The Shaky-Cam: it’s dead, Jim

Martin's seen - and loved - Star Trek. Exc-ep-pt f-for th-the j-u-dd-e-rrr...

Hold that camera still, ensign!

Okay, so I’ve finally been to see Star Trek, and actually had some real money wrung out of me for the privilege, having been unable to attend either of the screenings that Mark and Benny went to.

And I can’t say it’s money that I want back. Whilst I wouldn’t necessarily go the whole five stars – as the aforementioned writers did in their reviews – I can’t deny it’s a pretty damn good film.

Scotty lacks a touch of requisite dignity and there’s stuff about Uhura in there that Abrams had better have a good explanation for in Star Trek 2 (V.2), but even I have to admit that the movie’s treatment of Vulcan leaves the series open to exciting new possibilities and that the potential is absolutely huge for one of the hottest franchises of the 2010s.


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There’s one thing in this movie that will date it in a way that no new Starfleet calendar can obfuscate: shaky-cam. The (mostly unfaultable) special effects shots are a particular culprit in this respect, and I am so bored with this technique as to entirely despair whenever I see it taint a film that I’m otherwise enjoying.

Hear me Hollywood: Shaky-Cam is dead. It’s old. Older than bullet-time. Older than your granddad’s fob-watch. Hokier than a whizzing bow-tie and about as thrilling. Its appearance in modern movies is like watching an octogenarian actress showing a bit of leg. Cease, stop and desist.

“He has a wife, you know..”Pontius Pilate, Monty Python’s Life Of Brian

Indeed he does, and Shaky-Cam’s wife is Rapid-Zoom. They rarely go out except in each other’s company, and they’re out in force in Star Trek, doing a ham-fisted waltz all over ILM’s superb effects work so we can hardly see a damn thing half the time.

I get the conceit; I know it’s all about 9/11, disaster footage, earthquakes and explosions captured on cell-phones for the benefit of YouTube. And it was fresh (ish) even as recently as Attack Of The Clones in 2002, though…nah, frankly it was a tad gamey even then.

And that was seven years ago; the shock value (in every sense) has long-gone from the act of an SFX-tech pushing the ‘camera shake’ button in Maya.

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From a strictly scientific point of view, camera shake is supposed to occur during an explosion because the terrain of the (supposed) camera operator is riven with a shockwave, thus upsetting his or her footing or tripod. In space it doesn’t even make sense, the way it has been (grossly over-) used in the space-set sequences in Abrams Star Trek.

If you’re going to graft a 20th-century limitation onto 21st-century cinematography, I can understand how effective that might be, since it employs well-established film iconography to lend a little verisimilitude to images that are fantastic or science-fictional in nature.

But it’s not like Star Trek (or any other modern movie infected by Shaky-Cam and Rapid-Zoom) is consistent in this, since it will follow a ‘shaky’ shot with an absolutely ‘impossible’ CGI camera move. Unable to decide between grit and glamour, Hollywood goes for both and achieves neither.

We have image-stabilisers in cameras even now, never mind in the 23rd century. Can the Federation beam someone onto a starship going at warp speed yet still not hold a camera steady?

All I can believe is that either the execs think ‘the kids love it’ or that ILM saves a few bucks/hours in anti-aliasing when they render a shot that’s ‘shaken-up’.

In Cloverfield, Shaky-Cam is requisite; in Star Trek, it just intrudes. It takes me out of the 23rd century and puts me back in my cinema seat, face-palming. It’s not ‘gritty’; it’s not ‘edgy’, it’s not ‘now’. It’s ‘then’. If Hollywood intends to shave a few shekels off production costs with techniques such as rapid-editing and Shaky-Cam, God bless it, for it was never above a cheap trick. Just be aware that we know how cheap a trick it is.

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(Go and see Star Trek anyway, it’s still a corker)

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