How Moving Shots Reveal Story, Create Tension (and so much more)

From The Bold Type to I May Destroy You to Supergirl, a recent trend in television is to keep the camera moving. Network procedurals, prestige cable dramas, limited run series, even talk shows (hello, Patriot Act) often ply this technique, sometimes as a cheap way to up production value.


Advantages and Drawbacks

When used well, movement is motivated by story or character, or fun and beautiful in its own right. It can elicit feelings as it sweeps across a vista, underline a character is getting close to a goal, surprise as it comes out from behind a wall or lamp, or demonstrate that characters are trapped in / meditating on the past like in this opening shot of Volver. It can be impressive in its technical nature such as the iconic Wings shot, continue motion from an establishing shot, or give the viewer a sense of location and place, particularly when first establishing a world or location. Movement can contribute to tension and jump scares, or lull the viewer along. In Gilmore Girls its use often adds to the frenetic, freewheeling pace of the conversation, making us feel we’re being driven along as incessantly as everyone else in the Lorelais’s lives.

Not every movement has to have A Big Defining Purpose. Sometimes it’s just an excuse to show off a set while letting a character deliver exposition while looking good in a suit, and that’s fine. But when used poorly, movement can undercut the story or characters. Movement can distract from the acting or cinematography, or make the viewer seasick. Movement can

When used incessantly, it’s usually trying to fancy up a show, as we (consciously or otherwise) assume a moving frame is necessarily fancier than a still frame; probably a holdover from the days when only high-budget TV and feature films could afford the equipment and extra setup time required to to more than a simple pan or dolly. Unceasing movement can also be an attempt to give the audience an impression something is happening! even when story or character are stagnant; a cheat, sure, but often an effective one.

Two things in particular make overuse of this trend dangerous: 1. that it’s only really cheaper and more expedient to go handheld (as opposed to laying long tracks, using a jib or large crane or the like)* 2. defaulting to constant movement robs some shots of their power by nature of movement fatigue.

As for the former, putting a camera on a jib and meticulously planning the movements, blocking and lighting long walk-and-talks, etc. takes more time and effort than a still shot. Handheld/steadicam is often more scattered than larger, smoother moving setups. Chances are if the shot is handheld and the operator is moving a little looser – like in most indie shorts you’ve seen at the local film festival – they’ve lit the area much more broadly to allow for more ‘freedom’ of movement** and that shakiness mean it’s that much less likely you catch the perfect moment with your actor in focus, or that they land naturally in the right light for that Capping Moment, etc..

As for the latter, shows such as The Americans which use it more sparingly or intentionally prove it’s best not only in smaller doses, but in more particular ways. When movement is used as constantly as it’s been recently, it starts to become too familiar, breeding contempt or worse: boredom.

Recent Trendsetting

The West Wing (whose look was established by the wonderful Thomas Schlamme) brought the steadicam / moving camera into network favour in the early oughts, but network shows still lean towards tighter schedules and smaller budgets, so what it’s actually, practically led to is shows such as Law & Order trying to emulate the look&feel without putting the same amount of work and time into blocking, motivated movements, and long takes. The ‘cheap & fast’ solution to simply handhold / steadicam everything ends up creating a landscape where when you let the camera sit stationary and observe, it can feel ‘boring and slow’ in contrast, even if neither the story or cinematography is either of those things.

While keeping a camera constantly moving can undermine your work on various levels, using movement and/or long flowing shots well and selectively is impressive while serving various purposes. When you can do it right, it’s a thing of beauty. When you can’t, sometimes you can use smaller moves to achieve your purpose, and sometimes those are actually even better options.

A Few Variations

Let’s look at three particular camera moves – a small move within many other cuts, a long extended move, and a few bigger moves cut together – to see how they’re used differently and what their reveals add to the story.

Better Call Saul is a show which knows exactly when, why, and how it’s using its camera, from a beautiful montage or a macro lens showing ants eating ice cream. In 03.02 “Witness” they use a small, revealing move cut into other still shots. The cold open starts with still shots, closups, or camera moves following an object/character in motion, until this shot cuts to a wide which ever so slowly begins to move. As it moves, it reveals information.

The audience starts on Chuck making tea, checking locks, and peering out windows. We’ve been in his house before, we see he is nervous but don’t know why. . . when the slow camera move in this wide reveals a man in the mirror. With the right music, this might be played for a jump scare, instead we have just enough time to wonder if this stranger is intruder or enemy or friend, then Chuck enters. Because of the framing, for a moment we can’t tell whether Chuck sees the man, the slow creep of the camera adding to the heightening tension as Chuck’s shadow falls over the mirror before he becomes reflected in it, breaking our tension at whether he knows the man is there.

Il Conformista‘s opening shot also uses movement and mirrors for a slow-reveal-of-info (it also uses colour incredibly well). Yes, films often have more time and/or money to set up complex shots, but this was 50 years ago and technology has evolved to enable smaller budgets to do more with movement in shorter time, so we’re seeing more of these sorts of moves particularly in ‘prestige’ TV.

It’s impeccably blocked to dole out new details from moment to moment, giving us a new bite as soon as we’ve digested the last bit of info. First, we think Marcello is alone in the room. Then he walks across the room, and as the camera moves we see his travel kit and realise he is ‘on the move’ or on the road. He pull out a gun, which we also see in the first of many mirrors) and the camera follows him towards the bed, then up over the frame, to reveal a hat, and the moment we fully register that there’s a naked woman in the bed, Marcello removes the hat, then covers her with a sheet. The motion is designed to compliment and work with his movements, revealing his circumstances as he goes.

Sometimes lower budgets and/or bigger scenes mean you need to break things into multiple long shots. The West Wing 2.01 “In the Shadow of Two Gunmen” contains chaos, scale, and minimal cuts, all clearly meticulously planned. The camera isn’t jerky, but does carry us with the action in a movement much more chaotic than the show’s usual walk and talks; another example of using contrast to usual form, IE exception to the rule, in your favour.

Often you’ll face logistical and not just creative reasons for breaking big tracking shots up, particularly on small-screen, many-episodes shows.

But sometimes you really, really want a oner.

Tracking in Network Procedurals

I’m doing a Person of Interest rewatch; its camera moves are often determined by the genre they’re emulating or at least riffing on a specific cliche, scene, or character, from Superman to Rear Window. Though of course it doesn’t have The Americans money or development time, its directors often do a good job of knowing when to move and when to sit in the stillness.

The below shot from 4.13 “M.I.A.” is reminiscent of one of Laura‘s reveals. Moving through darkness and [relative] light and colour changes is aesthetically pleasing (and quite a bit of work for a 22-episode-season show), and the darkness allows for the possibility our villain is going to come out from around any corner. As the camera moves back from the door to see a floor-length curtain we already noticed, so we think surely our bad guy is behind the curtain, except then wait here he comes from behind the audience / camera, now he opens the door and SURPRISE!

While the move probably doesn’t truly throw anyone who’s been a fan of the show, it’s a lovely moment, and works even better because the move is unbroken (more on that below).

That shot is similar in movement to the below The X-Files 1.03 “Squeeze” shot, which upends our expectations a different way. The shot is voyeuristic, moving from behind a wall to peep on Scully as she begins a bath, moving towards her in a way horror movies often use as a stalker’s POV angle. It becomes clear from how close the camera/audience get Scully would see if it were actually an intruder, but the feeling of being watched remains as we moves from a wide to a closeup of her hands opening a bottle . . . and then PLOP! She and we are startled by the reveal.

Are there ways to do these scenes using standard cuts, of course. But a long move is a really effective way to do it, not just because it makes us feel some sense of identification with the hero (PoI) or voyeurism (TXF). In both of the above shots, moving without cutting means our train of thought isn’t interrupted, and lets the suspense and our questioning be driven along.

One of the most versatile and powerful of moving shots, a long tracking shot can also drive us along as a way of immersing us into a world, a character’s current state of mind, and more.

Tracking in Russian Doll

The categories of cable versus network, prestige versus pedestrian, highbudget versus lowbrow, are becoming even more outdated and the techniques which used to be almost exclusive to one category or the other are crossing over and being used from YouTube to streaming services to Instagram series. We should come up with better ways of talking about the distinctions between art which we continually try to box up with genre labels and outdated terms. But this is not the place for that, so: where does Russian Doll, a short-run, half-hour 8 episode show which last two episodes play almost as one continuous thought, fit? It gets its own category.

Its many tracking shots change and progress through the series, particularly at Nadia’s ‘restarts’. Some are unbroken, others choppy, and all lead us to the realisation this is a show-as-metaphor-for-video-game-as-metaphor-for-life (your particular order of those categories may vary). As producer Steph Westwood – who also has experience in the game industry – pointed out: “The way the tracking shots let her get away, and then catch up to her, it’s so elegant and dynamic.”

Here is where I would post the first long, unbroken tracking in Russian Doll 1.01, but turns out the anti-clip-copyright-bots have a hard-on for this clip. Please just go watch the splendid opening two minutes of 1.01 “Nothing in This World Is Easy” yourself and compare/contrast it with the below shot.

Like video games, this sometimes breaks the shot mid-track to switch ‘angles’ as Nadia moves, angles often show us new facets of the world we’ve not seen, or which have changed since our last visit, from the door design, to the party being populated (or not), etc.

Don’t let the editing fool you: chopping up a tracking shot to where it still feels smooth and coherent and keeps you grounded in the space can be harder than creating one smooth shot . . . which in itself, if you’ve not noticed, is hella hard enough. Watch Russian Doll through and you’ll see it uses camera movement in a myriad of ways, from showing similarities/differences between characters and their situations by using similar/different movements in their mirrored scenarios; to heighten comedic effect when characters tumble over cars or down stairwells; to reveal things behind walls or in suitcases, particularly when things have changed from ‘life to life,’ and more. But crucially, it doesn’t overuse movement or tracking, and plenty of shots are still, for example many of Nadia’s most important conversations with her mother, godmother, neighbourhood rabbi, etc.

Final Notes

When everything is literally moving, you might feel as though the narrative is driving forward, but many of those moments would actually be better served if the camera would sit and observe the moments of the characters in frame. Of course, that would require more time in crafting performance, and time is money, and money is something network producers would often rather put towards pyrotechnics or something which looks good in that 15 second spot during Sunday’s big football game.

Not to mention, more cuts is – generally speaking – better for the ability to deliver your show at exactly the 42:15 the network demands, but less good for showcasing intricate blocking, letting performance breathe, or letting those long moving shots flow properly. (Though of course creative exceptions abound, as in Russian Doll‘s chopped-up tracking shot).

When you do conversations in a shot-reverse-shot, you can trim a sentence, you can choose where to overlap dialogue or cut out or add ‘dead air.’ When the camera is always moving, whether in a big wide, a 360, or a tracking shot, you need to get the conversation in one take where all the actors nail their marks and deliver their lines in a smooth flowing banter and the crew is able to move equipment perfectly and there isn’t a plane overhead right as the camera is close on our hero delivering her climactic line and hahahaha who are we kidding, it often means often you need to cut into that shot and/or suffer some imperfections and/or dub and/or ADR in post to let the conversation flow and make sense.

Filmmaking is hard, is what I’m saying. Every time a director puts in a long moving shot on network TV, the chances are high you’ll have to sacrifice elsewhere and/or it’ll still get chopped up in post. Being able to execute these shots is a massive team effort, and one I’m still working to learn how to best accomplish. But if you go in knowing exactly what you want to accomplish with the shot – why you’re using a particular motion or starting behind a particular object, how it tells a character’s mindset, what emotions it should evoke in the audience, what is going to make jaws drop, what it’s going to reveal in fluid or seemingly haphazard ways – and if you can communicate that to everyone on your team, you’ll be halfway there.


Stray Observations

– *I’m speaking in plenty of generalities, of course. Many standing TV sets now have tracks or other similar frameworks built in, meaning you can do something like a half-circle around the outside of a room without too much trouble, but the real sexy setups for exteriors or one-off locations are still mostly going to be on feature films.

– **It’s the same principle / reason action-based reality TV such as Masterchef and Survivor are so bright; to allow the camera to jump anywhere, at any time.

– In The X-Files clip you can see Gillian pausing for pretend-struggle with her bath perfume, IE waiting for the out-of-frame production assistant to drop the good juuuuuuust right, but that’s filmmaking for you. You get a couple runs at it – hell, sometimes just one, like Sidney Lumet and that famous Orient Express leaving the station – so you take the best of the bunch and move on.

Legends of Tomorrow has perfected the Arrowverse model of ‘starting a scene by moving out from behind an object,’ which they sometimes also use to make dirty visual jokes.

– Another of my favourites, but more about the tracking and a meta show-off-i-ness of film itself than micro-moves or reveals until the last cut, is the Day for Night opener. The wonderful (it’s on Netflix, watch it immediately) Call My Agent often employs shots like this.

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  1. […] writer and legend Denise Thé, with series EP Chris Fisher to direct. I’ve talked about how POI uses a moving camera as well using shot choice and editing to give extra layers of meaning to a silent scene. Now […]

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