Handheld camera work is probably the most pervasive form of motion photography... from news gathering, to 'observational documentaries, to iPhone footage: the camera in the hand is everywhere. And its visual signature is strong, unambiguous, human... we somehow know that it is closer to the 'truth' … to the un-augmented reality of life.
So much so that its use was at first seen as revolutionary in cinema. It was a camera movement and film-making method that seemed to escape the intricate and weighty construction of the grand Hollywood tradition. French New Wave and Dogma were built on it. The multi oscar winning Chivo has embraced it... and it formed a large part of the marketing of both 'Tree of Life' and 'The Revenant'... it embodied the 'honesty' of photographic approach both these films sought to capture. Conversely it's also a style so distinctive that David Fincher has erased it from his films, finding its heavy handed signature the antithesis of the invisible camera he seeks.
I have shot a lot of handheld in my career. Now, after just emerging from a week of shooting an entirely handheld drama, I have realised that I have developed strong opinions about it, a set of 'rules' for myself for how I like to use the handheld camera, what I feel its contribution or meaning to the scene might be, what the units of its grammar are...which might be worth writing down.
I have found handheld to be an incredibly versatile tool for dialogue scenes, for an over-the-shoulder shot which allows for actors moving and blocking. As actors step forward, sway and shift their weight they tend to block the face of the actor before them. On a longer lens these horizontal adjustment movements are up to 2 or 3 feet (and this incidentally is what 'sliders' were designed for). There are also height adjustments to be made as your actor moves closer or retreats from their counterpart in the dialogue. I find handheld adjustment in these scenes more immersive, more able to capture the human movement, the physicality of communication... the 'breathing' of the scene. And the human pace of these operator adjustments feels right, feels somehow appropriate to human communication.
More recently I have begun to use an Easyrig for handheld work... sometimes with a Serene arm... this gives just enough isolation of my own breathing and movement. It also allows me to shoot at any height with a degree of comfort. Physical discomfort always results in the operator moving, shifting uncomfortably and accidentally drawing attention to their own presence in the scene. The Easyrig will also slide more gracefully to the side to accommodate horizontal actor movement. With the addition of a Serene arm, the rise and fall of the operator's footsteps can also be erased.
So what don't I like? Since so much of the handheld I see is, to my taste, awful.
It's primarily the unmotivated movement of the camera. In my version of a 'pure' handheld, I feel that the movement of the camera needs to be entirely motivated, 'controlled' even by the movement of the actors. It moves and breathes with them as a more 'human' photographic device. But it never 'knows' more than them...never moves ahead of them, sees before they do, explores their space without them. When the movement of the camera moves outside of responding to their impetus ...it feels 'fraudulent' to me.
Now clearly I have a rather lofty version of 'truth' that I ascribe to the process. But at its best this is what handheld screams to the audience... that this is real... that this action is un-augmented by cinema. I would suggest that the 'pure' handheld camera should have no prior knowledge... once you are in this handheld world (and I am now imagining an entirely handheld scene) then the camera needs to see and know only what the actors do... it cannot have any knowledge greater than theirs.
The moment it does, there is clearly someone else in the room with them... an intrusion on their intimacy. And this is the ultimate sin in my idyllic version of handheld. Handheld needs to feel invisible...or else its pervasive presence is far too distracting.
Eye lines and eye levels carry far more weight in this world. If we are sharing the actor's perspective... then the camera really needs to be at the actor's height. Both elevating or looking up too much begins to rapidly break the delicate fourth wall. It breaks far easier than with 'anonymous' tripod or grip acquisition. Handheld dabbles with the currency of truth... so somehow it feels one should tread more lightly with the artificial mechanics of film making.
I don't mean to sound like some Jesuit priest of handheld. I too enjoyed the Bourne films, where Paul Greengrass ran as many handheld cameras as he could fit into every scene, constantly whipping away and back from the actor... seeking frenetic energy and cuts... trying to confuse and entertain with a surveillance-culture aesthetic. Handheld here was used almost for its 'signature', a documentary trope painted into the scenes. Here handheld was used for this audience 'currency' and for its frenetic energy. And here the breaking of the fourth wall was not an issue. Here there could be multiple people in every room, multiple dangers and perspectives. This was not the immersive, single camera, sustained handheld that I mean to describe.
I mean to describe a handheld which emerges from the performance, rather than being bolted-on from without... a handheld which while 'pure' ...may not actually exist outside of my imagining of it.