Saturday, March 19, 2011

A Note on Documentary Filmmaking

The worst part of watching documentary films that were filmed using only one camera is the obnoxious swish panning. A swish pan is when the camera moves quickly, often abruptly, laterally (pans) to the left or right. Onscreen, objects blur and a feeling of uneasiness is created in the viewer. This effect is desired by many modern directors of narrative films, such as Paul Greengrass, who uses the swish pan to great effect in United 93, Bourne Supremacy and Boune Ultimatum. Greengrass has admitted that he was heavily influenced by the documentary filmmakers of the 1960's who preached a truth in cinema, more commonly known as "Cinema Verite". This movement became famous for recording events with naturalistic lighting and multiple handheld cameras. The difference between filming with one camera and multiple cameras is once you have the footage recorded from several cameras, a director and editor can simply cut from one vantage point to another of the same event and the cutting is seamless and the viewer remains (hopefully) riveted by the event occurring in the diegetic world. Conversely, if the director and editor have footage from only one camera, they are faced with using the swish pan the camera person originally captured in the moment of the event or finding other footage altogether. Swish panning can be effective employed if the objective of the filmmaker is for the viewer to be agitated. However, the swish pan becomes counter-productive if audience agitation is not the goal of the filmmaker because the viewer becomes distracted by a formal element of the filmmaking process and is thus removed from the viewing experience. By stating the swish pan is obnoxious when exploited in this manner, I am not attacking documentary camera workers. The camera person is merely attempting to capture all elements of the events occurring around them in a manner that will benefit the director once it is time to edit. It is the director and editor's choice to include footage that will remove the viewer from the all important watching experience.

There is an example of a swish pan used at the 1:38 mark of this otherwise interesting clip (the swish pan is exploited as an editing device from the Cartier advertisement to the "talking head", yet it becomes ineffective in the fact that you notice the camera move and not what the philosopher is stating):

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