The earliest surviving film is a static shot from 1888 captured by French inventor Louis Le Prince. It’s a snippet showing four people skipping around a secluded garden property in Yorkshire, England. Le Prince used a single-lens camera at seven frames per second and titled it “Roundhay Garden Scene.”
Out of those 2.11 seconds of footage grew the Silent Era, Talkies, the Golden Era, and, finally, modern cinema; everything from “City Lights” to “The Godfather” to today’s blockbusters like “The Batman” and “The Avengers.” Along the way, filmmakers have picked up various techniques to use their camera to captivate an audience. Let’s look at seven types of camera movements that are used to take the viewer into another world.
Tracking Camera Movement
Also known as a “following shot,” when the camera is “tracking,” it trails a subject moving forward, backward, sideways, or in a circular motion.
In Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining,” the camera follows Danny through the Overlook Hotel, swerving around hallway corners, staying behind him as he pedals his tricycle. In tracking the astronaut through a spaceship corridor in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” Kubrick employs the same technique at a slower speed for a different effect. The opening sequence of “Halloween” doesn’t focus on a specific character, but on a voyeuristic POV; young Michael Myers creeps around the exterior of his house, goes through the kitchen and upstairs to his victim’s bedroom. The four-minute stretch of film would have been far less chilling if it had been split up into multiple shots.
Depending on the way the shot is achieved (using a dolly, Panaglide or Steadicam, for example), this method can also take those names, but the purpose is the same.
Zoom Camera Movement
The goal of the camera zoom is to quickly shift the viewer’s attention by narrowing in on the subject of the frame. Whether it’s to show fear in someone’s eyes or to emphasize significance, zooming is one of the most basic and commonly used camera movements.
On the set of “Vertigo,” Alfred Hitchcock and cameraman Irmin Roberts blended two movements together—the dolly (or tracking shot) and zoom—to invent the “dolly zoom,” sometimes called the “Vertigo zoom” or “Hitchcock zoom.” Seen in “Jaws,” “Raging Bull,” “Goodfellas,” and many other films since, it has been utilized by some of cinema’s most influential directors. While the subject’s size remains the same, the background seems to recede in the frame, which invokes a magnified emotional response in the viewer.
Vertigo Zoom Shot
Pan Camera Movement
Stemming from “panorama,” this horizontal movement reveals a larger space in the frame. Instead of the camera being mounted on a dolly track or Steadicam, the camera is stationary and swivels left or right on an axis.
Whip pans (or “swishes”) are the same concept but at a faster speed. Directors Paul Thomas Anderson, Damien Chazelle, and Quentin Tarantino execute this flawlessly in “Magnolia,” “Whiplash,” and “Django Unchained,” respectively.
This broad movement differs from zooming because it doesn’t necessarily narrow in on the scene. When compared to a dolly movement, the axis remains the same, although they can be used in combination.
Tilt Camera Movement
Where pans move horizontally, tilts move vertically. They can start high and move down, or vice versa—either way, they’re vertical.
Some of the most frequent tilting movements capture a character on a ledge or show the bottom of a building and tilt upward for an establishing shot that sets up the context and location of the upcoming scene. The “Star Wars” movies always open with a downward tilt, shooting up at the stars for the credits and then down to a spaceship cruising by the frame. Tilts can also bring the psychology of a scene to the forefront: If a character is cornered by a villain, picturing them from a higher angle can stress danger and a sense of being dominated. On the contrary, taking a lower angle on the villain stresses their superiority over their target, as if they’re standing over them and have the upper hand.
Aerial Camera Movement
Operating from a bird’s-eye view (often from a plane or helicopter), this shot generally films vast landscapes. Like tilting, panning, and tracking shots, it can establish a setting as well.
“I love movies that put me there,” says director Marcus Nispel (“The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” “Friday the 13th,” “Conan the Barbarian”). “My favorite movies are those I’m completely immersed in, and I suspend all disbelief. Some movies you watch from the outside in, some you watch from the inside out. I have no idea what it’s like to go to war—God bless, I’ve never had to go to one—but I was in Vietnam for over two hours watching ‘Apocalypse Now.’ ”
Boom Camera Movement
Also called the “crane shot” (given the camera is on a crane or jib), this high vantage point shot starts low and moves vertically in the air, ending with the lens pointing down on the subject.
An example of this is near the end of “The Shawshank Redemption.” When Andy escapes from prison in the heavy rain, he throws up his arms and the camera rises over him, giving us a sense of freedom. It is also used in action sequences; martial arts films like “The Matrix” and “Kill Bill” often use this to add an element of power.
Handheld Camera Movement
This shaky style of camera work, which exploded in popularity after “The Blair Witch Project,” gives the unsettling effect of someone physically holding the camera, a jarring difference from the smoother, more controlled feel of a mounted camera. It can be used from a character’s POV while running or in combination with another type of camera movement.
Found-footage movies like “Blair Witch” and “Cloverfield” integrate this technique documentary-style to make audiences feel like they’re right there with the characters. Others use handheld in a more observational sense, as if we are on the outside looking into a character’s life, as Alejandro G. Iñárritu did for Oscar winner “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance).” Some filmmakers merge handheld camera movements with other types of shots, highlighting two or more emotions by switching perspectives, for example.
Director Paul Greengrass (The Bourne series, “United 93,” “Green Zone”) has made some of cinema’s most intense movies by rocking the camera violently to jolt the viewer. If used too often, the technique can become overwhelming for audiences, so be strategic about when you use it.
“When I was a young director, I believed that all camera movement must be dictated by movement in the frame,” says Bobby Roth, a writer, director, and producer on shows including “Lost” and “Grey’s Anatomy” and the critically acclaimed feature “Pearl.” “Working with the wonderful cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, I saw the possibility of movement to tell a story. I began to move the camera all the time, often countering the movement of the actors to create a cinematic dialectic. All of this has taught me to use every tool in your toolbox in whatever way you feel to tell your story. I find that exciting, even if it is just the slightest handheld movement to feel the camera operator breathing life into your story. That’s what being a filmmaker is all about.”