Not Hunger but Nausea: The Hunger Games Movie Ruined by Vomit Cam

March 25, 2012

The Hunger Games movie would have been a great adaptation of the novel by Suzanne Collins if not for the excessive use of the hand-held “shaky-cam” technique. Why don’t we call shaky cam for what it is? Vomit cam.

Maybe I’m just an old fogey and prefer the stable-cam cinematic style of True Blood. Is it too much to ask that I can see what’s happening on screen and not just a blurry swoosh of color?

I’m not alone in these criticisms:

The amount of dramatic shaky-cam in this movie is excessive. Multiple times I had to look away from the screen. The final fight, in particular, was almost impossible to follow. Shaky-cam + quick cuts + fast-paced fight scene + darkness = very hard to see.
Panels on Pages

The Hunger Shaky-Cam Games — I have just returned from watching a film about an epic romantic triangle between a director, his editing suite, and the shaky-cam that he couldn’t resist.
Robyn Paterson

That last reviewer went on to make a comparison worth reading: “It’s a good technique in moderation, and like any spice can really bring out the flavour of the film it’s used in. But, just like ginger or pepper, if you use too much of it, the receiver won’t be able to taste anything except the spice in question.”

Exactly. While I don’t object to the use of shaky cam per se — I mean, it was an effective technique, like, once, in The Blair Witch Project — it’s just one tool in a director’s tool belt and should not be used at the exclusion of all else.

Remember 300? Lots of gorgeous comic-booky scenes of Spartans flying through the air with their swords. But every single spear throw and sword swing was turned into a slow-motion shot. Every. Single. One. (Or at least, that’s what it felt like.)

They’re silly affectations by artistes. Gary Ross, director of The Hunger Games, admits as much in an interview:

Let’s talk about the look of this movie. You employed a lot of shaky handheld, and there aren’t a lot of wide shots. How did you come up with that approach?

Well, I mean, I tried to do what the book did.

Oh, come on.

Because the book is told in the first person?

Yeah, it’s a very urgent first-person narrative. I tried to put you in Katniss’s shoes the way [author] Suzanne Collins put you in Katniss’s shoes. I wanted to take you through the world using this kind of serpentine tunnel vision that Katniss has. I want to destabilize you the way Suzanne has and I want you to experience the world through Katniss’s eyes, and that requires a very subjective cinematic style, to be kind of urgently in her point of view, so that’s why I shot it that way.

Let’s see. That was effective, like, twice in the whole movie. Say, when Katniss rises up through the tunnel into the arena and is blinded by sunlight, and later when she is poisoned by genetically-engineered wasps. Those were the only two times when a point-of-view cam was arguably effective. The rest of the times, it was used to cover up possibly poor fight choreography (at least that’s what I have to assume since I couldn’t even see the damn fights through the smearing gloss of vomit cam) and a hundred other things. Maybe I should’ve taken a cue from my wife and just closed my eyes and listened.

What a tragedy that is, because The Hunger Games was otherwise a brilliantly executed movie. The writing was good (due, no doubt, to Suzanne Collins herself being one of the screenplay writers), the costuming was gorgeous, the acting was great, the makeup was great, the special effects were great. But it was ruined by a director who wanted to leave his tripod at home. What a shame.

To make an analogy, this goes back to a basic production value I have in my own prose writing. The reader should not be aware of the fact he is reading. Readers want to be transported away into their imaginations. To escape, just for a moment, the physical reality of their lives, to forget about the press of bodies around them on the subway, the screaming baby in the next room. So I strive to make my prose invisible. This means active sentence structure, an absence of flowery language, and simple to nonexistent dialogue tags. The cardinal sin is to step in front of the movie camera, so to speak, and wave at the reader, just to remind them that I am the artiste who created the thing they’re trying to enjoy. And when movie directors are so enamored by their own power that they shake the hell out of the camera or slow down every fisticuff to 1/3000 speed, they’re slamming their viewers back into harsh reality.

Movie watchers pay too much for their tickets to have to be subjected to that. Give them their escape, Mein director! Treat them with respect, and they’ll do the same for you.

3 thoughts on “Not Hunger but Nausea: The Hunger Games Movie Ruined by Vomit Cam

  1. I totally agree Matthew. I was really excited to see this movie and was soaking up every experience through the previews until the director turned on me. I do believe I would have thoroughly enjoyed this movie if it had allowed me to suspend reality instead of being reminded of my churning stomach. What will it take to convince directors to stop doing this or at least use it sparingly? I also think there should be some sort of rating system or warning so we know which movies to wait for the small screen.

    • I believe there is indeed a website or two out there that posts warnings about shaky-cam movies. I saw a link to one yesterday, and I’m kicking myself for not bookmarking it. In any case, thanks for your comment.

  2. Totally agree! What a waste of money. The director should not be able to do the next movie. And honestly shakeup camera technique should be banned. It should never ever ever be used! And why why is an unfocused camera a style! It’s never okay!