Dynamic camera movement works best in….? Action scenes? Dance scenes? In car chases? Maybe during those famous single-shot scenes like in Touch of Evil. Or the zero-gravity 360 degrees tumbling in Gravity (2013). Either way, it’s not something that seems instantly related to drama, or stretched out monologues. Most of the time dialogue-heavy character moments are characterized by stretched out takes of static, or at least focused, camera movement. Rhythm is slowed down so that our attention can shift to the actor’s and their performance.
Of course, that’s not a clear set rule and it’s a futile endeavor to start summing up all the exceptions to the rule. And it’s beside the point I want to make. Which is that in general, dialogue scenes are often not the most dynamically filmed scenes. Which makes those scenes which are filmed dynamically, with the camera in constant motion, stand out to me.
And that’s how I ended up choosing Dead Poet’s Society (1989) as my next One Shot movie. Because there’s a scene in there that, to me, is the emotional and technical highpoint of that film, and it contains a completely dynamic camera movement, used to capture a monologue from a teacher to his student.
Death Poets Society is the well-regarded drama by director Peter Weir starring the recently deceased Robin Williams. Famous for the stand-out performance by Williams, it has become a kind of classic since then. The movie follows a cast of young students at the conservative Welton Academy in the 50s who are challenged and inspired by the newly arrived poetry teacher John Keating (Williams). Keating challenges rules and rigid social structures of the academy as he slowly opens up the young students to creative thinking.
To me, the stand-out scene is the one in which young student Todd is challenged in front of his class by Keating to create poetry. Reluctant at first, he slowly starts uttering rhymes as Keating encourages him with vigor and enthusiasm.
This scene is captured by a truly dynamic camera, directed by cinematographer John Seale. The camera rotates around its subjects, Keating and Todd, slow at first, then speeding up, until the background is reduced to a blurry mess of fast moving lines and we solely focus on Todd’s face.
That movement is so dynamic and engaging it literally pulls you into the emotion of the character, like a vortex, circling closer and closer. At first the circling of the camera is objective, in that it follows it’s own course around the characters, like it’s in orbit, but as it moves in closer it becomes subjective and seems to attach itself to the characters’ shoulder. It’s a movement that is actually replicated to dazzling effect in last year’s Gravity, during the first scene of space-debris collision with Sandra Bullock’s character.
In that shot the camera also orbit’s Bullock’s astronaut as she is attached to the shuttle-arm, and she rotates independently from the camera, until the camera moves in close enough and latches onto the debris to subjectively follow her rotation, as if we were physically connected to the shuttle-arm. Watching both shots in full you’ll see the similar dynamic in which those shots are constructed.
This fact alone, that one of the most recognizable and effective camera moves of a high-grade effects driven space-thriller works equally as well in a historical boarding-school drama about poetry, tells us how multi-purpose camera movement can be.
Sometimes I can get frustrated by static explanations of the effects of camera moves. Basic film-theory often describes camera moves and links them to certain effects: Camera move A. can be used to create effect B. and so forth. As if a certain movement can only signify one thing. Which is much too limited a view on cinematography of course. As an example; does the famous dolly-zoom effect signifies the same thing in Vertigo, Jaws and The Lord of the Rings (Part 1)? No. It signifies vertigo in the first one, shock in the second one, and impending danger in the third one.
Whereas Gravity uses the camera move to create subjective involvement, disorientation and spectacle, Dead Poets Society uses the move to pull us into a character; dissolve his surroundings and focus on his emotion.
Camera movement is entirely subjective and dependent on context in that sense. It’s what makes cinematography an interesting and dynamic art-form. Imagine if we would constantly just zoom in when a character get’s tense, cut to a wide shot to signify openness, high-contrast lighting to create tension, speed up editing during action scenes and use the color red because it relates to anger and lust, etcetera. Cinematography would become incredibly boring and stale.
It’s when unexpected things happen on the screen that we get engaged. And they shouldn’t happen just because they’re unexpected; they should always fit the context and signify a relevant purpose.
Open yourself up to approach cinematography as a dynamic and fluid art form and the possibilities are endless. Both static camera placement and fast-faced movement can create suspense, and both can create a calmness. Just as a welcome-kiss feels joyous whereas a goodbye-kiss might feel bittersweet. It’s the same thing; but feels completely different because the context differs.
Coming back to Dead Poets Society I would conclude that this single shot stands out to me because of its unexpectedly dynamic form which nevertheless completely connects to its narrative surroundings and style. It’s bold yet completely justified and successfully stirs up emotion and empathy.