Hand-held camera  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Hand-held camera or hand-held shooting is a film and video technique in which a camera is literally held in the camera-operator's hands--as opposed to being placed on a tripod. The result is an image that is perceptibly shakier than that of a tripod-mounted camera.


Early usage

Hand-held camera was a technique first used sporadically towards the last years of the silent era. Although many movie cameras produced before that period were lightweight enough to be carried by a single person, the camera shapes were too boxy and bulky to be adequately operated without some form of camera support. Further, they were often hand cranked, adding to the difficulty of hand-held shooting.

By the early 1920s, however, cameras such as the Newman-Sinclair, Eyemo, and De Vry were beginning to be created with hand-held ergonomics in mind; this was largely in order to satisfy demand from both the growing documentary field, as well as the emerging amateur market. These cameras were specifically designed to hold shorter lengths of film—usually 100 to 200 feet—and included hand-wound spring motors which could be pre-wound enough to last continuously through most or even all of a roll. Nonetheless, they saw limited use in professional filmmaking, with some early examples to be found in The Passionate Quest (1926), Quality Street (1927), and King of Kings (1927).

The emergence of the sound film had an immediate dampening effect on the use of hand-held shots due to the need for camera motors to maintain a constant film speed. The motors were far too loud to be able to record synchronized sound on set, and thus early sound films were forced to install the camera within a soundproof booth. By 1929, camera manufacturers and studios had devised shells, called blimps, to encase the camera and dampen the mechanical noise sufficiently to allow the cameras to be free of the booths. However, this came at a cost: the blimped, motorized cameras were considerably heavier. When the soon-to-be ubiquitous Mitchell Camera BNC (Blimped Newsreel Camera) emerged in 1934, it weighed in at 135 lb; this clearly precluded any hand-held usage. The aesthetic style of films from this period thus reflected their available technology, and hand-held shots were for the most part avoided.

Hand-held shots required use of the smaller hand-wound spring-work cameras, which were too loud to be practical for any shots requiring synchronized (sync) sound, and held less footage than studio cameras. The spring-wound cameras were also not accurate enough speed-wise to guarantee perfect sync speed, which led to many of them having motors installed (the additional sound being negligible). Thus, these cameras could not be used for much in the way of dialogue.

They were joined by the revolutionary new Arriflex 35 camera, introduced in 1937, which was the first reflex camera for motion pictures. This camera also facilitated hand-held usage by integrating its motor into a handle below the camera body, allowing easy hand-held support, and weighing a mere 12 lb. Most of these cameras saw steady usage during World War II by both sides for documentary purposes, and the Eyemos and Arriflexes in particular were mass manufactured for the Allied and Axis militaries, respectively. This allowed these cameras to be exposed to a much greater number of individuals than would have normally familiarized themselves with them; many wartime cameramen would eventually bring them back into the film industry where they are used to this day. With the Allied capture of Arriflexes, along with the release of the new Arriflex II in 1946, many curious non-German cameramen finally had access to the advanced camera. Eclair followed this up with the Cameflex the following year. It was a lightweight (13 lb) camera specifically designed for hand-held shots and could be switched between shooting 35 mm and 16 mm. In 1952, Arri subsequently released the Arriflex 16ST, the first reflex camera designed specifically for 16 mm.

New Wave revival

Despite these technological developments, the aesthetic consequences of these smaller cameras weren't fully realized until the late 1950s and early 1960s. Hand-held Camera was first used in 1958, on the documentary film Les Raquetteurs, shot on 35 mm by Michel Brault. When Jean Rouch met Brault and saw his work, he asks him to come to France, and show his technique. An excerpt of the film is available here [1].

For some context on this film, relationship of documentary sound and image, and Brault's cinema, see Direct Cinema.

This trend, led by Michel Brault, was followed by Raoul Coutard's work in the French New Wave and the cinéma vérité, "fly-on-the-wall" documentary film aesthetic. In the case of the latter, Richard Leacock and D.A. Pennebaker actually had to force the 16 mm technology forward themselves through a number of extensive camera and audio recording equipment modifications in order to achieve longer-take, sync sound, observational films, beginning with Primary (1960).

In the realm of 16 mm, Michel Coutant at Éclair rapidly took advantage of this to create the self-blimped Eclair-Coutant and later the Eclair NPR camera, which was the first lightweight sync-sound movie camera. History of the collaboration of Brault with Éclair is told here (in French) [2]. The design included a camera magazine which not only was back-mounted specifically to distribute a more balanced camera weight across the shoulder for hand-holding, but also included a built-in pressure plate and sprocket drive, which allowed cameras to be reloaded in seconds—a crucial feature for vérité documentaries.

This will bring the 1961 Chronicle of a Summer, shot by Coutard and Brault. Arri took many years to catch up, debuting the popular Arriflex 16BL in 1965, but not including quick-change magazines until the Arriflex 16SR ten years later.


"It must be said, all that we have done in France in the area of cinéma-vérité comes from Canada. It is Brault who brought a new technique of filming that we had not known and that we copied ever since. In fact, truly, there is a "brauchitis" spreading, it is certain. Even the people who consider that Brault is a nuisance, or were jealous, are forced to recognize it." -- Jean Rouch, Cahiers du Cinéma.

Original text «Il faut le dire, tout ce que nous avons fait en France dans le domaine du cinéma-vérité vient de l'ONF (Canada). C'est Brault qui a apporté une technique nouvelle de tournage que nous ne connaissions pas et que nous copions tous depuis. D'ailleurs, vraiment, on a la "brauchite", ça, c'est sûr; même les gens qui considèrent que Brault est un emmerdeur ou qui étaient jaloux sont forcés de le reconnaître.»"

Select filmmakers notable for their use of hand-held cameras

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Hand-held camera" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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