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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 Office: Speech & Silence

by Jeremy Butler

Speech in non-narrative television is frequently directly addressed to the viewer. News anchors and reporters look at and speak toward the viewer. David Letterman directs his monologue right at the camera. The announcers in advertisements cajole viewers directly, imploring them to try their products. Other programs are more ambiguous in the way they address the viewer. Some fiction shows, e.g. The Office (U.S. version, 2005–) and Modern Family (2009–), employ the conventions of TV news and “interview” the characters, having them look directly at the camera as if they were non-fiction. The “target” of address in game shows is ambiguous, too. They pose questions to the social actors on screen, but these questions are also meant for the viewer so that he or she can play along. Needless to say, the way that speech is addressed can be quite complicated, and even contradictory. 

Music and speech go hand-in-hand on television. In many programs, dialogue will always be accompanied by music. It is a rare line of dialogue in Ugly Betty, for example, that has no music beneath it. And portions of programs that have no dialogue—say, a car chase—will almost always increase the presence of the music. In any event, television is seldom devoid of both music and speech. It is not a quiet medium, which is why the awkward silences in The Office are so effective in emphasizing the characters’ embarrassing situations. 

Documentary-Style "Interviews" in Fiction TV

"The Office" makes distinctive use of faux interviews and silence.

from The Office (2005)
Creator: NBC
Distributor: NBC
Posted by Jeremy Butler
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