Camera Movement

Camera movement refers to the actual or perceived physical movement of the camera apparatus through space. At its most basic level, camera movement creates a sensation in the spectator that he or she is moving through space.

Early Development

While it would be impossible to cite with any certainty the first instance of camera movement in film history, the first notable application of this technique can be seen in the work of the Lumière cameraman Eugenio Promio, who at various times mounted his camera on a moving train, a streetcar, an automobile, and a Venetian gondola. By 1900, cameras could also be mounted on swivel heads, which led to the increased use of pan, or panoramic, shots.

Early film producers and exhibitors soon learned that cinema could efficiently re-create the effects associated with different fairground attractions, such as "phantom carriage rides" or "Hale's tours," in which spectators, seated in cars or carriages, had the sensation of moving through space thanks to the help of scrolling scenery or other devices. Early film exhibitions, made up of many short films, would often include one of these "effect sequences," as The Georgetown Loop (1903).

"Georgetown Loop (Colorado)"
(3 min., 00 sec.)
Film: Georgetown Loop (Colorado), 1903
Director: G.W. "Billy" Blitzer
Source: 2002 Kino Int. Corp
Related Terms(s):
Camera Movement

Rise of Narrative

Although camera movement was never completely ignored as a formal option in silent film, as a major technique for creative expression or dramatic effect it would truly emerge only in the 1920s, with the German Expressionist cinema, especially in the work of directors such as F. W. Murnau, Fritz Lang, and E. A. Dupont.

"Haunted by Spirits"
(1 min., 58 sec.)
Film: Last Laugh, 1924
Director: F.W. Murnau
Source: 2001 Kino Int. Corp.
Related Terms(s):
Camera Movement

In the Soviet cinema, the documentary pioneer Dziga Vertov also made interesting use of camera movement.

"Life on the Go"
(1 min., 35 sec.)
Film: The Man With the Movie Camera, 1929
Director: Dziga Vertov
Source: 1996 Image Entertainment
Related Terms(s):
Camera Movement, Montage

Transition to Sound

The transition to sound cinema at first required the camera to remain motionless, so that it did not add extraneous elements to the soundtrack, but by the early 1930s directors discovered ways to again free up the camera to move. The musical genre, especially, with its frequent highlighting of dance sequences, encouraged the development of various technical devices to assist in camera movement, such as the crane.

"Shadow Waltz"
(0 min., 20 sec.)
Film: Gold Diggers of 1933, 1933
Director: Mervyn LeRoy
Source: 1993 Key Video
Related Terms(s):
Camera Movement

Certain directors became known for their frequent use of the moving camera: Orson Welles, Max Ophuls, Kenji Mizoguchi, and Jean Renoir are among the best known. Conceiving scenes around the extended use of a moving camera meant that these directors dramatically increased the duration of shots in their films (by the late 1940s, shots lasting up to a minute were not uncommon) and filmed with deep focus, to create a large field for the camera to explore.

"Last, Great Party"
(2 min., 14 sec.)
Film: The Magnificent Ambersons, 1942
Director: Orson Welles
Source: 1996 Turner Broadcasting System
Commentary: Richard Peña Commentary

Post-War Period

Partially as a result of newsreel cinematography, camera bodies became lighter and smaller after the Second World War, so that cameramen and -women could easily hold the camera and continue filming while following people or the development of an event. By the late 1950s, this ability inspired many filmmakers to shoot their films totally with handheld cameras cameras. The rise of the cinema verité documentary movement was also an important catalyst for promoting the handheld style, which figured prominently in the work of directors such as Jean-Luc Godard, Nagisa Oshima, and Glauber Rocha.

Hollywood studios never completely accepted the handheld look that was so popular in European and Latin American cinema, claiming that the shaking and loss of framing distracted viewers. As a remedy for this, various devices were developed that would allow the camera to be handheld but would also guarantee a smooth, gliding motion, the most famous (and enduring) being the Steadicam. The Steadicam would allow the same freedom to follow the action but would eliminate the rougher texture of ordinary handheld shots.

(2 min., 40 sec.)
Film: GoodFellas, 1990
Director: Martin Scorsese
Source: 1999 Warner Home Video
Commentary: Richard Peña Commentary
Related Terms(s):
Camera Movement, Steadicam Shot


Today, the long-take, moving camera style pioneered by filmmakers such as Welles and Renoir can be seen on television shows such as ER, giving them at times an almost documentary feeling that adds to the authenticity of otherwise staged situations.

Finally, mention should be made of what might be called "virtual" or "perceived" camera movement. In this, filmmakers create the sensation of moving through space without actually moving the camera. The most typical example of this is the zoom shot, in which a camera lens is manipulated so that the focal length between the camera and the object or person being photographed is changed during the course of a shot; thus, we move from a long shot to a close-up, or vice versa, or to some detail within a scene.

Graphic: Film Language Glossary Graphic: CCNMTL Graphic: SOA