I've noticed a trend in movies where the camera "sways" during quiet, drama scenes, as opposed to "shaky cam" which is used during action scenes.

I've noticed its use in both political/war movies and drama movies designed for teenagers, but not really in other kinds of movies, because it's supposed to be "real" and mess with the viewer's emotions. However, all it succeeds in doing is irritating me and making me feel queasy.

Is there a proper name for this technique and what is it designed to accomplish?

  • 1
    Can you give an example of this said technique?
    – Napoleon Wilson
    Dec 20, 2013 at 20:35
  • @Christian Zero Dark Thirty was the film I attemped to watch. Normally, the camera sway is limited to certain scenes only, but in this movie, the camera sway persists throughout the film.
    – user6533
    Dec 20, 2013 at 20:38
  • Probably because Zero dark 30 was based on a true story and meant to simulate news footage - however, see my MoS point in my answer below.
    – Nobby
    Dec 20, 2013 at 20:44
  • @ChristianRau: E.g. the dialogue in the prison scene with Khan in the recent Star Trek. Looks like they didn't have money for a tripod. Dec 21, 2013 at 0:03

1 Answer 1


It's hard to be objective when answering this question as I personally hate this kind of camera work (out of context), but in general, 'swaying' shots and 'shaky-cam' fall under the same catch-all monicker of 'hand-held'.

First used to simulate the hand-held appearance of news reel footage in pseudo-documentaries, the camera form had a resurgence in the early 60s when the new wave of directors felt it their duty to rebel against the established 'old guard' - then it resurfaced after NYPD Blue on TV began shooting episodes with the technique.

The introduction of cheaper, prosumer cameras led to a proliferation of hand-held indie films, which was adopted by the larger studios especially during action scenes in order to give the scene a sense of confusion and urgency.

However, the camera form has been over-used in many cases, and is especially jarring when used out of context - for example, in the recent Man of Steel, the hand-held cinematography was fully justified during the battle scenes and moments of extreme action, but was completely unnecessary (in my opinion) during the intimate conversational moments between Clark and his parents.

This technique often has the effect of pulling the viewer out of the film by drawing attention to the camera move, or in extreme cases, causing nausea.

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    I have to agree with you about hating this filming technique. Two movies which totally annoyed me was Battle: Los Angeles and Hunger Games (first movie - Catching Fire didn't use this I think). Not only is it annoying, but gives me a headache if I don't pay attention to how I am watching the film. If I don't pay attention, I try to keep up with the camera. It quickly annoys me. Of course, this rant is opinion based. Dec 20, 2013 at 20:54
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    Opinion-based, yes. Do I heartily agree? Yes ;) I can't stand the Bourne films for this very reason, and Spielberg had an interesting comment to make about hand-held action scenes which addressed the lack of 'geography' in the framing. If the viewer has no sense of the space around the characters, then a vital element is lost from these scenes. Of course, Private Ryan was supposed to be frantic/confusing and documentary-style, so we'll let Steve have his moment too ;)
    – Nobby
    Dec 20, 2013 at 22:51
  • 1
    I can understand if the scene is supposed to be frantic for this style ... That doesn't mean I have to like it ;-) Dec 21, 2013 at 0:26

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