Monday, September 17, 2007

Shaky camcorder

Like most music DVDs, the one I'm editing right now involves a whole lot of amateur camcorder footage from the tour. It's of about the quality you'd expect from a bunch of drunk heavy-metal guys running around truck stops---shaky, blurry, weirdly framed and generally crappy.

But of course, as an editor, it's my job to make that look good. Fortunately for me, there's a whole lot of editors dealing with the problem, and has been for years---the market for DVDs about bands is pretty immense, and the style has seeped into a lot of television programming, especially in reality shows.

As a result, there's a pretty well-established cinematic language for amateur camcorder footage, one that draws on the verite tradition and music videos in about equal measure: an alternation of very fast-cuts to music (making each shot very short conceals a multitude of sins), and grace notes that happen in the moment when a shot stops or starts wobbling.

This has become a style that I really enjoy working in, and enjoy watching---done right, its authenticity can create a lovely sense of everyday epiphanies. But it is a style that's come about in large part in reaction to bad camerawork.

I still haven't seen The Bourne Identity, but it seems to have incited a whole lot of hate for its constantly cutting camera and its shaky camerawork. The battle over "music-video style editing" has gone on for a long time, and I think part of the ire is just the ongoing losing battle of the partisans of classical shot length.

But I think the recent shakycamcorder style---done first and best, in this generation, by The Blair Witch Project, and distinguished from earlier handheld camerawork by its emphasis on the shooter's subjectivity---triggers a very particular response based on different generations' experience, not with movies, but with cameras.

For a generation that grew up seeing filmed images done by professionals, the whole thing seems ugly and clumsy (and, as David Bordwell rightly notes, much simpler than it might seem), like a style that's merely there to cover bad camerawork, bad shot selection, and lazy storyboarding. But for people who grew up playing with home video cameras, it looks like how we see life---when we're looking through a camcorder. The camera isn't imitating our eye looking, it's imitating our eye videotaping, but that's an experience many---even most---America kids grow up with, and a context they're very comfortable with.

Of course, this is assuming people want movies to look "real"---it's always possible that we'll someday see a return to the celebratory artificiality of '50's Technicolor epics. But in the meantime, shakycam seems here to stay. I can't think of another example where a style went from amateurs to professionals (instead of the other way around)---it seems symptomatic of the general seizing of the means of media production that's happened in our current media-heavy moment. Can you think of anything similar?