Camera movement has the potential to function in many different ways, such as to direct the viewer's attention, reveal offscreen space, provide narrative information, or create expressive effects. The camera most frequently moves when an object moves within the frame, initiating reframing or a following shot. Reframing involves slight pans or tilts designed to maintain the balance of a composition during figure movement. A camera operator will reframe when a sitting person stands up, for instance, so as to keep the person in the frame and allow for appropriate head room. Reframing helps to fix the viewer's eye on the most important figures within the frame and is so common it is often unnoticed.
The camera itself accompanies the movement of an object during a following shot. A track, crane, or hand-held shot can lead a moving figure into space, pursue a figure from behind, or float above, below, or alongside. Intricate following shots may be motivated by the movements of more than one figure, such as during the ball sequence of The Magnificent Ambersons (1942): as the last guests say goodbye, the camera pans and tracks to follow characters from the stairs to the foyer to the front door, producing a series of deep space compositions that fore-shadow the rekindling of an old romance and the development of a new one.
Not all camera movement responds to motion within the frame; the filmmaker may direct the camera away from the dominant action for other purposes. Such camera movement draws attention to itself and is typically used sparingly to emphasize significant narrative details. For example, when Judy (Natalie Wood) stands up to exit the police station in Rebel Without a Cause (1955), the camera pans and tilts down to frame the compact she left behind, highlighting an important motif that will bring the protagonists together.
Because of its ability to reveal or conceal space, camera movement often participates in the creation of suspense and surprise. In Strangers on a Train (1951), a point-of-view editing pattern places the viewer in the optical perspective of Guy (Farley Granger) as he approaches a dark staircase to warn a father of his son's murderous intentions. The director Alfred Hitchcock (1899–1980) then varies the editing pattern by craning up from Guy to disclose a menacing dog waiting on the landing above. The independent camera movement informs the viewer of an obstacle unknown to Guy, raising the question of whether he will be able to reach the father—thus heightening suspense. Later in the same scene, Hitchcock alters his use of camera movement to conceal offscreen space and suppress narrative information. As Guy enters the bedroom to wake the sleeping father, the camera tracks to Guy's side and keeps the father offscreen. By delaying an onscreen image of the father's bed, Hitchcock surprises viewers when a subsequent shot reveals the treacherous son in his father's place.
Sometimes camera movement positions the viewer as an objective witness to unfolding events. In Mia aioniotita kai mia mera ( Eternity and a Day , Theo Angelopoulos, 1998), a four-and-a-half-minute take turns away from the primary plotline to gaze at secondary activities. As the dying protagonist gets out of his car to find a home for his dog, the sound of an accordion prompts the camera to track left, revealing a wedding parade turning into the street. When the parade passes the protagonist's car, the camera pans left, relegating him to offscreen space and instead fixing on the bride at the head of the parade; the camera then slowly follows the parade down the street, until the groom emerges from a building, joins his bride in dance, and the two lead the procession into a nearby fenced courtyard, the camera settling next to a row of children watching the dancing over the top of the fence. Finally, the protagonist walks into the right side of the frame, halting the dancing, and asks the groom's mother—his nurse—to take care of his dog. As in this example, very slow camera movements within long takes focus the viewer on the passage of time and build narrative expectation. Here the camera movement situates the viewer as a curious inhabitant of the narrative world, linking simultaneous events in adjacent spaces and integrating the protagonist's preparations for death with a joyous celebration of life.
Camera movement can also be used to illustrate a character's subjective experience. In the documentary
Through its ability to locate the actions of a character within a given environment, camera movement may directly advance the plot. For example, at the end of an evening of costumed skits in La Règle du jeu ( The Rules of the Game , 1939), a series of quick pans and tracks follow and reveal characters as their secret romantic pairings are hidden from, searched for, and discovered by other characters. At times the camera will be guided by a character's movement; at other times it will move independently, always uncovering the betrayals at the heart of the film's romantic game of hide-and-seek.
Alternatively, camera movement can function to develop narrative themes. In Gone with the Wind (1939), a dramatic crane shot situates the private anxiety of Scarlett O'Hara (Vivien Leigh) against the misery suffered by the Confederacy as a whole. When Scarlett arrives at the train depot searching for Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard), the camera tracks back from her and cranes up to a great height, revealing row upon row of wounded men around her and the tattered Confederate flag flying above. Similarly, a high-angle panning shot of Harry's gutted apartment at the end of The Conversation illustrates the film's surveillance theme. The camera's angle, location at the top of a wall, and back-and-forth 180-degree motion mimic the type of image produced by a security camera, an ironic reminder of the threat to privacy that fuels Harry's paranoid fears.
The moving camera may also serve a structural purpose within a film, as shots with similar camera movements create patterns of repetition and variation. In Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), two high-angle shots from the second floor landing pan right and tilt up as a man and his female companion climb a circular staircase to his apartment. In the first shot, a young girl on the landing watches the couple; in the second shot, the landing stands empty, and the girl is now the man's companion. The parallel established between the two shots depicts the fulfillment of the young girl's desires, while also marking her as just one in a series of women enjoyed by the man. A more expanded pattern of tracking shots in Sans toit ni loi ( Vagabond , Agnès Varda, 1985) helps to unify the episodic narrative and indicate the continuity of the protagonist's journey. As Mona (Sandrine Bonnaire) travels the countryside on foot and interacts with a series of characters, leftward tracking shots follow her from one episode to the next, each ending on a random object that is either the same or similar to the object that begins the next tracking shot. The pattern suggests the one constant in Mona's life is her movement, and as the camera never exactly parallels her motion, it underscores her ultimate independence.
At times, camera movement primarily operates to create a visceral sensation. For example, in This Is Cinerama (1952), the attachment of the camera to a roller coaster car offers the viewer the giddy sensation of actually being on the ride, while in Wai Ka-fai's Too Many Ways to Be No. 1 (1997), a handheld camera positioned above a crowd suddenly flips over as a fight breaks out, providing a jarring sense of the physical confusion within the scene. A series of repeated camera movements can also create a rhythmic pattern. In Ballet mécanique (Fernand Léger and Dudley Murphy, 1924), brief pans in an upside-down shot of a woman on a swing create a visual rhythm that is then repeated and varied later in the film. Similarly, a series of panning shots of car crashes in A Movie (Bruce Connor, 1958) initiates a rhythmic pattern of accidents and disasters. In these instances, speed, direction, and length of camera movement are controlled to produce kinetic and rhythmic effects.
Avant-garde filmmakers have been at the forefront of experiments using camera movement to interrogate the act of seeing. In Wavelength (1967), Back and Forth (1968–1969), and Breakfast (1976), Michael Snow (b. 1929) explored how the movement of the frame and the camera affected perceptions of time and space. For La Region Centrale (1971), Snow and Pierre Abaloos invented a new camera mount that could move along different axes at variable speeds, transforming the recorded landscape into abstracted lines and swirls of color. Stan Brakhage (1933–2003) embraced the potential of the handheld camera to capture a new mode of vision. In films such as Anticipation of the Night (1958) and Dog Star Man (1961–1964), Brakhage's "first person" camera expresses his subjective experience of what he was shooting. In these experimental works, the filmmakers encourage the viewer to consider the unique effects of camera movement that are often taken for granted when watching mainstream films.