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As promised in the first post of this little series, today’s article is all about tracking movements, which is one of the main things camera sliders are used for nowadays. Depending on how sophisticated your gear is, it may also allow you to do much more than track in/out or right/left. Some sliders can be used to tower up & down, and added motion control elements can also open up the pan and tilt axes. But for now, lets stick to the basics.
The main characteristic of a tracking movement, regardless if its speed or length, is that it allows us to see a smooth, or stable image while moving. No shakes or trembles. If there are changes in speed these may be gradual, abrupt and/ or with pauses in between.
It is noteworthy that, very generally a subtle tracking movement will often feel natural to the viewer. As people, we move, and we are used to seeing things from a moving point of view. Because our bodies’ system of vision and perception is highly sophisticated, what we see when moving at a “normal” pace is not shaky, but rather feels very stable. Anyone who has tried to move naturally while operating an unstabilised handheld camera will know that there is a big difference between the way we see, and the way the camera sees, when moving in the same manner.
The reason a smooth tracking motion feels more natural to us, is because it is closer to our natural perception than for instance an unstabilised moving camera. It is certainly less noticeable, to the average filmgoer. The traditional way to achieve this movement quality was with a dolly, and later, also with a slider. Thanks to technological advances which have made their way beyond the professional realm and into consumer electronics, variations of both are available and affordable for amateur filmmakers.
Now, of course we live in the age of drones, steadicams and gimbals, which also offer a host of options for achieving smooth, steady movement. For today’s purposes though, lets stay with the dolly and slider, and look into stabilised freeform movement at a later time.
Why a dolly or slider? Simply put: for a smooth, repeatable movement covering a certain distance. The slider has proven to be particularly valuable to the amateur filmmaker or DSLR user, because of the ease with which it can be set up, the variability of use (depending on the type of slider you have), and the level of control it allows for your camera movement. This is particularly the case when planning motion controlled sequences, which require programmable and precisely replicable movements. Often times you can buy a basic slider, and update your kit with compatible elements to expand the scope of your camera movement as you go. The only drawback to the slider is the limited lengths available.
Check out the little clips my Buyslider colleagues shot of me on one of our beautiful bridges in Prague. There is nothing much is happening in terms of action in these shots, but the camera movement reveals the scene and adds tension, naturally leading us to anticipate that the character would either turn around, or that we would next see either her face, or look through her eyes in a POV shot. This anticipation was created through the pushing in movement of the camera towards the subject.
If you are not sure what camera movements will best support your story or intention, have a little play. Do the same, simple action or shot, varying your camera movements each time, and watch them to see how the result impacts you (or others) as a viewer . This small exercise can go such a long way to giving insight on how the camera movement will create tension and what anticipations a given movement may lead to.