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?


the Belgian said...

You're the horror maestro, but I'd always thought that the generational "this-is-how-we-see-it" significance of the shaky-cam had been established with "Real World", "ER", and- of course, the "Cops"/Rodney King reali-tainment of the early 90's.

If anything, I felt the *least* innovative step in all this was the oft-cited BWP's adoption of the shaky-technique, as the unsettling Friday the 13th style "murderer's-P.O.V." was already as old as Methuselah by the time it occurred to anyone to make the *whole* horror movie that way (and yes, I know that the movie was not from the murderer's P.O.V., but I still had always thought it was the notion of the objective in the movie suddenly being approached subjectively that was the quease-factor in 70's horror). The marketing language that at first held BWP to be *true*, which the shaky-cam served to *not contradict* was the watershed.

(and full disclosure- I could be wrong in assessing that, because for some reason I've never fathomed, I seem to be one of the few of my age group who enjoyed BWP, but just honestly was never that unsettled by it. I've had a fairly median level exposure to the video-eye, and BWP struck me as something slightly less scary but more confusing than a fraternity hazing, and expected that the Horrifying Guy In The Corner was going to turn around and light some M-80's and stomp on some old beercans. I simply didn't understand that I was supposed to be *climactically scared* until after the movie was over, and had to confirm with my companion that the final shot meant that the story has the Blair witch overcoming our hero (I'm still unclear of what actually happens). I thought maybe I'd just missed some necessary exposition. However, it suddenly does now occur to me that perhaps the movie worked, and that really my most immediate response to the *actual ghost of a witch mesmerizing my companion to stand in a corner awaiting doom*
would be annoyed confusion, only eventually becoming alarm after I accepted these occult concepts as reality a few minutes later)

But as for examples of a style developing from the amateurs to the professionals, I'd say this defines *the* tension in art.. with examples too shopworn to itemize here. But I'll give you one: the "comix" having affected visual language in film, art, television, and certain books...

That Fuzzy Bastard said...

I am, for once, in the generational sweet spot---I *loved* BWP. I thought it was scary as hell, and more important (for snobby li'l me, if not to ticket-buyers everywhere), it had a terrific thematic consistency which raised it past shock-show and into capital-A Art. Get a few drinks in me and I'll rant at great length about all it has to say about wilderness, control, cameras, shopping, and the kids of America. I'll admit that I too didn't quite get the guy in the corner until it was explained to me, but I then found it even more chilling than before---for a movie that's all about seeing, the image of victims being forced to look at nothing (in a scene that ends, SLACKER-like, with the camera being dropped) is really resonant.

As for Cops/TRL/ER and so on, you're sort of missing the distinction I'm making. Yes, handheld camera has been used in film and television since at least the early 60s. And the faux-doc gimmick has certainly been used before---SNUFF used it to gussy up an unfinished project, and CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST was ostensibly built around it.

But the extra shakiness of camcorder work---particularly its seeming indifference to composition---is, I think, characteristic of the video generation, and is a look that I don't think would have been possible before you had a lot of people with childhood memories of videocameras. And while Cops is probably an early adopter of the look in a reality show (which is just an ugly neologism for documentary), what I find notable is the way it made its way into fiction.

This, too, is why I don't think the influence of comics on other media isn't quite on point. I'm not talking about a high-to-low influence, as your Lichtenstein link would suggest (while 60s comics may have been pop media, they were produced by comics professionals). Rather, I'm talking about amateur-to-professional---how a look created by amateurs, more for reasons of incompetence than aesthetics, has become increasingly influential. That's what I find really striking, and sort of unprecedented (unless you count the move to writing in the vernacular with Dante, but that's maybe reaching).

beanbagfrog said...

I never saw BWP. The lines were always too long and I didn't feel like checking it out on video. That said, it seems to me that a lot of the talk about shaky camcorder being a 'style' revolves around that film.

Even though I haven't seen it, I've read about it, and I think it's cool that they made it mostly on Hi-8. I miss Hi-8, it was the last great analog video format. When I was in college I made a long video with The Belgian with a little Hi-8 camera set to Black and White. It felt so cool, and I still think the video 'grain' on those things looks so creepy and blurry the way dv never does.

I just edited a cop show for a couple months for A&E, and I gotta say their shaky camcorder work was mostly accidental and kind of fucking annoying most of the time. Still, you work with what you have, and what you end up with is an editing style that relies heavily on the soundtrack to smooth it out. (JLG's 'Breathless' is the perfect example of a smooth soundtrack holding choppy cuts together.)

When you put together a film whose soundtrack is as staccato as its shots, you get something like 'Julien Donkey Boy.' Good times as far as I'm concerned, but not necessarily everyone's favorite.

beanbagfrog said...

You guys suck! Where's your f**king blog? F**k you!