10 Camera Tricks That Ruin the Fantasy of Film


Suspension of disbelief is critical to creating movie magic. You can’t escape into a movie when the special effects, writing, or acting constantly remind you that what you are seeing was manufactured. But even when all these critical elements align, the camera itself can still shatter the illusion by calling attention to the fact that everything has been staged, rather than simply captured.

It may sound ridiculous, but when humans watch video, they are psychologically empathizing with the camera. No matter how much you are rooting for the protagonist, the character you relate to most of all is always the camera—in part because you are supposed to forget that the camera isn’t actually your voyeuristic proxy to the events on screen.

Even if we logically know the film is fiction, some part of us still enjoys the sensation of being a “fly on the wall” overlooking the proceedings. It allows us to see the world, more than any other medium, through someone else’s (the camera’s) “eyes.” This is part of what makes movies so immersive and captivating—but also what makes camerawork done wrong so jarring and disruptive.

Like catching a magician in a trick, these ten cinematography foibles ruin the fun and wonder that normally compels people to sit in silence for hours on end and stare at a section of wall.

10. Splattering the Lens/Lens Flares

The rise of the documentary film was a bit of a dual-edge sword. On the one hand, it fulfilled the aspiration of fictional film by capturing real people and events, putting audiences as near as they could be to history, exotic locations, and famous figures.

So naturally, Hollywood, with its insatiable appetite for psychological tricks to manipulate audiences, decided to appropriate the look and feel of the documentary for fictional filmmaking.

Movies like Saving Private Ryan pulled this look off for very specific reasons: namely, most modern movie audiences are used to seeing the Second World War in the form of documentary footage. So when we see blood, sand, and water all splashing against the lens, it makes us feel like we are watching something real.

Unfortunately, the aesthetic has carried over to all manner of other films and subjects, so that damn near any time someone bleeds on camera, you can expect some of it to get on the lens and remind you that violence isn’t a tragic component of history, but a cheap gimmick employed by filmmakers to remind you that they, too have seen movies. When it isn’t blood, it is mud, water, sweat, spit, or even condensation from someone’s breath, as demonstrated by The Revenant when one of many gratuitous sequences fixated on watching Leo breathe literally turns into a fade to white from all his huffing and puffing at the lens.

As anyone who has seen a J.J. Abrams flick—including the director himself—can attest, the same goes for lens flares. No, there is nothing physically hitting the screen and getting stuck to it, but the optical disturbance still adds a faux-documentary element into sequences where no others are present. Instead of pulling the audience in, audiences are driven back into their seats in the peanut gallery.

Unless there are other cinematic cues to make the film look like a documentary, the lens-splatters and flares do little more than remind the audience that they are watching a movie, and probably one that isn’t as impressive as the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan.

9. Shaky Cam

The most common camera perspective in cinema is what’s known as the Objective View. Basically, this keeps the camera more or less stationary, and at an approximate eye level for the average viewer. It helps ground the audience, and feeds the illusion of being a witness—but not a participant—to whatever is on screen.

Shaky cam shits all over this principle by taking it too literally. It tries to add physicality to the movement in front of the camera by moving the camera itself—part handheld documentary style, part attempt to preserve the illusion of being within spitting distance of the action. But the effect ends up just pulling everything out of focus and frustrating viewers.

It should go without saying, but when audiences can’t properly see what is happening, they lose interest and empathy with a movie very quickly. Every movement of the camera has deep implications among an audience: from simple pans and tilts, to zooms and rolling shots, they all help tell a story, and activate different, often subconscious reactions from viewers.

The disorientation of shaky cam in no way resembles a human perspective, because most humans don’t wobble uncontrollably and lurch from side to side whenever they see something exciting. and thus tears people’s minds out of the film and right back into their itchy, sticky seats.

It has become overused across genres, but the biggest offenders are action movies and sequences, the choreography of which disappears under the unsteady gaze of a camera that has swapped its tripod for the stumbling, flailing gait of what seems to be a baby with a GoPro strapped to its forehead.

8. Tracking Shots

Technically, a tracking shot is any sequence in which the camera moves, usually laterally with the assistance of a dolly (mounted on a sort of miniature railroad track—hence, “tracking”). They have been employed to various effect for nearly as long as feature films have been getting made, ranging from a simple establishing shot over vast terrain to a hyper-choreographed ballet of moving characters, changing sets, and mobile vehicles.

Back in the analog glory days of projectors and prolific indoor smoking, the standard reel of film could hold up to 10-11 minutes of footage. That effectively limited the amount of time any single shot in the final film could last. It also made the stakes of completing a complex sequence in one take incredibly high—and often cost-prohibitive. Among filmmakers, pulling one off was a fair cause for bragging rights.

Flash forward into the digital age, and directors are still engaged in a mind-numbing pissing contest to escalate and outdo each other, to the point that they are now actually trying to film an entire movie in a single, endless shot.

To be fair, some viewers really enjoy tracking shots—there is no obvious editing, no artificial cuts from one angle or scene to another—and find the effect immersive. When they work, tracking shots, like any other camera technique, serve the story and builds engagement.

All too often, though, long shots drag the audience out of the action by transparently showing off just how complex, intricate, and impressive they are. Again, movies and illusionists need viewers to suspend disbelief to enjoy the full experience of a show. But where illusionists thrive on achieving “How did he do that?!” amazement, movies are supposed to tell a story—not drive spectators to demand the projectionist rewind the reel so they can try to spot the trick.

When you stop following the images and start wondering where hidden cuts, CG stitching, and various cast and crew are hiding behind the camera, the moment is ruined and the story has become secondary to the effect.

7. CG Glass

More than just a problem with replacing practical elements with computer-generated (CG) cartoons, this is an uncommonly subtle piece of special effects mixed with camera work that nevertheless distracts and confuses viewers.

It has become popular to use CG to create the illusion of solid glass windows, which the camera appears to then pass through with little more than a ripple, revealing the action inside.

As cool as this little trick is, it is also psychologically unsettling when audiences have been programmed by 100 years of movie-going to think they are the camera. The movement is relatively discrete, but still disassociates viewers from their only link to the world of film and anchors them back in reality, rather than drawing them further into the story.

Even when flying through the air to follow a dogfight or careening through space, viewers need cameras to “feel” solid in order to continue to relate to them as story tellers—following a logic of embodied cognition that allows the audience to accept perspectives and movements that would normally be impossible, but make sense within the context of the film and the physicality of the camera’s viewpoint. It is a contradiction of sorts, but one that nonetheless informs how the brains of moviegoers reconcile seeing what they are seeing.

Moving through glass violates this delicate logic in a subversive way that is jarring, and ultimately damages a viewer’s ability to remain attached, subconsciously, to the version of reality presented on screen.

6. 360 Degree

There is some kind of cold war between video games and movies to create the ultimate alternate reality. While tenuous alliances allow for (typically disastrous) crossovers, the trend has been for both industries to employ increasingly elaborate and expensive gimmicks to try to draw more people into their fan bases.

Today, that new frontier is Virtual Reality (VR), and at its most basic level it entails swapping out one camera for several, simultaneously filming in what, when stitched together properly, appears to be a complete 360-degree view.

Admittedly, this one is a bit preemptive, but the growing availability of virtual reality camera rigs (basically just clusters of cameras mounted on a central housing) are making filmmakers from the amateurs to the pros anxious to be the first to realize the cinematic potential of the devices.

360-degree filming hasn’t blipped much in mainstream film yet—and for good reason. It belongs on Disneyland rides and immersive horror games or shoot-‘em-up adventures. Saying that VR belongs in cinema is like saying more novels should have Choose Your Own Adventure endings.

Virtual reality is a ripe field for education: rather than a bus ride below the Mason-Dixon line to watch a Civil War reenactment, students could strap on headsets and land in a virtual battle field; they could walk on the surface of the moon, or take effectively any other virtual field trip filmmakers care to develop.

The problem with VR in cinema is that, as cool as immersion and interactivity are, they create a very different sort of illusion than what movies historically were made to do. As an entertainment experience, it blurs the lines between film, documentary, and video game in a way that makes it more novelty and distraction than immersion in a story.

5. Steadicam

Not to be mistaken with shaky-cam, this one is that sort of reverse Point of View shot that anchors on a specific subject, like a person’s face. Usually this turns up when a character is running: some lazy camera operator mounts a camera to a person’s shoulders or torso, so that their face remains fixed in the frame, and the world moves and shudders behind them as they travel (as opposed to a static shot from a tripod, with actors or subjects moving through the stationary frame).

It is pretty cool as an effect shot, but also pretty distracting, because the illusion is so disorienting and unfamiliar that the coolness of the shot—rather than the substance of the sequence—yet again becomes the object of focus.

The sensations it causes is similar to the steadycam: nausea, confusion, and sometimes irritation at the way the image moves the camera, rather than the camera moving around the central image. Movie conventions usually give audiences the sense that they have some limited “control” over what they are seeing—mostly because the most interesting pieces of any given scene are the focus of a given camera shot. The camera focuses where viewers are naturally inclined to focus.

This steadycam forces that focus into a claustrophobic state of limitation that is uncomfortable, and unnatural, ultimately driving viewers to feel distinct from the film, rather than in sync with it.

4. POV Shots

Breaking the Fourth Wall—that is, when characters acknowledge the camera/audience and speak directly to it, a la Ferris Bueller or, more recently, Deadpool—works, especially in comedy, because viewers already feel that they are present, third-person witnesses to the proceedings.

But when a movie tries to remove viewers from this comfortable third-person status and put them inside the eyes of a character they only recognize from the outside, things get weird, fast.

Cameras and human eyes are fundamentally different: eyes are constantly re-focusing, rapidly moving, and of course, are set apart to capture depth. Humans have a built-in gyroscope that works with their ocular systems to keep perception oriented, and mitigates the sense of physical movement that might otherwise come from eyeballs constantly rolling around in their sockets to take everything in.

Cameras don’t have this, and that alone makes it nigh-impossible to pull off POV shots in a way that accurately mimic a first person perspective. Instead, a POV shot ends up looking like exactly what it is: a camera mounted just off-center near someone’s face, with everyone in sight awkwardly talking into the camera, while an actor waves his arms around from off-screen to try to make it look like the camera is really his head.

Funny and entertaining on TV and comic bits, but reality-shattering for movies.

3. Changing Scale

Although this can also be extremely subtle, the changing scale of the camera enthusiastically violates the rules of embodied cognition that makes audiences accept that they can see what they are seeing on screen as though it were real, and quietly adds a layer of artificiality whenever it happens.

Part of a viewer’s ability to feel associated with the camera in film relies not just on that perspective “feeling” anchored in reality, but in that perspective remaining consistent relative to everything it captures. When Ant-Man shrinks, it is subconsciously easy to accept the camera—or audience’s perspective—shrinking right along with him. But when that perspective changes without apparent cause or predictability, it is quietly off-putting in such a way that it disrupts that mind-camera connection.

It’s been well-established that filmmakers will often abandon the good taste and logic in favor of whatever they think will look the coolest, and thanks to digital imagery, it is easier than ever to send virtual cameras (and audiences by extension) anywhere and through anything they want to up the “cool” factor of what might otherwise be routine shots.

As the camera fluctuates in apparent scale, from God’s Eye panoramic shots to Bug’s Eye micro views, it messes with viewers’ brains too much to ignore the dysmorphia.

2. Found Footage

Even documentarian-style shaky-cam doesn’t reach the same levels of camera-juggling that sends audiences grasping for barf bags as Found Footage movies employ. But the problem with this technique goes beyond the nausea of replacing cinematic technique with exaggerated “amateur” quality filming.

Even though it calls extra attention to the physical reality and presence of the camera—which viewers can mentally accept, to a point—it inevitably relies on cameras/photographers capturing things that advance the plot for the benefit of the audience, but in no way warrant being filmed by a non-omniscience subject within the film.

This leap of storytelling logic crops up in writing at least twice as often as it does in the Found genre, but psychologically relies on a different suspension of disbelief to make it work. Audiences will put up with “don’t go in there—aw, damn, she went in there!” horror movie tropes that allow the story to continue more easily because, ultimately, they are still third-person viewers to the events.

The quasi-first-person view that Found Footage employs means audiences are empathizing not just with the camera’s perspective, but with the human holding and directing the camera. When the camera doesn’t belong somewhere, viewers—sensitive creatures that they are—immediately know that the person behind the camera also doesn’t belong there, or at least shouldn’t be focused on filming.

Seldom does a found-footage style movie fail to defy its own logic and lose track of its own characters, ignore questions of who might be filming at a given point—or why—and thus destroy the illusions-within-the-illusion that is the motion picture itself. When the whole foundation of the footage is a gimmick, audiences are more anchored to that gimmick than to accepting it as reality.

1. 3-D

Because most of the time, it just looks like paper-cutting. Yes, there is some illusion of distance between the foreground and background—but both of them still look flat.

At best, viewers will get used to it over the course of a film and eventually ignore it, but invariably some crappy 3D raindrop or bird or shard of glass will get thrown at the camera to remind you it is 3D—and that there is a camera there for things to get thrown at.

The same problems of scale, of lens-flares and splatters, and alternating between fly-on-the-wall spectator and POV participant all get mixed together in one sickly stew of confusion that wholly destroys whatever disbelief or enthrallment might have been possible.

Taking full advantage of 3D means shoehorning in constant changes of scale, rapid camera movement, exaggerated angles, and flying debris just to make viewers feel like they got their money’s worth after paying the premium to borrow some awkward glasses and watch a special effects demonstration billed as an event film.

Ultimately, movies work because people like being voyeurs, not just in the fetishistic sense, but in the sense that being able to simultaneously eavesdrop, spy, follow, and judge people—without ever being scene—is the basic fantasy that almost every movie fulfills. Too much realism—or poor, artificial substitutes for heightened realism—only calls attention to the fantasy, rather than letting viewers simply live it out and enjoy the associated thrills.

3D in film is hardly anything like having real depth perception, and as such is just one more gimmick to remind viewers it’s only a movie, and they shouldn’t take anything too seriously.

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1 Comment

  1. Gustavo Woltmann on

    Plenty of good examples of film techniques that have purposes, yet get used in inappropriate ways. I always notice lens flares; super distracting.