Brendan Shick | Freelance Film, Broadcast, & Digital Media

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The “Illusion of Movement Shot:” How to Make a Simple Shot Better in a Pinch

Jan 05 2012 by Brendan Shick Add Your Thoughts

The Problem

Today’s post is merely a simple tip for making any shot better with a minimum of added conceptual effort. Not that extra effort is a bad thing, but so many times on set we are pulled by the pressures of the shooting environment. Whether it be lack of budget, lack of time, or lack of patience from the subject, the crew must be ready and knowledgeable enough to compensate with a minimum sacrifice to quality.

For these situations, it’s good to have a “go to” plan. A shot choice that you can whip out quickly, but one that is also proven and effective.

The Textbook Solution Vs. My Favorite Solution

In film school, students are taught that when time is an issue, they should fall back to the basics. Shoot minimal coverage with minimal equipment. That is, cover the scene in a static wide shot and maybe a closeup of each speaking character. Lose the complicated shot lists and don’t break out the dollies, cranes, or jibs until the crew is back on schedule.

Placing the camera on a tripod and locking it off is certainly a quick method for obtaining your coverage. It’s also a proven method. Yet is doesn’t always give you the most effective results. In fact, in the final edit, it often comes across as lazy, uninspired, and uninteresting to the viewer, who naturally has no clue or sympathy for the fact that you were in a pinch on set. This is not what you want at all.

Enter what I like to call the “Illusion of Movement Shot.” This is that shot where the camera moves ever so slightly that, as a viewer, you’re not entirely conscious whether or not it’s moving at all. Generally, this means doing a slow dolly push in on your subject (I like this shot so much, it’s the opening shot in my demo reel). Dollying out, left, or right can be just as effective, but is somehow less common in practice.

This accomplishes a few things. One, you can get away with setting up a very short stretch of track. Given the size of today’s small digital cameras and their support gear, this allows you to operate in very small spaces while spending very little time on set up. It really only takes an extra minute to put down a small piece of lightweight track.

Second, although the viewer might not be fully conscious of the camera movement, it will add a significant amount of interest to the shot even though the viewer may not realize why. This will allow the editor to cut less often, and it will allow the cinematographer to retain interest in the scene longer while shooting fewer angles – very important when time is an issue. Adding a couple minutes in set up time to each shot could save the shoot if it means cutting a couple angles off the shot list entirely.

The Technique in Practice: Classic Examples from Films You’ve Probably Seen

In my previous post, I wrote about Christopher Nolan‘s interesting director’s commentary included on the DVD release of Insomnia (2002). In the commentary track, Nolan comments on how he and his director of photography, Wally Pfister, like to be present for every shot, whereas many others in their position typically designate certain establishing shots, mainly those not requiring actors, to a second unit. In contrast, the filmmakers’ extra attention to detail here allows them to always keep the camera moving in these shots, albeit sometimes only slightly.

For those of you who haven’t watched Insomnia, you’ll be familiar with what Nolan is describing here from his other work, most notably the Best Cinematography Oscar nominee, The Dark Knight (2008). Here the fluid movement in nearly every single establishing and transitional shot becomes a large part of what keeps viewers so engaged during this film.

To name a less common, but more extreme example, in Steven Soderbergh‘s The Girlfriend Experience (2009) there is an entire five minute scene that plays out with this technique in one shot. It’s a simple, but key, dialogue scene involving two characters, effectively remaining stationary in one room. The scene is covered continuously in one wide master shot where the camera ever so slowly, yet consistently, pushes in.

The viewer doesn’t even realize the camera has moved until at least halfway through the shot because the move is so small and imperceptible. Yet if you compare the first and final frames of the five minute shot, there’s a clear difference.

Without this move, the editor would need to cut away multiple times throughout the course of the scene to retain interest, and the intensity of the scene would be lost. The result of using this subtle movement is a much more effective scene – and imagine how much time the crew saved on set by only shooting the one setup (not to mention time saved on the edit).

Two classic examples of how this technique is more than just a way to save time – sometimes it’s just the right thing to do for a scene in any situation.


Brendan Shick

Brendan Shick is a freelance DP, gaffer, and sports broadcaster serving primarily the Chicago, IL; Pittsburgh, PA; Grand Rapids, MI; and Fort Wayne, IN, regions. You can find out more by following this blog, his recent work on Vimeo, or by connecting with him on Twitter or LinkedIn. Brendan is also an occasional contributor to the Project Updates feed for one of his most recent films, To Turn Back Time.


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