#5 Secret of Shooting Video to Look like Film: Add depth with smooth moving camera shots

#5 Secret of Shooting Video to Look like Film: Add depth with smooth moving camera shots

In many camera moves, panning, tilting, dutching and even zooming, the camera itself stays in the same place- atop your tripod. This changes what you see in the frame. But it does not change the relationship between any objects in the frame. For example, if someone’s head is hidden behind a foreground plant, no amount of tilting or panning will reveal that person.

The very important concept of ADDING DEPTH– adding the third dimension- to your shots is at the very heart of making your project real and captivating your viewers.

Television screens, computer screens and theater screens are FLAT. Your viewers don’t have the benefit of stereoscopic vision to give them depth cues (like in reality)- to ascertain which objects are closer and further from them.

Building depth into your footage is essential for creating and maintaining the cinematic illusion, for drawing your viewers into your project and having them be entranced by your creation.

Along with some other ways to add depth, discussed later, a big secret to putting depth into your shots is to actually move your camera through space.

Only by moving the camera does the relationship between foreground and background objects change- which is a key to establishing depth to your shots. With foreground objects moving against the background, the viewer perceives your project in three dimensions instead of the flat surface it’s being viewed on.

Using moving camera shots judiciously and tastefully, interspersed in a series of "locked-down" tripod shots will give your production a bigtime look and feel.

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* * * reasons to move the camera * * *

– To reveal something that was not in the frame before

– To follow a moving subject- from the side, front, back or top

– A move towards the subject builds and focuses intensity and interest in the subject

– A move away from the subject relaxes interest, "distances" viewer from subject

– A POV (point-of-view) shot with a moving subject necessitates a moving camera- like running down an alleyway

– To establish (and later re-establish) a location- after a series of MCU (medium closeup) or CU (closeup) shots, a WS (wide shot) with a moving camera can re-orient the viewer to the location of the scene and re-establish and reinforce the mood of the location

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* * * Moving camera shot vocabulary * * *

– move to the left – track left or crab left

– move to the right – track right or crab right

– move forward – dolly in or track in

– move backward – dolly out or track out

– move up – pedestal up or crane up

– move down – pedestal down or crane down

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Here are some options for moving your camera through space:


Take your camcorder off the tripod and you have a handheld shot. Move the camera carefully and move smoothly, like a jungle cat or ballerina, and you can get interesting, dynamic moving camera shots. Unfortunately, you can also end up with Blair Witch.

You can perform many camera moves, from dollies to trucks to crane shots handheld, but it is very difficult to duplicate the precision and steadiness that comes with using a mechanical device to move the camera. Interesting moving shots can be sometimes obtained by carrying a camcorder waist-high by the top handle.

A wide angle setting (zoomed out) is best when moving with a handheld camera, as longer focal lengths will magnify small hand movements too much. Image stabilization features will help with tiny hand tremors, but not with larger unsteady hand movements.

Of course, with a scene that is meant to have traumatic or violent motion, from chasing a bad guy- to experiencing an explosion, car accident or earthquake, handheld is the only way to go.

A special use of a handheld camera, in the hands of an expert, is to add life to a static shot with subtle but controlled random motion- resulting in a more lively energy, reality and immediacy than a locked down (tripod) shot

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Camera stabilizers:

If you see a moving camera shot on TV or a film that looks impossibly fluid and smooth, like the camera is floating or gliding through the air, chances are the camera operator has a camera stabilizing device. These units dampen all the camera jiggles and bumps that occur when shooting while walking or running.

There are some inexpensive stabilizers that do an amazing job of smoothing out moving camera shots- you can run alongside a car or person walking, up and down stairs, through an alley or over rocky terrain and the resulting shot looks like the camera is flying smoothly through space.

You can also simulate dolly, track and crane moves with most camera stabilizers with much better results than handholding the camera.

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Jib arms:

One huge secret for adding a dramatic, bigtime Hollywood look to your project is to use a jib arm, which mounts onto your tripod’s legs and allows you to move the camera in a sphere from about 9 feet high to ground level. A jib arm, even when not moving, lets you get impossible or difficult shots, like directly over the subject shooting straight down, or moving underneath looking straight up.

There is nothing like the spectacular look of a camera swooping from ground level to 9 feet up in the air in one smooth, fluid motion. The depth that is added to your shot by the major foreground against background movement, revealing things that were not visible a moment before, is really unattainable by any other method.

That’s why cranes are used in almost every Hollywood film made for decades. Remove the crane shots from almost any Hollywood movie- and you’ll find it’s lost many captivating, dramatic shots, and thereby part of its impact.

When shooting with a jib arm, you’ll need to run a video cable to a safety monitor, a small LCD, or a TV to frame your shot. You’ll also find a wired or wireless remote for your camcorder is handy to start and stop recording as well as focus and zoom.

Crane shots are used for many reasons:

– to establish (or re-establish) a location by swooping from an overhead shot down to frame the subject

– to reveal something outside the frame, like a tripod pan- except with foreground against background motion, which adds depth

– to follow a subject- like a pan or tilt except with foreground against background motion

– to scan a subject from top to bottom or side to side

The SkyCrane Jr. is our recommendation- made from steel so it does not wobble like many inexpensive jibs. It also has a cable drive system allowing you to tilt the camera while operating the crane- so you could start a shot above a subject shooting straight down, then move the camera down to the ground, tilting constantly to keep your subject in the frame.


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A dolly is a soft companion made of cloth that can be persuaded to shoot your entire project for you. Just kidding. Actually, dollying means to mount your camera on wheels and push it down
tracks on the ground as you roll tape. Some inexpensive dollies use special wheels on your tripod and PVC pipe for tracks.

A move towards or away from your subject is called dollying in or out, while a lateral dolly move (to follow a moving subject, for example) is called a tracking shot or truck.

When you use the zoom button on your camcorder, it doesn’t look "Hollywood" because the relationship between objects does not change. Zooming is just magnifying the image- like moving a flat photograph closer to you. In films, the camera physically moves in ("dollies") towards the subject which mimics what you see when you’re actually interested enough in something to get up and move towards it. This creates foreground vs. background movement.

Even though dollies are a mainstay of Hollywood production, professional dollies are not used much by the rest of us because of the expense and hassle of laying dolly tracks.

Our advice, instead of using a dolly, is to duplicate dolly moves by:

1. being very smooth with a handheld camera

2. using a camera stabilizer and keeping the camera as level as possible and moving as smoothly as you can

3. using our killer low budget production secret: Rent or borrow a wheelchair, sit down, hold the camcorder steady, and have an assistant push you slowly and smoothly along a predetermined line or arc. On smooth surfaces, this works just as well as a dolly, and can produce dolly and truck moves that look like a million bucks!

A dolly move in an arc around a subject is a magnificent looking shot. If you speed the first part of the move in postproduction then ramp the speed down to normal, you have the most trendy- but still cool- shot of the early 21st century.

Sometimes a shopping cart, baby stroller, skateboard, bicycle, motorcycle, or rollerblades can work great for a moving camera shot.

If you need a tracking shot of someone walking down the street, why not drive down the street to get the shot? It is sometimes called a "truck" shot after all!

Shooting from a moving car is definitely a way to get a moving camera shot. To stabilize the camera, a foam-filled (not goose down) pillow, piece of foam rubber, or doll filled with small particles (Aha! That’s what those Beany Babies are good for) placed over the passenger door will work well.

Next Article:  #4 Secret of Shooting Video to Look like Film: Use Shallow Depth of Field


  1. Mark 14 years ago

    Thank You

  2. Timothy Van Ausdal 14 years ago

    I’m looking for a cheap rolling dooly system like the DVCA-D1 from DV CADDIE do have or do you know where i can get one. If you know where i can buy some wheels i can make my own. Can you help? Thanks Tim V. Cut and Print!

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