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Hollywood Quarterly (1947) - The Traveling Camera






Film historians long ago pointed out that motion pictures as a unique medium of expression were made possible only when the principle of editing was discovered and applied. This took the camera from its stationary position and enabled it to record action from several vantage points. The resulting scenes were edited into a meaningful unit. Georges Sadoul in his article in the Hollywood Quarterly for April, 1946, gave an excellent account of some early uses of this principle. We know that it was further developed in a masterful fashion by Griffith and then taken up by the Russians, who built up the concept of the edited film into a rationale of motion pictures.

What is not so fully understood is that alongside the edited film or film of montage there has grown up another important film concept, that of the continuous recording of a long series of actions through the use of the moving camera. Whether this method or the montage method is more basically or more truly the film method is less important than the fact that both have been used and are today indispensable means of film expression.

The two methods differ widely in their approaches to film expression. The edited film takes its cue—at least in its extreme form as practiced by the Russians—from impressionism in that it relies for its effect on the construction of a whole from short strips of film. The film that is keyed to the moving camera may be termed descriptive film; its effect is produced by the gradual display of what passes before the camera lens or what is made available to the spectator when the camera approaches objects closely enough to let them be identified.

Although no school of film makers has ever relied entirely on one or the other method exclusively, the method of the long, moving shot was fully developed by the Germans of the era following World War I. Working for the most part in studios, with highly skilled technicians, they had the technology that was a prerequisite for making such shots: the control over camera focus, over lighting, over traveling devices which bore the camera. In their time they produced films which, if slow in tempo, were models of studio craftsmanship. Even modern audiences can appreciate the bold effect produced by F. W. Murnau in The Last Laugh} the opening scene of which consists of a descending elevator shot to the floor of a busy hotel lobby, continuous with a dolly shot across the floor of the lobby. This splendid scene admirably sets the background against which the body of the film is enacted.

The development of the traveling shot would be of only academic interest were it not for the fact that it has now become part of the equipment of virtually every director in Hollywood. In itself, this, again, is not bad. What is to be regretted is that at the slightest provocation Hollywood directors are mounting their cameras on wheels, on booms, on elevators to go zooming across hundreds of feet of studio floor, bursting through windows, worming between furniture on living-room floors. All that they are usually able to achieve is sheer physical movement that adds little or nothing to the dramatic effect of their films.

While it is true that movement for its own sake has always been a film staple—witness the "westerns,"—surely films have reached a maturity sufficient for more than spectacular ends.

If the moving camera is so generally used ineffectually, it is to the credit of our more imaginative and inventive directors that evidence of truly functional use of the moving camera can be found. And from the few instances that we shall cite here it should be possible to draw certain conclusions about the dramatic, integral value of the traveling camera.

Vincente Minelli's The Clock opens and closes with two effective examples of the traveling shot. The first begins from a point high in the Pennsylvania Station with an over-all view of crowds of people. Then we begin slowly to move down to the station level, being gradually able to distinguish individual groups of persons. Finally we single out one figure, who is to be a central figure in the picture. Here the moving camera sets the tone of the film: that we seek out one typical person in a crowd—almost any person—and learn what happens to him in a brief period. Fittingly, at the end, this shot is reversed, and we move from a close shot of another central figure in the same setting back to the over-all view of the station. Thus, this central character recedes into the crowd with which we began. To have approached and receded from these characters by cuts would not have been nearly so effective, for it is the process of singling out in the opening shot and the process of leaving these characters that is dramatically fitting and important.

Alfred Hitchcock used this type of shot brilliantly in The Man Who Knew Too Much, made while he was still in England. The setting is a crowded dance floor; in the background, unobtrusively playing, is an orchestra. The camera begins moving—exactly where, the spectator is at first not quite sure. Slowly it becomes apparent that the orchestra, its members in blackface, is the objective, but why is still not clear. Then one member of the orchestra, the drummer, is singled out. As the camera moves to a close-up, we see his face twitch; it is the revelation of this movement that is the purpose of the whole shot, for the tic uncovers him as the murderer in the film. Here, by enabling the spectator to identify for himself the murderer, Hitchcock achieved an effect which would have been impossible by simple cuts.

In Citizen Kane, a brilliant but erratic film, Orson Welles uses a traveling shot somewhat differently. In the two examples just cited, the camera travels through an area which is already generally visible to the spectator, although all details cannot be singled out. In Citizen Kane, Welles moves the camera upward, in one plane, bringing into the scene a new, previously unseen area. He begins with a view of an opera singer on a massive theater stage, then moves slowly up through the flies above the stage, the voice meanwhile receding, and finally reaches a pair of stagehands listening on a catwalk. One of them provides the perfect comment on the singing: he clasps his nose between two fingers. Here the impressiveness of the tremendous theater is ironically set off against this earthy but apt gesture. It might be noted with regard to Citizen Kane that Welles was not always so effective in his use of the traveling camera. In one scene he breaks through a neon sign on a roof and a skylight to reach a character who is seated at a table on the floor below. This is sheer filmic exhibitionism; the process of arriving at the seated character has no bearing on her or on the setting in which it places her.

The commendable examples just cited should make clear that the moving camera can serve a purpose which edited shots cannot achieve. The tendency in so many current films is to use the moving shot without due regard for the really splendid effects that can be obtained. As greater technical improvements in cameras and in ways of carrying them through space are devised, as larger film magazines are made, we shall probably see more and more films recorded with an ambulatory camera, but the law of diminishing aesthetic returns will operate to negate even the elementary advantage of physical movement for its own sake if such movements are not planned with an eye to using them as functional, expressive elements of film making.