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16:9 in English: Camera Movement Revisited


Critics, historians and theorists have discussed camera movement from many perspectives and at many levels of generality. One question in particular seems to spawn these enquiries: What is the contribution of camera movement to the language of cinema?  

The theme of the current issue of 16:9 - re-visitations - offers an opportunity that ties in well with my own approach to film style and camera movement in particular (Nielsen 2007). The following article is retrospective in the sense that it revisits the literature on camera movement but it also offers prospects for future research on this topic. Ultimately, I will suggest that combining the strengths of two perspectives on style that have hitherto been kept much too separate is not only the best way of answering the question posed above but also a viable avenue of research. 

On the one hand there is a rich tradition of stylistically sensitive interpretive criticism that is generally and broadly described as British mise-en-scène criticism. Most interpretive criticism shows no or only perfunctory commitment to the stylistic parameters at play but British mise-en-scène criticism has always staked a claim for the production of knowledge on style.

Mise-en-scène criticism, of course, is not a completely uniform school of criticism. Robin Wood gravitates towards authorial specificity and the occasional interpretive leap: “Ultimately, Ophuls’s tracking shots signify both Time and Destiny.” (1976, p. 131). On the other hand, V. F. Perkins discusses camera movement in relation to realist expressivity: A camera movement must be credible before it can be significant; it must be motivated from within the world of the story yet slightly inflected to serve dramatic ends (as opposed to e.g. being intellectually imposed on the action).

Another perspective that has staked a claim for the production of knowledge on style is cinematic poetics. A chief practitioner, David Bordwell, has summed up cinematic poetics in the form of four lines of enquiry or four modes of problem-solving.

  1. “By what principles are the films created as distinctive wholes – narratives, or other kinds of wholes. Call this domain the poetics of overarching form” (2001, p. 9).
  2. “How is the medium deployed in a film or body of films? Call this stylistics” (2001, p. 9).
  3. “How do form and style shape the uptake of spectators? Call this the theory of spectatorial activity” (2001, p. 9-10).
  4. “How, over time, do form and style exhibit patterns of continuity and change, and how might we best explain these patterns? Call this historical poetics” (2001, p. 10).

For my purposes questions 2 and 4 are the most relevant as they specifically address stylistics and stylistic history.

A sample

Given that cinematic poetics is no less multifaceted than British mise-en-scène criticism I will focus on a few texts that exemplify some key strategies of stylistic analysis/interpretation within the two traditions.

Regarding cinematic poetics I will be drawing on David Bordwell’s work in general but will focus on a passage from Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema (1988) in particular. And concerning British mise-en-scène criticism I have singled out John Gibbs’ and Douglas Pye’s article on Otto Preminger’s Bonjour Tristesse (1958) in Style and Meaning (2005b) but will also briefly mention Robin Wood’s chapter “Ewig hin der liebe Glück” in Personal Views (1976).

Paradoxically, the rhetoric of e.g. Gibbs and Pye compared to that of Bordwell is sometimes remarkably – and misleadingly – similar. Gibbs and Pye: “Interpretation has to be rooted in the concrete details of the text (its style) because it is only through these that we gain access to the film’s subjects” (2005a: 10). Bordwell: “[Style is] the tangible texture of the film, the perceptual surface we encounter as we watch and listen, and that surface is our point of departure in moving to plot, theme, feeling - everything else that matters to us" (2005: 32).

Although – rhetorically – they position themselves in remarkably similar ways, there are important differences in the ways they actually “go about it” when writing on specific camera movements.

John Gibbs’ and Douglas Pye’s introduction to Style and Meaning lays out some general differences in the following way:

Our major difference with Bordwell is again over the relationship between style and meaning. In our view, style is constitutive - it is the heart of the material process of articulation - so that to understand style we must grasp how it works in its context to present and shape the film’s dramatic world. To understand style is to interpret what it does. (2005a: 11). Emphases added.

I have emphasized four terms in the quote because they are of fundamental importance when distinguishing the two perspectives from each other. The introduction to Style and Meaning brings up the central issues at stake, but it polarizes the two perspectives more than is necessary and in some respects slightly misrepresents the ways in which they differ from one another.

Constitutive style

Concerning Bordwell’s position in this regard, he does not refuse the constitutive force of style but views it as an historical and paradigmatic variable. In other words, it is a question of which film we are looking at. There are traditions and modes of narration where style assumes a constitutive role in the work but there are also traditions where style is secondary – sometimes merely serving to  “bring […] the story across” (Bordwell in Nielsen 2005).

I agree with Bordwell that the intensity of contribution varies from film to film but I share Gibbs’ and Pye’s assumption that style is constitutive regardless of what paradigm of filmmaking we are dealing with.

The impurities of meaning

Unlike most critics and researchers who deal with film style, Bordwell has actually taken on the commendable task of establishing a working definition of what constitutes meaning (see Making Meaning, 1989). Hence Bordwell’s production of knowledge on style can be viewed in the light of four specific types of meaning (referential & explicit, implicit & symptomatic). You may argue that these four types are reductive, ill defined or that Bordwell does not make a strong enough effort to connect his accounts of style to the specific types of meaning, but that is another matter.

Interpretive restraint

Whether one analyses or interprets style depends of course on the way you define those two activities. Bordwell has defined interpretation as the process of assigning implicit and symptomatic meanings to a film (1989, p. 9). And in the case of style, a more precise account is suggested in an interview with Bordwell published previously in 16:9: ”To my way of thinking, the hermeneutic tradition is very much about looking for the symbolic dimension of style and about reading that symbolic dimension either implicitly or symptomatically.”



Fig. 1. British mise-en-scène criticism: Movie no. 2 (1962).

Cinematic poetics: The cover to David Bordwell’s Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema (1988).


Seen in this perspective, Bordwell’s work on camera movement is certainly characterized by interpretive restraint. Instead he engages with style through the optics of functional and motivational taxonomies. His often discussed section on how the classical film “unifies itself” by means of four main types of motivation in The Classical Hollywood Cinema is a case in point (Bordwell et al 1985a: 19-23) (1). For instance, a given camera movement may be motivated realistically (as when visualizing how a character traverses space in a mobile p.o.v. shot), compositionally (as when it serves narrative ends), intertextually (as when motivated by genre or a star persona) or artistically (as when viewers are meant to enjoy the artifice involved).

More recently, Bordwell has suggested a functional taxonomy for style (2005: 33-35) consisting of these four types: denotative (directing attention), expressive (bringing out or magnifying feelingful qualities), decorative (flourishes or stylistic patterns that are independent or semi-independent of narrative design) and symbolic functions (invoking abstract concepts).

Clearly, Bordwell’s taxonomies of functions, meanings and motivations correlate and overlap but it is difficult to assess just how and when to keep them apart and when to combine them. Faced with a particular camera movement, deciding whether to consult Bordwell’s taxonomy of functions, meanings or motivations depends on the type of question that you are posing.


The fact that each perspective explores a different network of relationships marks a crucial difference. In “Bordwell and Hollywood” (1989) Douglas Pye argues that Bordwell’s motivational categories in themselves cannot encapsulate the intricate ways in which stylistic figures affect e.g. self-conscious narration: “[T]he terms are crucially limiting. They preclude what is of essence in analysis of style – the status a formal figure acquires by virtue of context and intention.” (p. 48). While it seems to me that Bordwell does indeed bracket the concept of intention, he does not separate style from contextual factors as such. Rather, the crucial difference is that he explores a network of relationships that is very different from the one explored by e.g. Gibbs, Pye and Wood. In order to get to know this ‘network of relationships’, we need to look at a particular passage on camera movement.

  (1) For critical readings of this section see e.g. Pye 1989 and Cowie 1998.  

Bordwell on Camera Movement

The following account from Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema (1988) is revealing of Bordwell’s approach to camera movement:

Ozu did not eliminate camera movements from his style. He narrowed their range by absolutely refusing certain sorts, such as the pans that were fundamental to the ‘calligraphic’ style. Such movements would make the compositions too unstable. Ozu subordinated camera movements to visual design by favoring tracking shots that kept the composition constant – such as travelling back to follow walking or bicycling characters, or tracking forward down a corridor, or gliding laterally left or right to create an orderly procession of planes. (Bordwell 1988: 80) (fig,2)

This passage does not explain everything that Bordwell has had to say about camera movement (2) but it is a good basis from which we can detect some characteristics of Bordwell’s approach to the device:


Fig. 2. A frame from one of the many brief mono-directional camera movements in Flavor of Green Tea over Rice (1952) that subordinates the mobility of the camera to visual design.

  1. The network of relationships actually explored in concrete analyses has relatively weak ties to subject matter or feeling or motive.

He has written extensively on performance (for instance staging, blocking and blinking) and camera movement but it seems to me that he is less interested in explaining how these aspects of style (for instance vocal delivery, mimicry, crane shots and push-ins) relate to themes, character psychology, or characterization, in specific scenes.

  1. Specific devices such as staging or camera movement are studied as relatively independent figures of style.
  1. If camera movement is accounted for as part of a network of relationships, it is primarily explored in relation to other formal properties of the film (patterns of movement and interrelationships with other properties of style such as visual design).

The quote establishes this quite clearly. What are those scenes in which camera movement occurs really about? Bordwell has a remarkable eye for stylistic devices and may note that a camera movement occurs at a significant point in the action but he rarely dwells on or elaborates such observations in terms of fully integrating them into a sustained analysis of the emotions and themes at play at a particular moment in the film.

  1. A specific camera movement is situated within a functional or motivational taxonomy.

E.g. in Figures Traced in Light Bordwell analyses staging – and in some cases also camera movement - in the films of Louis Feuillade, Kenji Mizoguchi, Theo Angelopoulos and Hou-Hsiou Hsien based on the premise that style can perform one or more of the four specific functions described above: denotative, expressive, decorative and symbolic.

  1. A specific camera movement is situated in relation to norms and traditions, e.g. in relation to a group style or paradigm.

An auteurist framework is of course a kind of group style but what makes Bordwell stand out is his insistence on situating a discussion of a particular camera movement within interpersonal group styles in circulation at the time of production.

The classical mode of narration (as described in The Classical Hollywood Cinema and Narration in the Fiction Film, both 1985) is the most important contextual framework but by far the only example of such norms and traditions. For instance, in the quote above it is the “calligraphic style” - defined earlier in Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema – that serves as such an interpersonal group style.

Bordwell’s perspective is particularly commendable when unearthing a filmmaker’s “integral aesthetic system” (1988, p. 81) or when studying how camera movement is practiced within a wide-ranging interpersonal group style. Outside these areas, however, the approach has shortcomings that mise-en-scène criticism can amend.

Bonjour Mise-en-scène Criticism

John Gibbs and Douglas Pye not only wrote the introduction to Style and Meaning referred to above but also a piece on Bonjour Tristesse which incorporates an analysis of camera movements into the overall argument.

Even though that piece is primarily on performance, their interpretive strategy is symptomatic of the way in which mise-en-scène criticism seeks to contextualize a given choice of camera technique.

  (2) Bordwell has also written on the history of camera movement (1977b, 2006), the on-screen appearance of camera movement and the camera movement-effect (1977a).  

First, Gibbs and Pye focus on a specific scene: Anne’s arrival (Deborah Kerr) – and primarily two follow shots that maintain a distance to the action (fig. 3-5). I would summarize Gibbs’ and Pye’s remarks on (one or both of the) camera movements in the following way: The duration of the take allows for uninterrupted interaction; the camera does not impose itself but maintains an unobtrusive elegance; the camera restricts the viewer’s epistemic access to the characters.

Gibbs’ and Pye’s text is firmly rooted within the tradition of mise-en-scène criticism. In fact, they cite Ian Cameron’s article on Bonjour Tristesse in Movie no. 2 as an inspirational source for their analysis. Although Robin Wood’s article “Ewig hin der liebe Glück”(1976) is not mentioned by Gibbs and Pye, their analysis also ties in extremely well with Wood’s account of authorial camera movement in the films of Ophuls, Hitchcock, Preminger and Renoir.
According to Wood, Preminger generally follows the action at a distance and in extended takes in order to be unobtrusive and to “watch the character rather than to implicate us in his movements.” (1976, p. 126). Objects intervening between camera and character “keep us at our distance.” (1976, p. 126).

As to the last point, this is a key parameter for Wood in distinguishing between the authorial characteristics of Preminger and Max Ophuls. According to Wood, objects intervening between camera and characters tend to have the function of graceful ornamentation or ironic juxtaposition in Ophuls (fig. 6). More specifically, there is often a graphic rhythm or musicality to the way in which objects pass Ophuls’ camera (Bacher 1996, p. 5).

The second follow shot in Bonjour Tristesse actually has both of these Ophulsian qualities. The three spiky agaves are evenly spaced and it is tempting to view the shape and characteristics of these agaves as comments on the action: the underlying edginess and nervous quality of this specific interaction and the fact that this encounter marks the beginning of a truly “hurtful relationship.” (fig. 7-9).

Incorporating these additional comments into their analysis would – in my view – improve Gibbs’ and Pye’s reading of these camera movements. However, this does not invalidate their general perspective. On the contrary, one of the sympathetic aspects of Gibbs’ and Pye’s position is that it encourages dialogue (2005a, p. 3-4).

Mise-en-scène criticism and camera movement

One of the advantages of the way in which Gibbs and Pye write about camera movement is that they manage to ’place the reader in the scene.’ They present us with a thorough account of the emotional tensions, of the nuances of psychological and emotional states harbored by the characters and of the specific questions at stake at that particular moment in the film’s narrative design. Only in that context is the significance of a camera movement assessed. After all, it is difficult to assess the function of a stylistic device if one does not consider the full spectrum of interrelationships.

Significantly, their analytical and interpretive procedure can offer a way of understanding the film’s design that is closer to our experience of watching and listening to the film. One could say that it takes a more organic, holistic or integrated view of style, which can enrich our viewing experience of the film as a whole instead of, for instance, singling out the function of a stylistic device within a film’s formal system.

Can Gibbs’ and Pye’s analysis benefit from other perspectives? Yes, for two reasons. First, there are other ways of substantiating claims about Preminger’s idiosyncrasy. Second, not every camera movement in an Otto Preminger film is an unobtrusive follow shot that keeps us at a distance to the action.

The positioning of the argument is bound up with claims that Preminger’s films are idiosyncratic. The article itself focuses on intrafilmic and, to a lesser extent, authorial norms but the article only
invokes a tacit sense of the wider stylistic norms and traditions within which these stylistic devices are mounted.

The article should address wider stylistic norms and traditions more explicitly because the argument about restricting the viewer’s epistemic access to the characters ONLY makes sense in a historical perspective. Preminger’s camera movements give a much better access to the medium shot gestures of his characters than European silent films of the 1910s where the medium long shot and full shot were the workhorses. In other words, Preminger’s camera movements restrict our epistemic access to the main characters when compared to other films that do not.

One way of substantiating the argument is to incorporate stylometrics (Barry Salt, Colin Crisp, etc). Does Preminger really keep the camera at a greater distance to the characters than other directors of CinemaScope films at that time? Is Bonjour Tristesse on the whole a long take film when compared to other CinemaScope films of the time? A brief peak into Barry Salt’s Film Style and Technology (1992) would indicate that the answer to the latter question is indeed “yes.”


Fig. 3-5. The establishing shot maintains a distance to Cecile (Jean Seberg) and Anne even as they embrace.

Fig. 6. (Ironic) juxtaposition in Madame de (1953): Donati (De Sica): “24 hours without seeing you.” Louise (Darrieux) complies: “I know. It’s agony.” At this exact moment the couple appear to be spiked by agaves.

Fig. 7-9. The shot attains a graphic rhythm because the agaves are spaced at set intervals. Simultaneously their spiky shape can be viewed as a comment on Cecile’s and Anne’s interaction.


However, this is only a minor point. More importantly, if one looks at camera movements in Otto Preminger films – even in Bonjour Tristesse – one will find examples that challenge the assumption that Preminger explores modes of non-omniscience and that he restricts the viewer’s epistemic access to his characters. For instance, there are a number of push-ins in Bonjour Tristesse (fig. 10-11). Although you may argue that they are not of the conventional type where the movement is strongly or unambiguously suggestive of a particular kind of psychological or emotional activity in the mind of the character, it would still be odd to claim that these camera movements restrict our epistemic access to the characters.

In other words, one could develop a more precise argument by suggesting that there is a whole range of functions at play in those camera movements but that Preminger gravitates towards certain sorts. In other words, Gibbs, Pye and Wood could develop a stronger argument by holding their analyses up against a framework that takes functional fluctuation into account: a functional palette of options (3).

Bordwell does not provide a full understanding of the camera movement because not all networks of relationships are discussed. However, he attempts to establish a range of functions or motivations that Preminger’s camera movements operate within: “Preminger will often claim his droit du seigneur at the end of a film by an overt camera movement” (1985a, p. 80).

Why does the camera go up now?

When I suggested the idea of positioning one’s analytical insights in relation to a taxonomy of functions at the Continuity and Innovation Conference in Reading 2008, the term “functional taxonomy” seemed to ignite protest amongst some of the listeners inclined towards holistic analysis (a la Movie criticism). This, of course, is a matter of how rigidly you define such a taxonomy and how you bring it to bear on your analytic procedures. What I propose is, in fact, not so much at odds with what you find in early Movie. For instance in Movie no. 2 (the same issue that Gibbs and Pye refer to) the editors position Vincente Minnelli’s explanation of a crane shot (fig. 12-14) in Four Horseman of the Apocalypse (1961) in the context of a total of five potential functions (p. 4). My only addition would be that such a functional framework should not merely be tentative but rather firmly backed by empirical evidence.

A functional taxonomy is, of course, a way in which proponents of historical poetics - for instance, David Bordwell – attempt to produce knowledge on style. However, why should stylistically informed interpretive criticism refrain from incorporating a functional framework? Surely, the process of registering detail, considering functions at play before suggesting implicit or symbolic meanings, is a healthy and rigorous one.

Similarly, we should be open to the diversity of ways in which style contributes to a work. And one way of being open to that diversity is to consider the entire functional palette of options that camera movement taps into, and to consider that as a basis on which to launch interpretations of film style.

After all, there is also a limit to how far functional analysis can take us towards establishing the contribution of a particular camera movement. Certainly, there are cases where the rich meaning of a shot is beyond the grasp of functional analysis. However, there is also a limit to how much one can say about camera movements without understanding the range of functions that they engage.

Both of these points are important because in order to produce a persuasive functional taxonomy in the first place, one should consider all the pertinent networks of relationships at play and attempt to arrive at a “full” meaning of the shot or scene in which a camera movement exudes its shaping power. If the analysis and interpretation are not carried out with thoroughness, then one cannot assess the complex contribution of camera movement in the first place.


Fig. 10-11. In this case the camera pushes in on Cecile as Anne walks up to her and confronts her with her unwillingness to study for a philosophy exam.


(3) In my PhD dissertation Camera Movement in Narrative Cinema (2007) I suggest such a palette of options – a taxonomy of six major functions: spatial orientation, pacing, inflection, focalization, reflexive and abstract.


Fig. 12. Madariaga (Lee J. Cobb) dies in his grandson’s arms (Glenn Ford) and the camera cranes up.

Fig. 13. The first two functions suggested in Movie are emotional (”the camera moves up to leave him cowering before the vision”) and symbolic (”the camera looks down on him in judgement” to suggest his responsibility for the old man’s death).

Fig. 14. The final three functions are connective (”a way of linking the shot to its successor”), bravura and clarity (to see the character’s face clearly).




Bacher, Lutz (1978). The Mobile Mise en SceneA Critical Analysis of
the Theory and Practice of Long-Take Camera Movement in the
Narrative Film. N.Y.: Arno Press.

Bacher, Lutz (1996). Ophuls in the Hollywood Studios. New
Brunswick: Rutgers  UP.

Bordwell, David (1977a). "Camera Movement and Cinematic Space.”
Cine-Tracts 1, 2 (Summer): 19-26.

Bordwell, David (1977b). "Camera Movement, the Coming of
Sound, and the Classical Hollywood Style." In: Ben Lawton and Janet Staiger, eds. Film: Historical-Theoretical Speculations (Pleasantville, NY: Redgrave, 1977): 27-3l. Reprinted in The Hollywood Film Industry, ed. Paul Kerr (London: Routledge, 1984), pp. 148-153.

Bordwell, David (1980). French Impressionist Cinema. N.Y.: Arno

Bordwell, David (1981). The Films of Carl Theodor Dreyer. Berkeley:
Univ. of California Press.

Bordwell, David; Staiger, Janet; Thompson, Kristin (1985a). The
Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production
to 1960. London: Routledge.

Bordwell, David (1983). “Lowering the Stakes: Prospects for a
Historical Poetics of Cinema.” Iris 1, 1: 5-18.

Bordwell, David (1985b). Narration in the Fiction Film. London:

Bordwell, David (1988). Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema. London: BFI.

Bordwell, David (1989). Making Meaning: Inference and Rhetoric in
the Interpretation of Film. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP.

Bordwell, David (1997). On the History of Film Style. Cambridge,
Mass.: Harvard UP.

Bordwell, David (2001). “Transcultural Spaces: Toward a Poetics of
Chinese Film.” Post Script 20, 2/3: 9-24.

Bordwell, David (2001). Visual Style in Cinema: Vier Kapitel
Filmgeschichte. Frankfurt am Main: Verlag der Autoren.

Bordwell, David (2002). “Intensified Continuity: Visual Style in
Contemporary American Film.” Film Quarterly 55, 3 (Spring):

Bordwell, David (2005). Figures Traced in Light. Berkeley, L.A. and
London: University of California Press.

Bordwell, David (2006). The Way Hollywood Tells It. Berkeley:
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Bordwell, David (2007). Poetics of Cinema. London & N.Y:

Cowie, Elizabeth (1998). “Storytelling: Classical Hollywood Cinema
and Classical Narrative” in Murray Smith & Steve Neale, eds.
Contemporary Hollywood Cinema (London: Routledge), pp.

Gibbs, John (2002). Mise-en-scène - Film Style and Interpretation
(London: Wallflower Press).

Gibbs, John Gibbs; Pye, Douglas (2005a). “Introduction,” in Style and
Meaning: Studies in the Detailed Analysis of Film (Manchester:
Manchester UP).

Gibbs, John Gibbs; Pye, Douglas (2005b). “Revisiting Preminger:
Bonjour Tristesse (1958) and Close Reading,” in Style and
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Manchester UP), pp. 108-26.

Movie no. 2 (September 1962)

Nielsen, Jakob Isak (2004a). “Bordwell on Bordwell: Part I –
Hitchcock, Hartley and the Poetics of Cinema.” 16:9 no. 7

Nielsen, Jakob Isak (2004b). “Bordwell on Bordwell: Part II –
Functions of Film Style.” 16:9 no. 8

Nielsen, Jakob Isak (2004c). ”Bordwell on Bordwell: Part III – Writing
on Film Style.” 16:9 no. 9

Nielsen, Jakob Isak (2005). Bordwell on Bordwell: Part IV -  Levels of
Engagement.” 16:9 no. 10

Nielsen, Jakob Isak (2007). Camera Movement in Narrative Cinema –
Towards a Taxonomy of Functions (Aarhus: Department of
Information and Media Studies). Unpublished PhD dissertation.

Perkins, V.F. (1972). Film as Film. N.Y.: Da Capo Press. Reprinted in

Perkins, V.F. (1990). “Must We Say What They Mean?: Film Criticism
and   Interpretation,” Movie no. 34/35 (Winter), pp. 1-6.

Pye, Douglas (1989). ”Bordwell and Hollywood,” Movie no. 33, pp. 46-

Salt, Barry (1992). Film Style and Technology: History and Analysis
(2. ed.). London: Starword.

Wood, Robin (1976). ”Ewig hin der liebe Glück” in Personal Views
(London: Fraser), pp. 114-32.


I am sincerely grateful to my colleague and friend Niels Weisberg who let me borrow his (nearly) complete run of Movie issues.

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16:9 - februar 2009 - 7. årgang - nummer 30

Udgives med støtte fra Det Danske Filminstitut samt Kulturministeriets bevilling til almenkulturelle tidsskrifter.
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