound of those around you. And, sometimes, you catch something important and provocative and enormously moving by accident because your hand slipped.

United 93 uses its cinematography to place you in a certain place at a certain time, and it deprives you of the omniscience you’re used to as a viewer.

This is how shaky-cam can be, and has been, used effectively. Zero Dark Thirty‘s final half hour uses its camera to do the same thing, mercilessly chronicling every last detail of the raid on Osama Bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan. The Hunger Games uses its camera to remind the audience that cameras are present. That an audience is watching what is happening on screen.

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Many viewers complained about Gary Ross’s decision to film Suzanne Collins’s book with the shaky-cam, but it’s an artistic decision that fits within the world of that film. It’s a recorded event witnessed live by millions of people. We are actively engaged in the games ourselves, and cameras would have registered the action in the same way because they are catching the live feed of a fight that they have not choreographed. The camera is trying to catch up with the action because, while they’re in the arena, we are seeing what the districts are seeing.

In United 93, we are just another passenger on the plane.

By removing the omniscience of the audience and forcing them to decipher the images they’re witnessing, viewers are reminded of the nightly news. Of internet videos broadcasting obscene violence from the point of view of a camera. The camera is you in that moment, and the camera does not lie or look away. You are seeing what it sees because it is you.

Audiences may find shaky-cam nauseating, anxiety-inducing, and lazy, but the very existence of it cannot be dismissed. It serves a real purpose in a time where every important event is documented by iPhones as they are currently happening. It’s just a tool.

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