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JJ's style and shaky cam in TFA and TROS

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This thread likely contains spoliers for The Rise Of Skywalker - if you don’t wish to be spoiled… do not read the rest of this thread.

 

I’m starting a new topic so this can be discussed more appropriately.

Background info: I wish I had read this before I saw TFA, because I had not seen a JJ film since Mission Impossible III and I was totally unprepared for his style. I can’t stand his style - it’s not any one factor alone, but the combination of the filming techniques that he employs - notably shaky-cam, snap-zoom, framing decisions, lighting decisions, excessive very fast edits, focus-shift, constantly moving the camera around, and so on.

Some people are saying there isn’t much shaky-cam in TFA - well I don’t know by what yard stick you’re measuring with, but compared to 80’s and 90’s action classics like Terminator II there’s an awful lot. And it’s not only in action shots, here’s an example of shaky cam in a stationary shot: https://imgur.com/xrULFXV. And an example scene from ROS that has a ton of shaky-cam in it: https://youtu.be/693qGarrgbw?t=15

So what is shaky cam? According to Wikipedia, it’s a cinematographic technique where stable-image techniques are purposely dispensed with. It is often “hand held” or has the appearance of hand-held.

Do people like it?

There are a range of individual responses to the technique. I think that most people do not like it but will tolerate it, or at least tolerate it to a certain level. I tolerate it too, but TFA was way too much for me. Its effect is also very different in the cinema compared to the small screen at home. It can make some people feel dizzy or sick - that doesn’t happen with me, my eyes glaze over and I stop trying to follow the action. Some people do like it as well, as is the case with the author of the Verge article which was written before TFA even came out.

Why is it used?

According to the discussion on cinematograpy.com, one reason it is used is as a compromise. Sometimes there is not enough time to film action sequences, or the action just doesn’t look right so the director will shake the camera. In JJ’s case, as with the example I’ve posted, he uses it even outside of action scenes - for him it’s an artistic choice, rather than done out of necessity. It’s also become more common and accepted in Hollywood action films over the past 15 years. In my opinion this kind of filming represents over-use of the technique, when the camera is pulled in too close and half of the action is out of frame, the audience can’t follow it even if they want to.

__Valeyard.net

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Thank you for making this topic. I also take issue with much of JJ’s style, to the point that many scenes in TFA (and I’m sure in TROS which I see tomorrow) don’t feel like they share any of the previously established cinematographic language of Star Wars.

Take for example the opening scene of TFA. We begin with the classic pan down on a moon or two which are quickly eclipsed by a Star Destroyer belching landing craft. This is a strong visual in keeping with the established style of Star Wars, but almost immediately we get a flashing, shaky series of shots depicting the new Stormtroopers. Compare this introduction with the introduction of the Stormtroopers in ANH; There are similar flashes but happen due to explosions and laser blasts, and there are several cuts but they are all focused on the back and forth between the Troopers and Rebels. So we see that this shot intends to mimic the action of the original without the underlying substance.

Moving on to the shot of BB-8, and here we begin to see how dynamic JJ’s camera is in comparison to those of the other Star Wars canon. The camera spins around the droid and zooms in on its head so that it takes up most of the frame, and then pans up as the droid scoots away. This could have been several static shots in ANH.

Inside the hut of Lor San Tekka, the camera begins in closeup on the map and continues in medium/closeup shots throughout. The color of this is saturated, with bright blue lights of unknown purpose shining through holes in the structure.

Over the rest of the scene, this language is repeated. Dynamic moving cameras of characters running or fighting, shaky cam, vivid splotches of moving color, closeups.

So what is the effect of these techniques? Again, compare this to ANH. Even in the Tantive the camera was often locked down to static shots, and the momentum often came from the quickness of the cuts and the movement of the actors themselves. There were occasional tracking or dolly shots focused on characters walking down hallways, but the action largely took place in single locations with tripod camerawork. One effect of this was that the viewer’s eye was not drawn to a subject by the camera itself but by the subject’s own action. Thus a viewer could choose to look instead at the set or the details of costuming without hindrance. This was a more documentary style, more agnostic about the purpose of a scene.

In contrast, JJ’s cinematography leaves no doubt as to the intention of a scene. Visual stimulus is maximized in an attempt to generate excitement through the style of the director instead of the details of the world or the performance of the actors or the story of the film. And this is why I feel that this style is fundamentally at odds with Star Wars - this universe is about immersion in a detailed world to the point that one hopefully forgets about the existence of the camera and absorbs the story and world on its own terms. In ANH the camera becomes a window into the world, whereas JJ’s camera is merely a camera.

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Wait, so that wasn’t due to the lack of video stabilization? I thought they’d just forgotten to add it in post.

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Hilarious honestly that you’re still holding onto this. Anyway, I’ve said what I’ve said about the “shaky cam.” It’s practically nonexistent in his Star Wars films. Complain away about the other tenets of his style.

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DominicCobb said:

Hilarious honestly that you’re still holding onto this. Anyway, I’ve said what I’ve said about the “shaky cam.” It’s practically nonexistent in his Star Wars films. Complain away about the other tenets of his style.

There is no reason to be disrespectful. Are you saying you don’t think this shot is shaky-cam?

There’s a reason why I believe JJ’s shaking the camera like that in non-action shots, and that’s to make the shaky-cam less jarring when we come to the actual action sequences.

__Valeyard.net

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RU.08 said:

DominicCobb said:

Hilarious honestly that you’re still holding onto this. Anyway, I’ve said what I’ve said about the “shaky cam.” It’s practically nonexistent in his Star Wars films. Complain away about the other tenets of his style.

There is no reason to be disrespectful. Are you saying you don’t think this shot is shaky-cam?

I mentioned that one before. It’s one of the only moments in the entire film when the camera does that. The fact that that’s your only example does not help your case.

There’s a reason why I believe JJ’s shaking the camera like that in non-action shots, and that’s to make the shaky-cam less jarring when we come to the actual action sequences.

No, the camera is shaking in that scene because it is a sort of ‘action’ scene, where they’re trying to repair the Falcon before the toxic fumes kill them. It’s one of only two dialogue scenes in the entire film with “shaky cam.”

And the action scenes don’t have shaky cam either.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8sarFZJl3h0

There’s what? Two, three shots total in this scene that if you squint you could call almost shaky cam? And I just picked a random scene.

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DominicCobb said:

I mentioned that one before. It’s one of the only moments in the entire film when the camera does that. The fact that that’s your only example does not help your case.

It’s not the camera at all, it’s intentional. This is what it would look like if stabilised:

https://imgur.com/a/JSvlGwk

No, the camera is shaking in that scene because it is a sort of ‘action’ scene, where they’re trying to repair the Falcon before the toxic fumes kill them. It’s one of only two dialogue scenes in the entire film with “shaky cam.”

There’s shaky cam when Finn takes off his helmet, basically any shot that has an extreme-close up like that has some level of it or some other annoying camera technique (lots of zooming, lots of focus-shifting), when they get to the bar that entire scene is filmed like it’s hand-held.

And the action scenes don’t have shaky cam either.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8sarFZJl3h0

There’s what? Two, three shots total in this scene that if you squint you could call almost shaky cam? And I just picked a random scene.

Much of that shot and for that matter the movie feels like it’s framed for 1.85:1 not Scope (2.35:1) - i.e. the camera feels like it’s too close. Honestly there’s a ton of shaky-cam in that scene, I don’t know how you could possibly count two or three shots only. It’s not just shaky-cam, it’s a combination of things.

__Valeyard.net

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Missing the forest for the trees, this is not just limited exclusively to whatever degree of shimmy qualifies enough to be considered shakey cam but also JJ’s overall style. And I understand what RU.08 means, I hate the snap zooms and all these overly elaborate sweeping shots and whips with no point other than to inject a sense of artificial energy that people seem to just see as modern movie making now and not erratic, of course the camera is more mobile and versatile than it ever was before but for myself this sort of awareness of a camera takes me out of the universe in the context of Star Wars. (yes I am aware the now famous digital snap zoom started with AotC)

RU.08 said:

DominicCobb said:

I mentioned that one before. It’s one of the only moments in the entire film when the camera does that. The fact that that’s your only example does not help your case.

It’s not the camera at all, it’s intentional. This is what it would look like if stabilised:

https://imgur.com/a/JSvlGwk

I would avoid this example though, I wouldn’t say there’s inappropriate camera shake in ESB when asteroids are hitting the falcon, similar in this scene from TFA the falcon seems to be having a rocky ride, in your stabilized version now bb-8 is strangely wobbling around for no reason.

“The ability to destroy a planet is insignificant next to the power of the Force.” - DV

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Personally I’m not a huge fan of shaky cam shots unless they are used very very sparingly. I find it too hard for my eyes to track what’s going on.

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RU.08 said:

DominicCobb said:

I mentioned that one before. It’s one of the only moments in the entire film when the camera does that. The fact that that’s your only example does not help your case.

It’s not the camera at all, it’s intentional. This is what it would look like if stabilised:

https://imgur.com/a/JSvlGwk

I honestly have no idea what you’re trying to say.

No, the camera is shaking in that scene because it is a sort of ‘action’ scene, where they’re trying to repair the Falcon before the toxic fumes kill them. It’s one of only two dialogue scenes in the entire film with “shaky cam.”

There’s shaky cam when Finn takes off his helmet, basically any shot that has an extreme-close up like that has some level of it or some other annoying camera technique (lots of zooming, lots of focus-shifting), when they get to the bar that entire scene is filmed like it’s hand-held.

Double checked the scene to make sure I’m not crazy, and, yep, sure enough, zero shaky cam in that scene. Once again I have to ask if you even know what the term means.

The bar scene is not handheld. It is mostly steadicam. These are different terms that have different meanings.

And the action scenes don’t have shaky cam either.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8sarFZJl3h0

There’s what? Two, three shots total in this scene that if you squint you could call almost shaky cam? And I just picked a random scene.

Much of that shot and for that matter the movie feels like it’s framed for 1.85:1 not Scope (2.35:1) - i.e. the camera feels like it’s too close.

What does that have to do with shaky cam?

Honestly there’s a ton of shaky-cam in that scene, I don’t know how you could possibly count two or three shots only. It’s not just shaky-cam, it’s a combination of things.

You must have a very liberal definition of shaky cam then. Do you think there’s any shaky cam in these scenes?
https://youtu.be/wtoHjGWc2s8?t=200
https://youtu.be/T_OSeRxhGOY?t=62

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DominicCobb said:

You must have a very liberal definition of shaky cam then. Do you think there’s any shaky cam in these scenes?
https://youtu.be/wtoHjGWc2s8?t=200
https://youtu.be/T_OSeRxhGOY?t=62

Yes the Tie Fighter attack has more, but they both have it. I’d say both are good examples of acceptable levels, there’s lots of shots in the Tie fighter scene where the camera is completely stationary to counter-balance that effect, whereas JJ barely ever allows the camera to be stationary.

__Valeyard.net

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RU.08 said:

DominicCobb said:

You must have a very liberal definition of shaky cam then. Do you think there’s any shaky cam in these scenes?
https://youtu.be/wtoHjGWc2s8?t=200
https://youtu.be/T_OSeRxhGOY?t=62

Yes the Tie Fighter attack has more, but they both have it. I’d say both are good examples of acceptable levels, there’s lots of shots in the Tie fighter scene where the camera is completely stationary to counter-balance that effect, whereas JJ barely ever allows the camera to be stationary.

I just think you fundamentally have a different definition of the term. If you asked me I would say there’s only a couple shots that are “shaky,” and they’re in the cell block hallway.

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DominicCobb said:

I just think you fundamentally have a different definition of the term. If you asked me I would say there’s only a couple shots that are “shaky,” and they’re in the cell block hallway.

Yes I think so let’s get the basics right so we’re on the same page. Are you happy to accept the Wikipedia definition?

Honestly, shaky cam on its own is not the problem. It is that it’s over-used and combined with other filming techniques that consistently move the camera unnecessarily. Like the shot that Finn takes of his helmet. To me it looks awful. If the camera was pulled back and steady it would look fine.

__Valeyard.net

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Great post Neverar! And whatever the technical definition of “shaky cam” is, I understand what RU.08 is getting at and agree it gets old pretty fast when it’s employed constantly.

Without having even seen TROS I would hazard to guess the movie image is almost continually moving which would contribute a lot to its feel of a frenzied pace.

It’s not saying the technique is bad, like every tool it has it’s time and place, the right job for the tool but for JJ it feels like a crutch he’s become to reliant on.

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RU.08 said:

DominicCobb said:

I just think you fundamentally have a different definition of the term. If you asked me I would say there’s only a couple shots that are “shaky,” and they’re in the cell block hallway.

Yes I think so let’s get the basics right so we’re on the same page. Are you happy to accept the Wikipedia definition?

I am, but I don’t think you’re understanding what they’re saying.

(I should probably clarify that a couple shots in the tie fighter attack they do shake the camera, but that’s only to simulate the falcon shaking, but shaky cam).

Honestly, shaky cam on its own is not the problem. It is that it’s over-used and combined with other filming techniques that consistently move the camera unnecessarily. Like the shot that Finn takes of his helmet. To me it looks awful. If the camera was pulled back and steady it would look fine.

The camera does not shake in that shot. I’m losing my mind. There is a difference between a non-static camera in shaky cam.

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I think a large part of being a Star Wars fan for a large section of its fandom is in the exercise that goes along with classifying, quantifying, and for lack of a better word, TRADITIONALIZING what Star Wars is and can be. Whether that’s a conscious decision or not, it’s what a ton of people have been doing for a very long time, and I think this (kind of odd) discussion about the directorial style of JJ Abrams and “Star Wars” is interesting, in that it seeks to nail down an almost immovable visual vocabulary for Star Wars - without recognizing that the primary reason Star Wars’ approach to classic mythology resonated to young people was partially because Lucas’ visual style hadn’t ever been applied to the myth like that.

Star Wars worked in the first place because that’s not how you were supposed to shoot fantasy and myth. It wasn’t supposed to look, move, or sound like that. And it’s because it didn’t that young people were more easily able to key into the universal (and ancient) themes and meanings in its mythology.

I think part of why The Force Awakens worked so well for a lot of people is because it freshened up Star Wars’ visual language on a larger scale than it had been over the 30 years prior. And that language was always evolving and changing anyway. Empire doesn’t look like Star Wars very much at all, and it certainly doesn’t move the same way. And Jedi has its own visual language.

A lot of the “rules” about what Star Wars is and how it can look like literally don’t exist anywhere but in our heads, codified and quantified through group discussions among people who don’t have any actual control over what Star Wars is or what it looks like. Snap-zooms (and hand-held photography!) didn’t exist in Star Wars until Attack of the Clones. Slow motion didn’t exist in Star Wars until Empire Strikes Back. Dream Sequences didn’t exist until Revenge of the Sith.

If the myth (whatever shape it might take) is to survive with modern audiences, the visual language of its telling needs to shift accordingly. Star Wars itself taught us this. To argue that Star Wars itself can’t continue along that path because it’s not “Star Wars” once you do that is self-defeating.

You have to let this thing grow otherwise it becomes stale. And if that means hand-held photography and whip-pans, so be it. Just use them well, is all.

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You bring up excellent points Broom Kid, it’s interesting how fickle we can be, in TFA there are both shots I find too “modern” for lack of a better word AND too traditional at other points. Definitely a lot is preference, I never actually liked the slow motion in ESB either. All that said I will maintain one distinction that’s just a personal gripe that I think is at the heart of the complaint which has less to do with betraying the original visual language and more with using a set of tricks we’ve all become accustomed to seeing in action/blockbuster movies over at least the last 10+ years. I’m going with calling it rumble this time, beyond Star Wars this way of putting the camera itself into the action as less omnipotent and more conscious for me really acknowledges the presence of a physical camera within the scene, these atmospheric tricks are very effective in video games and movies like Saving Private Ryan, but in a fantasy setting they just don’t sit right with me and do take me out of the story instead of immersing me in the middle of the action as is the intention. I can accept that’s just a personal pet peeve and it’s not something I would apply exclusively to Star Wars either, but yeah can’t say I like it. RJ’s visuals to me stay much more true to the operatic heightened style than JJ’s on the ground realism, of course Star Wars was always the dirty fantasy so it’s not an obvious balance.

“The ability to destroy a planet is insignificant next to the power of the Force.” - DV

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This sort of thing?

To be fair isn’t the same as the “fake hand held” style. Not entirely anyway.

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It’s even funnier when you see the shots as they appear in the movie.

He’s yanking the hell out of the mag on the camera and in the film it registers as a slight vibration on the edge of the frame. But it definitely gives the impression that the camera is sitting on a platform that has a giant beam of energy shooting out the bottom of it, so it ultimately worked.

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There’s a very clear difference between ‘simulating shaking environment by shaking the camera’ and ‘shaky cam.’ The latter is entirely stylistic and need not be tied to the ‘shakiness’ of the environment. For example, when the camera shakes during the tie fighter attack, that is not ‘shaky cam’ style footage, it’s supposed to be the Falcon shaking. In my mind that’s like calling a hot dog a sandwich.

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IIRC, The camera isn’t even shaking during the TIE Fighter attack in Star Wars. The shot was locked down due to the way the gunner shots were set up. They’re moving the frame around in post to simulate the camera shaking, aren’t they?

That’s definitely not “shaky cam”

“Shaky cam” is basically what happens when people who don’t have the vocabulary for an established film technique create a term, and that term gets popularized through common usage. “Shaky Cam” was what people who didn’t previously know what handheld photography was called came up with to describe what they were watching. The internet made that sort of adoption of terminology a lot faster than it used to be. Sometimes that speed basically renders words and terms more or less meaningless. Sort of like how “Reboot” essentially replaced “Remake” and is now used almost interchangeably with “sequel.” Or, in the world of videogames, how the term “cinematics” became “cut-scenes” despite the fact “cut-scenes” basically doesn’t make any sense as a term.

Anyway, physically grabbing the camera and shaking it to simulate environmental vibrations isn’t really “shaky cam.” “Shaky Cam” is just handheld photography. It’s “shaky” because the frame is unstable. That’s it.

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Broom Kid said:

IIRC, The camera isn’t even shaking during the TIE Fighter attack in Star Wars. The shot was locked down due to the way the gunner shots were set up. They’re moving the frame around in post to simulate the camera shaking, aren’t they?

Well yes, that and some of the shots in the cockpit the camera is shaking.

“Shaky cam” is basically what happens when people who don’t have the vocabulary for an established film technique create a term, and that term gets popularized through common usage. “Shaky Cam” was what people who didn’t previously know what handheld photography was called came up with to describe what they were watching. The internet made that sort of adoption of terminology a lot faster than it used to be. Sometimes that speed basically renders words and terms more or less meaningless. Sort of like how “Reboot” essentially replaced “Remake” and is now used almost interchangeably with “sequel.” Or, in the world of videogames, how the term “cinematics” became “cut-scenes” despite the fact “cut-scenes” basically doesn’t make any sense as a term.

Apparently shaky cam as a phrase now means literally any camera movement whatsoever, whether handheld or not. Once again I feel like the liberal used of the word ‘sandwich’ is a good analogy.

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Ugh let’s just drop the phrase shakey cam, a discussion on style is much more interesting than a debate about semantics, it was clear from the start the term was being used in a colloquial sense anyway this is missing the point. We are in a pot hole.

“The ability to destroy a planet is insignificant next to the power of the Force.” - DV