When done right (and in the right circumstances), going handheld can add a certain intensity to your scenes, especially if you have a skilled camera operator in tow.
Modern filmmakers are, perhaps notoriously, obsessed with frame rates, pixels and resolution, possibly because these things are unequivocal: more is better. The things that actually differentiate good work from bad, that separate watchable, convincing work from the mediocre, are much more subjective, but arguably more important, especially now that essentially all cameras are so good. We've discussed production design many times, so today we're going to look at something that's just as crucial and just as capable of being done on anything from an Alexa to a cellphone: blocking and framing, which involve a bit of directing, but an awful lot of operating.
Camera operating is, like sound recording, invisible when done well. When new filmmakers are in that rather chaotic self-directed phase of short filmmaking, operating is often one of the last things they're willing to give up, because pointing the camera at a subject feels like such a fundamental part of the process and, frankly, because it seems easy, which is by far the bigger problem. It's easy to find out that most prominent productions use operators; it's harder to persuade the writer-producer-director-DP-operator-editor of a microbudget project that part of that microbudget might be well spent on someone to ensure the frame is well-composed and doesn't contain any egregious pieces of equipment. Most people need to spend a lot of expensive time producing rough-looking material before they realise that camera operating is not 'invisible because it's easy'.
Proper equipment can make handheld operating look very different.
Now, there's no need for dedicated equipment enthusiasts to get depressed, because, of course, the grip department gets access to some of the most celebrated, finely-engineered and most impressive pieces of equipment on a modern set. In some cases, as with a big crane, while we refer to the person who's operating the remote head as the operator, the job is greatly divided into three or four people – more, if we include people like the focus puller, who may in some instances, be telling the audience what to look at in no uncertain terms. This article arises, however, from a series of conversations on camera operating at the opposite extreme of technological sophistication: the handheld camera.
Anyone who's ever thought about shooting handheld will have her-or-his own list of reasons, but it seems worth a recap. It's fast, making it easy to get through script pages quickly and to steal shots in places where permission is difficult to get. It adds energy or, at the very least, it avoids the amateurism of the perpetually static camera. It requires little equipment and it's a technique that's equally accessible to filmmakers at all levels, so it can be a great leveller. The problem is that all of these things are so well-known that they've become clichés, at least in the popular imagination. The intrinsic rebelliousness of the handheld camera, as established by the documentary filmmakers of the 1960s, is long since worn out. Now, it risks being seen as a desperate attempt to seem edgy or a cover-up for other inadequacies in production design, location or action.
Shoulder rigs, such as this one from Walimex, can improve the operability of DSLRs in a handheld context.
These concerns gain a lot of traction because they stem from a relatively recent peak in the popularity of handheld shooting, which was typified by films such as Saving Private Ryan in the late 90s. That's recent enough to be in the common consciousness, but long enough ago that it has begun, at least in the whimsy of fashion, to seem a little old hat. If we wanted to argue that point, we could refer again to the Pennebaker documentaries of the 60s, illustrating the fact that, if there were some sort of universally determined best-before date on a cinematographic style, handheld camerawork, in general, had been common for long enough to go bad even before Spielberg used it for his beach landing sequence.