Is All That Shaky Cam Worth It?

Josip Knezevic

Since the dawn of film, directors have experimented with different ways to fully immerse an audience in an on-screen world. Some filmmakers strive to take this task to the next level, with the use of first person point of view shots that give a firsthand perspective of events from inside the movie. With ever-improving technology, this technique is well and truly on the rise, but it’s certainly not a modern innovation.

The first example dates back to 1934 with The Firebird. It’s only used within one scene, but a murder scene, nonetheless. Following this instance, it didn’t really catch on until 1947 with Lady in the Lake, which was shot almost exclusively from first person point of view. Sadly, it was dismissed as a gimmick. Decades later, with the introduction of shooter video games in the late ‘90s, the technique began to resurface and gain traction in horror films.

Remember the The Blair Witch Project? Shot on a small budget and entirely shot from first person POV. The result? A horror masterpiece. I still recall being swept up in the mythology and believing the events actually happened to three unfortunate film students. By experiencing the entire film through the eyes of a single character, you become far more emotionally involved in their quest. Instead of being mere spectators to the horror that occurs, you feel what the characters feel; the terror of being hunted, of being trapped. Suddenly the potential scare factor of horror films entered new and exciting territory.

So naturally, with Hollywood being the beast that it is, we then saw a string of horror films jump on the first person POV bandwagon. Thankfully, there were several successful ventures during the late 2000’s with Rec, Chronicle, The Last Exorcism and Cloverfield. But one major problem lies within these “found footage” films: why are the characters filming their experience when clearly they should be running for their lives? It’s still a hazy area today, with each new film in the genre begging the same question.

Using first person POV can be a double edged sword, however. If used incorrectly, all the shaky camerawork will send a wave of nausea over the audience – as I experienced with the newly released Hardcore Henry. Shot entirely with a form of a GoPro, it marked the only action film ever to be done in first person POV and after seeing it, it’s easy to see why it’s taken so long to do so.  Remember all the complaints from watching the screen bounce all over the place with the found footage used in Cloverfield? Times that by ten and you might just get on par with Hardcore Henry. Before long you lose your bearings and have no idea what’s meant to be happening, all the while feeling dizzy from the action you supposedly participated in.

Thankfully, it isn’t all bad. One of my favourite films of all time is possibly the best first person POV film ever made. Gaspar Noé’s Enter the Void. Noé doesn’t explain why the story is being told from first person POV. Instead, he leaves it open to interpretation, which in this case is a great thing as the whole movie feels like a lucid state. The camerawork is smooth and far more gentle than others of it’s like, making it much easier to appreciate the unique perspective. Perhaps other films thinking of using first person POV in future should take this into consideration.

So far, roughly 33 films have employed the technique in the whole history of cinema. A much smaller number than you’d expect! Some have succeeded, others have failed. I would recommend The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007) and Gravity (2013), but you can find a full list below:

  • Being John Malkovich
  • Cloverfield
  • The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
  • Enter the Void
  • Doom
  • Grave Encounters
  • Gravity
  • Hardcore Henry
  • The Matrix
  • The Mirror
  • Paranormal Activity
  • Predator
  • Rec
  • Russian Ark
  • The Terminator

Image courtesy of Roadshow Films 

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