Nitpicking to Nukes: The Camera Needs Paid Leave

That title sounds like a good name to put on a poetry compilation, doesn’t it? Quick, someone who can write poetry! Make that happen! But for me, there’s only today’s topic. I was watching some fight scenes in a show you may have heard of, Game of Thrones, and I noticed something.

I know what you’re thinking: “Cullen, you self-important jackass, you just did two articles on that and it went terribly!” Well, you’re wrong. Er, about the subject, that is, not that those articles were a bad move. You’re right there. But otherwise, you’re wrong! Because I’m not going to talk about the choreography. I’m going to talk about something totally different, connected to fight scenes only in that it seems to show up in a lot of them. That something is what I call QuakyCam, which is not an original name, but beats trying too hard and ending up with something that doesn’t make sense. Like the QuakyCam. It wasn’t in every scene, of course, but it did put in an appearance in one of them, and I couldn’t help but wonder why. We’re not talking about its more moderated form, the somewhat shaky camera as seen during the beach landing in Saving Private Ryan. That was immediately after a giant explosion went off inches from the camera, and shellshock is a good exuse. We’re talking about the camera that has an existential crisis and begins trembling uncontrollably in the middle of the action.

You know what this looks like. Having panned gracefully between talking heads for the last several minutes, the Camera loses its cool the instant anything important happens. Maybe all the adrenaline from seeing two people clumsily swing in circles around each other (sorry, couldn’t resist one jab) causes the camera’s lens to get the jitters. Maybe the cameraman got a little too close on one of the close-ups and is presently bandaging his shins with one hand while filming with the other. Or maybe the director just had a failure of vision and said, “Fuck it, make everything wobbly! That’s how this works, right?” You may remember this from every Transformers film, which I can’t not mention because they’re almost a master class in terrible cinematography. When Michael Bay loves using something, you know you have to be careful with it.

The answer to that hypothetical director’s question? It’s no, and it will always be no. I have been less disoriented going down a waterslide in pitch blackness at 30 miles an hour than while trying to follow anything that happens under the influence of the QuakyCam. The event in question also came while I was 8 years old, unathetlic and had strabismus, so the fact that QuakyCam is still infinitely worse than anything I’ve ever experienced should tell you something. Now, yes, I understand that the idea of the QuakyCam is that it’s supposed to substitute for the physical connection you don’t get from movement on the screen. Except that moving the screen more cannot possibly help me to feel more present than when it is still, because blurred heavily shaking vision isn’t something I associate with being in the moment.

Unless the moment is me being impossibly drunk while the Space Communists bomb the San Andreas Fault as Earth falls into a black hole. Point being that under normal circumstances, the human brain requires visual input to be semi-coherent in order to avoid what’s known medically as ‘spewing out your own intestines.’ Unless you’re afflicted with catastrophic hypothermia and several diseases, your vision will never resemble the QuakyCam. In a visual medium, anything that disrupts the viewer’s ability to view will become much harder for them to enjoy or even process. If we accept my premise that the QuakyCam is supposed to make you feel present (my premise is probably wrong, but this is my blog!), then the Quakycam is a pretty pointless addition.

For this purpose I recommend better use of sound, possibly of that newfangled ‘surround’ variety. This is a principle that certain video games developers use to very good effect. When people say that a gun in a game ‘feels’ punchy, odds are very high it’s the sound of that pixel perforator that they’re actually noticing. Most sense of weight and force in games comes from the way actions sound, not the way they look. A giant hammer feels powerful because of the giant crash at the end of each swing, not because of how slowly it moves.

Another possible explanation for the QuakyCam is that it robs the eyes of their ability to follow what’s going on because they have to keep adjusting so rapidly that they can never entirely focus. This, of course, makes everything look faster. Everything is not, in fact, faster, but it looks that way. So perhaps the idea is that the QuakyCam will substitute ably for actors moving with any actually kind of speed or power, which would explain why it shows up so much in combat scenes. Spoiler: it doesn’t. Because your eyes can’t process the scene, right? All you’ll hear is the sound, and maybe you’ll get one or two flashes of movement. Otherwise the whole blurry mess might as well not be there.

Again, the QuakyCam has its uses in moderation. If there’s a legitimate reason for disorientation, and the scene is scripted around that, then by all means go ahead! But if the situation is supposed to be tense, no QuakyCam. Tension is caused by knowing what’s happening at present and having reason to think it’s about to get worse. Disorientation is having no idea what’s going on. They are 100% exclusive, and if you want the fight to be faster you should start kicking the coordinator a little.

Besides, it’ll help him explain to actors what getting the wind knocked out of you really looks like. Maybe his vision will get blurred and shaky.

Say something, darn it!

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