Death to “shaky cam!” – This technique is ruining our action movies

Captain America: Civil War is a great movie, but I’m not so quick to call it the best MCU movie. Why? Because the first act, which features two conceptually excellent action sequences, also features the biggest bane of my cinephile existence: shaky cam.

Marvel's Captain America: Civil War Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) Photo Credit: Film Frame © Marvel 2016
It’s the reason why I can’t enjoy most of the Bourne movies. In the 2nd and 3rd parts of the original trilogy so much action is lost in the chaos of the needlessly kinetic lens that I feel like I’m watching the CliffsNotes version of the film – who cares what the fistfight looks like as long as Bourne is the one standing at the end? Me! I care! When George R.R. Martin was criticized regarding the volume of words he dedicates to the mere description of food, he responded by asking something to effect of “well if you’re reading the book just to finish it, what’s the point of fiction?”  He’s right. If you’re going to go through the time to block and choreograph an action sequence, I’d like to be able to see it.

Let’s start with the function of shaky-cam. According to Wikipedia, shaky-cam is a technique designed to “give a film sequence an ad hoc, electronic news-gathering, or documentary film feel. It suggests unprepared, unrehearsed filming of reality, and can provide a sense of dynamics, immersion, instability or nervousness. The technique can be used to give a pseudo-documentary or cinéma vérité appearance to a film.” This is all well and good, and oftentimes, shaky cam succeeds in doing just that. I’m a proponent of found footage as well as the use of hand held cameras, but I find it troubling when the use of shaky-cam has the exact opposite effect. Rather than make the film seem natural, it ends up looking like the camera operator isn’t just holding an unmounted camera, but purposefully shaking it to hide less than dynamic action. If the goal is to remove artifice, this is a failure. And it’s doubly frustrating when, in the case of Civil War, inspired choreography is reduced to a blurry kaleidoscope of assumed action.

This is what irked me most about Civil War. The action choreography is creative, alive, thrilling. Why would the Russo brothers undercut such excellent construction? I can understand (but not advocate) the desire to hide inferior design behind camera trickery, but this is absolutely not the case with Civil War.

The-Winter-Soldier-post

Take a look back at their previous MCU effort, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, most specifically the elevator sequence. It’s appropriately claustrophobic, and a lazy filmmaker could easily tend toward quick cuts and an unstable camera to hide the choreographic limits imposed by the space. But in Winter Soldier the sequence shines. The camera isn’t static, but its main concern is capturing the fight as cleanly as possible. This is lost in the first act of Civil War, which doesn’t even feature a similar claustrophobic setting. I wouldn’t say that shaky cam was employed out of laziness (the rest of the film indicates quite clearly that there was no desire to phone in any aspect), but perhaps out of a lack of confidence or, worse yet, as misguided attempt to go bigger.

I assume the sequences in question will clear up upon repeat viewings, when I’m already aware of the narrative direction and can employ my focus solely on the necessary elements of the visual through-line. This is fine, but it does not excuse the initial fault. The best movies are rewatchable, and can grow in value each time, but a film like Civil War demands to be visually decipherable right off the bat. This goes for all action/spectacle flicks. Funnily enough, I revisited Furious 7 over the weekend and as silly as it is, it’s a master class in how to shoot exciting, decipherable action. Say what you will about the DCEU, but Wan’s Aquaman will likely look just as clean (and I can’t imagine shaky-cam working underwater anyway).

All said, Civil War rocks, but it could have rocked harder with a tripod.

Author: Dan Scully

Dan Scully is a film buff and humorist living in a tiny apartment in Philadelphia. He hosts the podcast I Like to Movie Movie and is the proud father to twin cactuses named Riggs & Murtaugh. Also, he doesn’t really mind when Batman kills people. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.

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