Outside looking in, I stood on the step-side, clutched the roof rack with one hand and pointed the camera into the open passenger side window with the other, keeping my back to the gauntlet of young trees and branches trying to swat me off the side of the Range Rover, Marco Pierre White content to careen through the overgrown estate road at a fairly good clip. I had dived into the thorns behind him earlier, getting all cut up as we tracked a deer through the thickets and I guess that impressed him. Bourdain had just shot his first stag, a prize winner, and I hadn’t missed a second of it. It was dead in the trunk, bouncing with the ruts and still warm, it’s dried blood still a messy cross drawn on Bourdian’s forehead. Marco noticed me wincing from the branches and without slowing the truck down turned, “good man you’ve got there Anthony, good man.” Pushing away the loaded rifles, Bourdain grabbed a sloshing, half-full pint of beer from the center console and nodded at the road, “not bad.”
I was in bed, years later, outdoors on a second floor porch in Haiti. A hurricane was on the way and the occasional gunshot snapped into the neighborhood. I’d had a few rum punches, to no effect, and was laying in a pool of sweat beneath my mosquito net. Unknown to anyone, for the first and only time I’d accidentally erased some hard won footage in a moment of haste. I’d spent years in Bourdain’s world of no retakes and no second chances and knew gone was gone. I didn’t sleep. I thought about not missing things, and how that was the point of a camera man’s life.
The camera person’s primary concern is capture: how to not miss it. This is the root decision of all lighting, blocking, and camera choices.1» People agonize over camera choice. I’m often asked, what should we shoot with? I say, it’s complicated. Maybe the question should be, how will I not miss what I’m setting out to get? Every level of production is about capturing moments. Moments with someone, or something, some place, some atmosphere. Beautiful or not beautiful, fact or fiction, laboriously crafted or found, the kind of moments we’re trying to capture and how these moments are to be transmitted will determine the type of camera. As will our budget.2»
Presently, many camera people have worked with many different types of camera. I’ll say the more interesting discussion to me isn’t the obvious disparities of what I would term capture power.3» We all know the inequalities among camera systems, we speak of them often and all suffer them. These factors continue to improve in future generations of all digital cameras as chips evolve at an exponential pace. Amongst all the differences in cost and capture power of systems, what I’m interested in is some consistencies and their effects on capture. Going forward the types of material we set out to get, be they fact or fiction, will not change radically. In capturing this material we’ll choose among constants like a camera’s form factor, its chip or gate size, and its lensing. This is a discussion about form; how the shape, volume, and mass of a camera effects us, and the look of our project.
With future capture power arriving in smaller camera bodies we increasingly have to choose between two types of camera form and two distinct operating possibilities: Box or Balance. Rigid stabilization, tripod or otherwise, will limit some of the differences between these two forms. However, if we’re departing from stabilization we’ll have to make the choice between capturing with a Box Camera in our hands, or a Balance Camera on our shoulder. A form cannot be both things at once, in capture we will have to choose one.
1976. Anthropologists Margret Mead and Gregory Bateston, in a conversation with Stewart Brand for CoEvolution Quarterly magazine. They debate the proper method of shooting for the science of Anthropology.
Bateston: Yes. By the way, I don’t like cameras on tripods, just grinding. In the latter part of the schizophrenic project, we had cameras on tripods just grinding.
Mead: And you don’t like that?
Bateston: Because I think the photographic record should be an art form.
Mead: Oh why? Why should’t you have some records that aren’t art forms? Because it’s an art form, it has been altered.
Bateston: It’s undoubtedly altered. I don’t think it exists unaltered.
Mead: I think it’s very important, if you’re going to be scientific about behavior, to give other people access to the material, as comparable as possible to the access you had. You don’t, then, alter the material. There’s a bunch of filmmakers now that are saying, “it should be art”, and wrecking everything that we’re trying to do. Why the hell should it be art?
Bateston: Well, it should be off the tripod.
Mead: So you run around?
Mead: And therefore you’ve introduced a variation into it that is unnecessary.
Bateston: I therefore got the information out that I thought was relevant at the time.
Mead: That’s right. And therefore what do you see later?
Bateston: If you put the damn thing on a tripod, you don’t get any relevance.
Mead: No, you get what happened.
Bateston: It isn’t what happened.
Mead: I don’t want people leaping around thinking that a profile at this moment would be beautiful.
Bateston: I wouldn’t want beautiful.
Mead: Well, what’s all the leaping around for?
Bateston: To get what’s happening.
Mead: What you think is happening.
Bateston: If Stewart reached behind his back to scratch himself, I would like to be over there at that moment.
Mead: If you were over there at that moment you wouldn’t see him kicking the cat under the table. So that just doesn’t hold as an argument.
Bateston: Of the things that happen the camera is only going to record one percent anyway.
Mead: That’s right.
Bateston: I want that one percent on the whole to tell.
I see no right or wrong in this conversation, but different ways capturing things. I see a discussion of reality coverage and a Phenomenological discussion of, how do we know what is really happening? I see quantum science’s problem of being unable to see something without influencing it, and Bateston’s penchant for coming off the sticks as I too am believer in the Handheld Mystique. I appreciate Mead’s seriousness in knowing the camera’s usage determines all future possibilities of how the scene can be replayed. She’s shooting with the edit in mind, even if that edit is a single take.
I have nothing against a tripod, it’s a tool; an equalizer and a disparager. I use it whenever needed. As we know stabilizing the camera in an unhuman way subconsciously produces a level of objectivity allowing the viewer to observe the action within the frame at a psychological distance, as one would a well-crafted novel. Handheld leaves us feeling the scene as witnessed, reminding us someone was present the moment what we’re watching happened.
Beyond psychology, shooting handheld has a tremendous impact on coverage.4» It determines what shots are possible, probable, and the speed and style their accumulation. Because handheld offers a broad and immediate set of adjustments in camera angle it excels, but is not limited to, scenarios of unpredictability. Which is the resulting emotion we’ve been trained to expect. How the camera interacts with a user’s body changes the way, Mead might say, we leap around with it. As tools influence their user’s behavior, camera form can shape the physical and mental process of the user as to which shots are possible and which are probable.
Increased sophistication in the process of recording and display increases a camera’s mass. Though Moore’s law gives us more processing power in a smaller space it isn’t rapidly reducing the footprint of all camera bodies. Based on the development of film gate sizes, optics, magazines, recording decks and the ergonomics of the human body, we have accepted a certain size, shape, and mass for most sophisticated cameras.5» There is a need and rationale for keeping this size and mass fairly constant in the future.
A Balance Camera, defined by the way it interacts with the body, is like a seesaw. With masses along its length at equilibrium, the pivot point is near the camera’s center. Our shoulder acts as fulcrum and free from torque pulling one end up or down the camera rests on us, balanced. The design has organically evolved around always having two lateral masses to balance, the optics and the magazine. The elongated shape evolved around its interaction with our head and shoulder.
The viewing mechanism in these cameras is ideally placed close to the image plane and close to the camera’s center of gravity (CG). Bring the viewfinder to our eye and we bring the camera’s CG into alignment with our body’s CG. Connecting with the camera combines our masses to form a new common CG. Balance comes from keeping this common CG over our base of support, our point of contact with the ground, be it toes, feet, knees, etc. Holding the camera away the body moves our CG towards the base’s edge, the farther we move it, the more we must work to maintain balance. Move the camera too far, the CG moves outside the base and we fall. Keeping the camera on our shoulder and our CG over our base allows us move less like two separate masses and more like the one we have become.
A body at rest tends to stay at rest. Inertia stabilizes the camera resting on our shoulder, more mass at equilibrium providing more stability. Hands and shoulder form three points of contact, countering torque and providing a high degree of control. The camera is stacked above all major muscle groups. As the force vector of gravity pulls straight down, we use our legs, core, back, chest and arms to push the camera back up. Dispersing the load allows us to counter fatigue and carry more weight. Incredibly important, the Balance Camera and viewfinder encourages correct posture; hips, spine and neck erect and aligned. Our head is positioned looking forward naturally, and not tilted down.
We tend to shoot subjects at eye level, be they sitting or standing. Depending on the material we may be holding the camera at these two levels frequently and for great lengths of time. Can we hold a twenty pound camera for longer in our hands or on our shoulder? Ten pounds is the same answer, and perhaps negligible but true, so is five. Comfortable inside the viewfinder, our eye can clearly see focus, critical picture information and frame lines. Our attention, split between the action and the display, can shift mostly to camera. The viewfinder dominates our vision, permitting precise framing and deep concentration. The murmur of the world around us dulls and the action in the viewfinder can fully absorbs us.
Before considering the consequences of shooting with a Balance camera we have to answer two koans of the camera operator. Did we get it? And, was it worth it?