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The Narrative Functions of Hand-Held Camera

by Jeremy Butler

We might think that hand-held shots would be avoided entirely in the more controlled camera style of fiction television. Even though the majority of camera movements in fictional programs are not hand-held, hand-held shots do serve several narrative functions. 

First, hand-held work is used to create a documentary feel, to signify “documentary-ness,” within works of fiction. Many episodes of NYPD Blue (1993-2005), Homicide: Life on the Streets (1993-1999), and 24 (2001-10) include noticeable hand-held camerawork—signifying the program’s “realism” (for example, tvcrit.com/find/homicide). 

Second, hand-held movement is often used when we are seeing through a character’s eyes—as in dolly shots. Indeed, hand-held camera is more frequently used in this situation than dollying because hand-held is thought to more closely approximate human movement. After all, we all have legs like a camera operator, not wheels like a dolly. 

Third, hand-held movement can convey a sense of disturbance, even violence. In the pilot episode of The Sopranos (1999-), for example, mob boss Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) drives his car into a man fleeing him. After he gets out of the car, director David Chase shoots him with a hand-held camera as he further assaults his victim. The unsteady camera movement mirrors Soprano’s malevolent actions.

The Sopranos: Hand-Held Camera

A scene from The Sopranos illustrates the impact of hand-held camera work.

from The Sopranos (1999)
Creator: David Chase
Distributor: HBO
Posted by Jeremy Butler
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