Camera Work In Animation: 10 Basic Techniques To Master

As our invisible eyes, the camera in animation has an active role. By meticulously controlling its movement, animators achieve a variety of effects to engage the viewers―far beyond simply showing us what's happening on screen, it's a powerful storytelling tool often unseen.

a month ago   •   8 min read

By Gwénaëlle Dupré
Photo by ShareGrid / Unsplash

As our invisible eyes, the camera in animation has an active role. By meticulously controlling its movement, animators achieve a variety of effects to engage the viewers―far beyond simply showing us what's happening on screen, it's a powerful storytelling tool often unseen.

Camera animation guides our attention, drawing our focus to specific details or characters. It helps establish the vastness of a sprawling cityscape or the intimacy of a whispered conversation. Most importantly, camera animation plays a crucial role in setting the mood and tone of the story. A sweeping shot across a majestic landscape evokes a sense of awe, while a tightly framed close-up builds suspense or reveals a character's inner turmoil.

In the following sections, we explore the various camera techniques employed in animation and how they contribute to creating engaging stories.

Camera properties

Just like a real camera, a virtual one has several key properties that animators manipulate to create specific effects and guide the viewer's eye:

Source: photographylife

  • Position - the camera's location in the 3D space of the animation. By moving the camera closer or farther away from the subject, animators control the size of objects in the frame.
  • Rotation - rotating a camera allows animators to pan across a scene, reveal hidden details, or create a sense of dynamism by following a moving character.
  • Field of view - the width of the scene captured by the camera lens. A wide field of view encompasses a larger area, useful for establishing shots, while a narrow field of view zooms in, focusing attention on specific elements.
  • Focal length - Focal length essentially controls the perspective and distortion in the shot. By adjusting it, animators make objects appear larger or smaller within the frame, even without changing the camera's position. Different focal lengths also affect how background elements appear – a shorter focal length creates a more dramatic sense of depth, while a longer focal length compresses the background, making it seem flatter. By manipulating focal length, animators create a sense of focus, emphasize specific elements, or even subtly distort reality for a more stylized look.

Understanding and mastering these camera properties is how animators come up with the techniques in the next sections.

1. Camera shake

A camera shake simulates the jittery movement of a handheld camera, ranging from subtle tremors to full-on wobble.

Source: the phoblographer

Animators achieve camera shake by introducing small, rapid movements to the camera's position and rotation. These movements aren't random, but carefully crafted to create a sense of realism or stylization.

Imagine a scene where a character is running away from danger. The camera might shake slightly with each footfall, conveying the character's urgency and fear. As the danger gets closer, the shaking intensifies, mimicking the character's rising panic.

A shaky camera during an action sequence throws the audience right into the heart of the battle, making them feel the chaos and intensity of the fight. In horror or suspenseful moments, subtle camera shakes build unease and anticipation, making viewers feel on edge. They can also be used for comedic effect, emphasizing a character's clumsiness or a lighthearted situation.

2. Zoom

One of the most fundamental camera techniques is the zoom: by adjusting the focal length, a zoom alters the visual depth of field, creating a dynamic relationship between the subject and its surroundings.

Zooming in allows for a tighter focus on a character's expression, amplifying emotions like surprise, fear, or determination. It also draws the audience's attention to a specific detail within the scene. Inversely, zooming out broadens the perspective, to establish the setting or create a sense of awe by revealing a grander scale.

A classic example of the zoom's emotional impact can be found in the close-up zoom on Simba's face in "The Lion King" as he realizes the truth about his father's death. The zoom emphasizes Simba's grief and disbelief, drawing the audience into his emotional turmoil.

3. Pan

The pan is a horizontal swivel, revealing more of the environment from left to right or vice versa. The camera itself stays locked in one spot, but its head smoothly turns.

Pans are incredibly versatile tools for animators. They can be used to establish a scene, showcasing its vastness or cluttered details. A slow pan across a breathtaking landscape evokes awe, while a frantic pan across a chaotic marketplace builds tension. Pans can also be used to follow a character's movement or track an object of interest, keeping the audience engaged in the action.

A classic example of a pan might be at the beginning of a scene. The camera pans across a sleeping character's room, slowly revealing the alarm clock that jolts them awake. This simple technique not only sets the location but also establishes the emotional tone of the scene.

4. Tilt shot

A tilt shot is a camera movement where the viewpoint pivots up or down vertically, revealing more of the scene above or below the frame. It actively influences how the audience perceives the scene.

The direction of the tilt unlocks a range of emotional responses. Tilting upwards creates a sense of awe and wonder, emphasizing towering structures or a character looking skyward. Tilting downwards suggests vulnerability, dominance, or even chaos. For example, a scene tilting down from a powerful character looking down on a protagonist, or a tilt following a falling object to heighten the tension.

They can also be used for dramatic reveals or transitions. Tilting up might unveil a hidden threat lurking in the shadows while tilting down could introduce a new character entering the scene. Consider a scene where a lone character stands before a giant, menacing castle. A slow tilt upwards starting from the character's feet and ending at the castle spires effectively conveys the overwhelming scale and power of the obstacle.

5. Dolly zoom

A dolly zoom, also known as the vertigo effect, is a technique that combines camera movement with focal length adjustments to create a visually striking effect.

Source: Filmmaking Lifestyle

Imagine a camera mounted on a track. As the camera physically moves toward the subject (dolly-in) the lens simultaneously zooms out. Conversely, the camera can dolly away (move backward) while zooming in. This creates a sense of distortion where the background seems to stretch or compress, while the subject remains relatively the same size in the frame.

The dolly zoom is a powerful tool for manipulating the viewer's perception. A dolly-in with a zoom-out creates feelings of isolation or disorientation, perfect for suspenseful scenes, while a dolly away with a zoom-in makes the background feel overwhelming or claustrophobic.

This technique is often used to highlight a character's emotional state or draw focus to a critical moment in the story. A classic example of the dolly zoom can be seen in Alfred Hitchcock's film Vertigo. As the character Scottie descends a staircase, the camera dollies in while zooming out, warping the background and amplifying his fear of heights.

While traditionally used in live-action films, the dolly zoom can be effectively recreated in animation using 3D software.

6. Truck shot

A truck shot involves moving the camera laterally, left or right, along a virtual track. Unlike a pan which swivels the camera without changing its position, a truck shot physically repositions the camera's viewpoint.

Source: Adobe

A truck shot is used to slowly unveil a scene, building anticipation or suspense. Imagine for example a truck shot to the right, starting on a closed door and gradually revealing a character standing triumphantly on the other side. Trucking alongside a moving character or object creates a feeling of speed and dynamism. It puts the viewer right in the action, like being in the passenger seat of a car speeding down a highway. Trucking across a vast landscape or a towering building effectively communicates its size and grandeur.

7. Pedestal shot

The pedestal camera technique raises or lowers the camera vertically on a fixed axis. Unlike a tilt, which changes the camera angle while remaining horizontal, the pedestal shot keeps the camera perfectly level as it moves.

A slow "pedestal up" shot dramatically reveals a towering skyscraper or a majestic mountain range, or introduces a character with authority. Inversely, a "pedestal down" shot on a character makes them feel small and powerless.

For example, in a scene where a lone astronaut stands on the surface of the moon, a slow pedestal up could reveal the vast emptiness of space, highlighting the astronaut's isolation.

8. Arc shot

The arc shot, also known as a 360-degree shot or 360 tracking shot, is a camera technique where the viewpoint revolves around a subject in a curved path. Imagine the camera smoothly gliding on a circular track, capturing the scene from ever-changing angles.

By circling a character, the arc shot keeps them in focus while revealing their surroundings and establishing them as the center of attention. The gradual reveal of an environment creates a sense of mystery, leaving the audience wondering what lies beyond the character's immediate frame. A slow arc conveys a sense of awe and wonder, while a faster, more erratic one might build tension or excitement.

For a classic example, look no further than the Matrix scene where Neo effortlessly dodges bullets while the camera elegantly circles him.

Source: CasualViewer

9. Follow shot

The follow technique keeps a character or object in the frame as the camera moves alongside it through panning, tilting, or even a combination of both movements.

A well-executed follow shot puts the audience right in the heart of the action, making them feel the rush of adrenaline alongside the character. For example, seeing a character racing through a forest. Following a character as they walk with their head down communicates feelings of sadness or defeat, following an enthusiastic character skipping down the street portrays joy and excitement.

10. Fly-through shot

A fly-through shot takes viewers on a journey through a virtual space. The camera movement mimics the feeling of flying, swiftly moving forward while panning and tilting to reveal the environment.

Soaring through a grand landscape, a bustling cityscape, or even a fantastical world is incredibly immersive. They efficiently introduce viewers to a new environment, giving them a quick overview of the space, but also build up excitement and tension, especially if it leads towards a specific destination or reveals a hidden element.

Pixar's A Bug's Life opening scene is a great example of a fly-through shot. The camera swoops through the grass, revealing the bustling ant colony.

Conclusion

It's the subtle art of camera work that breathes life into these creations: more than just framing a shot, camera techniques are powerful tools to elevate a scene or rest the viewer's eyes.

This article explored the various camera angles, movements, and shot types that animators use. By understanding how these elements influence the viewer's perception, you can use them to evoke emotions, establish character dominance, and guide the audience's focus.

While the final product might appear effortless, effective camera work is a complex topic. Remember to incorporate camera techniques into your storyboarding process to plan out how each scene will unfold visually.

Take the time to learn the fundamental camera movements and angles, then experiment with innovative approaches!

If you're looking to start a collaborative project, don't hesitate to reach out on our Discord server to get advice from other studios who have already gone through the process!

Spread the word

Keep reading