ARTICLE: The camera effects that lead (or mislead) effectively

Published:  October 23, 2015
Claire Brown

Not that this should come as a shock to anyone, but camera lenses really aren’t that big. Not in comparison to the scene or environment they’re designed to shoot, that is.

The average Panavision or Sony HD cameras used to make classic episodic television has a window of only 35mm (diagonally) in which a lens nestles, and it can prove very difficult to cram a whole scene in.

Since the first experimental Kinetoscope trial film in 1889, directors and cinematographers have developed their own famous techniques that have been reproduced around the world that embraces the 35mm, 16mm or Super 8 (microscopic) limitation; ‘a little this, a little that’ to get the vibe of their films across without showing us, the audience, the full picture. Today we have a range of techniques and effects often used by directors in their films. But what we zoomed in on are the three camera or filming techniques that are constantly seen in movies and documentaries today.

The Ken Burns Effect:

During the last 30 years Ken Burns has been pumping out critically acclaimed docos such as Unforgivable Blackness: The rise and fall of Jack Johnson (2005), Mark Twain (2001) and Frank Lloyd Wright (1998) amongst his many productions at his co-founded Florentine Films.  Still in practice today, you’d probably recognise the name as a special effect in editing programs today.

Burns was delving deeper into history for his documentaries, but his video resources thinned out, leaving him with only still images of the time. His effect is simple, but effective; starting with the whole picture, literally, and zooming in or panning across to a key element in the image. Usually accompanied by a voice-over narrator, it gives the still a sense of movement, and continues to be a lucky save for archival documentary makers.

Alfred Hitchcock Dolly Zoom: 

The ‘Hitch has a thing for drama, certainly. His ability to take a realistic scene, a spectacular plot and cinematically blow it out of proportion is consistent throughout all of his productions. In 1958, filming Vertigo, he developed his famous ‘Dolly Zoom’ technique, using it to exaggerate the fear of heights his main character experiences.

This effect is achieved when a camera hones in on a focal point (it may be a object or a area in the distance), and physically moves on the dolly track towards/away from the subject, but zooming in at the same time. The object will look like it has the same dynamics but the background is pulled out of proportion as a result. Still using the same lens, Hitchcock was able to create a greater sense of distance that a standalone camera just couldn’t capture. This technique was adopted by later filmmakers to o- Steven Spielberg snuck it in a scene of Jaws to zoom in on a character when he first saw that terrifying polyurethane shark.


Jaws (1975)
Image: Rotten Tomatoes

There’s a growing trend in online short film competitions and feature productions recently to make a ‘one take’ movie, or let a shot run for a particularly long time before it cuts to the next angle. Director Alfonso Cuarón, maker of Gravity (2013), and Children of Men (2006) uses this technique to great effect. Environment is relatively straightforward to capture, but often between all the jump cuts and cross fades in a scene immersing the audience within a scene can be a tricky thing to accomplish. In Gravity, the opening shot was one take of 17 minutes, where the director’s main aim was to “slowly immerse” the audience into a third character, “floating with our other two characters in space.” However, the ‘long take’ has been taken to new extremes by recent films Birdman (Iñáritu, 2014) and Victoria (Schipper, 2015). Birdman has the effect of being shot in a single take, whereas Victoria was actually shot in the one go between 4.30am and 7:00am, following the characters in real time through the narrative.


Gravity (2015)
Image: Rotten Tomatoes

How the camera sees action and how your eye does are two separate things. The whole notion of processing emotion, scenery and drama is so carefully constructed through film medium that we take a lot of what is seen on screen for granted. Above were a few examples, of a few directors. New ways to improve and challenge the industry standards are developing everyday, expanding the expectations of filmmakers and of audiences.


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