Active Cameras

Approximate 3 minute read

Stay static, push, pull, pan, dolly, truck, pedestal, crab, track and dolly-zoom. It seems like the options are endless. Add to this list flying the camera on a jib, crane or wire, canted (dutch) angles, shaky cam, soft focus, rack-focus, whip pans and more, we could go on and on.

Some of these camera techniques are now seen in some church worship services. In some cases unusual camera movement is used in just one song or even less, maybe just a stanza or even as brief as one beat. For other churches these camera techniques are used on virtually every song.

Where should we draw the line? Kirk Browning has some thoughts on these techniques. Kirk’s credentials you might ask? Prior to his passing in 2008, Mr. Browning served as the live TV director for PBS’ “Live from Lincoln Center,” “Great Performances,” “American Playhouse,” “The Metropolitan Opera Presents,” “The Frank Sinatra Show” and many more, a career spanning sixty years behind the camera.

One may assume based on his age, the length of his career, genres and credit list that Kirk would be conservative and critical of camera shots in motion. Actually the opposite is true. Here are some of his thoughts as recorded in the book “Take One” by Jack Kuney.

Browning responding to the author’s recognition that it seemed Kirk always has a camera shot moving during a performance:

“I think I do [have camera shots in motion] a little too much. But if I am going to err on any side, I am going to err on the side of what I would call an active camera. In a way, you see, it is as if the camera is a committed member of the audience. It gives you a point of view about what is going on. If you sit too long on a frozen shot with the camera totally passive, what you’re doing stops being subjective. I’m trying to use a subjective camera in the sense that the camera is one person exploring everything. And when you explore, you are active; you just don’t sit there.”

So is this then a card blanc, justifying the Video Director doing anything he wishes? Browning continues:

“That is the paradox of our business. It would appear as though it is simply self-aggrandizement on the Director’s part to assume all those judgments about when you should be close and when you should be far. Well the point is that if you are clever enough about it, it should look like the judgment of the home viewer. It should look as though it’s what the home viewer needs to see and it’s not the Director being gratuitous. You cannot possibly please each every viewer because they each come with different perceptions… I am basically trying to appeal to a lay audience who has no particular predisposition for any one aspect of this. They simply want an experience that which is not going to bore them, and so I do what I think the general audience will respond to.”

Kirk Browning added the following admonition that I think we all need to consider when pushing the envelope of creativity, “… ultimately, when you tell an audience that all things are possible”  when cameras (and thus the audience placed in the imaginary world the Director and camera has created) can at every moment or whim fly, or is shakily unsure and hectic, or ill at ease with canted angles or shooting the short side – the audience “realizes that all things are possible in terms of style, it’s going to be very difficult to keep interest going.”  I think that Browning means that in an imaginary world where anything and everything is possible, nothing is special. The canted angle, the shaky cam, the whip pan become special when used in contrast among more conservative shots. If every shot has a canted angle, or shaky cam or whip pan, then we have created an environment where atypical is typical, which by definition detracts from it being special.

Do you have any active cameras? Are they enhancing the story you are communicating, the vehicle of a committed virtual audience member? Or are your active camera shots gratuitous, showing off the skill of your Director and crew?

“…the camera is a committed member of the audience.”

The original version of this article was published May 28, 2014.  Photo attribution – Australian Broadcasting Corporation

Tom D’Angelo has worked in television production and AVL corporate theater for the last thirty-eight years. He has been nominated for a Mid-Atlantic Emmy Award (Best Director category) and has been part of various teams that have been nominated and won national Emmy’s. As the Media Director at a megachurch in the 1980’s he developed a love for the Church and church performing and technical artists.

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