Cinematography is, first and foremost, an artform. That being said, I’d like to also emphasize the caveat that it is a technical artform, and requires a certain degree of skill and/or technical proficiency to be able to consistently create artful work.
It could be argued that no, this isn’t the case, based solely on the promulgation of iDevice and consumer-grade video device footage. This type of footage does not require a modicum of skill, or even practice. In the same way that it is possible to take a fantastic picture with an Android or iOS device, it is possible to film usable content with a consumer grade device – but not only is it technically limiting (based on the sensors, alone), but it offers virtually no control over the footage, other than some basic focus and exposure controls. I would argue that the resulting footage could result in decent quality output if either a) the operator had an artistic eye, and was able to use their technology with some skill/proficiency, or b) they were extremely lucky. However, I digress.
One of the most consistently over-used (and misused, incidentally) is “cinéma vérité”. In modern cinematographer parlance, it has come to mean any footage which resembles that of an unskilled operator, which theoretically lends an air of realism and observationalism (see any first year film school book on observational cinema if you’re unfamiliar with the concept) to a piece. It’s easier, for example, to immerse a viewer in the world of a Zombie Apocalypse if they feel as though they could be the one sitting behind the camera.
This concept has been expanded, partially through the over-saturation of “reality television” and “found footage” genre pieces. Far from being necessitated by the artistic content of those genres, it is rather much more profitable, and can be executed with far crummier equipment and with a lower technical skill (and ostensibly artistic skill) element. I’m not going to argue that there is no artistic or technical skill involved in making either of those genres of television or film, as that would be foolhardy – and there are always exceptions to the general rule.
Cinéma vérité is a bit more troubling when used as an excuse for technical incompetence, lack of technique, or lack of foresight and caring. Most recently, I’ve heard shaky and unstabilized footage “explained away” as being necessitated by the genre of cinéma vérité – and I’m not buying that excuse. The majority of footage in film can and should be stabilized, as well as planned out and executed in a thoughtful manner. That’s where the “art” of cinematography lies; otherwise, you’re just a camera jockey, no matter how fancy your equipment may be. As I’ve said before, the most important piece of equipment you own is your eye; everything else just helps your execution.
There is no excuse for shaky footage in this age of image stabilization systems and inexpensive stabilizers which you can build for a few dollars worth of parts from your local home improvement store. It adds a lot of cinematographic value and apparent production value to have more stable shots. I’d prefer not to experience vertigo when watching a simple walking tracking shot, when possible. One of my favorite “why the hell did that guy do that” moments was in G.I. Jane (of which I’m not a fan), where the combat scenes are filmed with what appears to be intentional camera shake. Far from transporting the viewer into the middle of the morass, it only conveys confusion and vertigo. Used in more moderate amounts, it could have proved much more effective, in my opinion.
Even if you’re dead-set on the idea of making your next film project using the “cinéma vérité” genre, there are a few things you should consider before proceeding unstabilized:
- Does this somehow add to the feel of the film? If you are introducing camera shake into your cinematography, it should be adding something tangible, like a certain feeling, to a scene.
- Am I overusing this? If you’re shooting every shot this way, you might want to reconsider your methodology, unless you’re shooting a guerilla documentary.
- Am I doing this due to a technical limitation? If you are using “cinéma vérité” as an excuse for being unable to stabilize your footage, invest in a cheap stabilization system, IS lenses, a tripod, or any of the other ways of creating less shaky footage. They’re too inexpensive to let shake stand in the way of otherwise great footage.