Moving the camera is an important tool in a filmmaker’s toolbox and can accent important storytelling moments in a film. Master filmmakers should have a clear understanding of when to intentionally move the camera to convey different emotions. One such technique master filmmakers use to add movement to scenes is the pan shot.
Pan shot defined
The pan shot is a traditional movement in which the filmmaker moves the camera horizontally from left or right while its base remains locked. If you make the same camera movement along the vertical axis, it’s a tilt. But for now, we will focus our energy on the pan. The term pan comes from the word “panorama,” which describes a wide view — so big you have to turn your head to see the entire area.
The key to a perfect pan shot is making the movement smooth and varying its speed to create an emotional effect. It also ensures the camera movement doesn’t take the audience’s attention away from the story. To make a smooth pan shot, it’s essential to understand your equipment and practice the movement until it becomes second nature. Having a high-quality fluid head on your tripod or dolly can guarantee the smoothest motion.
A pan shot can create energy and reveal information. In the hands of a skilled filmmaker, a pan shot can even be a metaphor for showing a character’s progression in the character’s narrative arc. Executing the pan shot the right way can give the camera a voice in the story as well — communicating to the audience what to focus on. The camera movement itself can convey important clues to the viewer, guiding them along the narrative journey in your film.
The speed of a pan shot has an emotional effect
The speed of the pan can also convey emotional aspects in your story. For example, a slow pan can create tension as the audience sits on the edge of their seat in anticipation of what might be revealed when the camera makes its way from point A to point B. A fast pan, also known as a whip pan, can create a dizzying effect. Filmmakers can use this effect to manipulate time and location or transition from one scene to the next. A whip pan can also generate more energy in a scene or jolt the audience’s attention in a particular direction.
Whip panning from one character to another can establish a relationship between the two characters without words.
Filmmaker Quentin Tarantino is a master of using whip pans, especially in his classic fight scenes in movies like the 2003 classic film Kill Bill Volume 1. An example of Tarantino’s use of the whip pan is when Uma Thurman’s character tries to kill Vivica A. Fox’s character in the suburban home of Fox’s character. The frenetic energy Tarantino creates with this simple camera movement is a tool he consistently used throughout his filmmaking career. He uses it to create entertaining and energetic fight scenes.
It’s an important tool for all filmmakers
Combining similar or opposite moving pan shots can also be an important tool at the filmmaker’s disposal.
For example, suppose the cinematographer continues a panning shot in the same direction from one scene to the next. In that case, that could be a clue hinting to the viewer that there’s a similar emotion involved in both scenes, a passage of time or show the character is continuing their journey in the right direction.
Counter to that is reversing a pan shot from one scene to the next. This could convey to the viewer that something is wrong or the character is experiencing a change in emotion. Filmmakers can use the pan shot to leave the viewers’ imagination in control of what happens next. That can sometimes be more powerful than showing the action in the frame.
Sticking with Tarantino here because he is truly a master of his craft, a great example of this “pan away” shot is in his 1992 classic film, Reservoir Dogs. In the ear scene, where Michael Madsen’s character, Mr. Blonde, brutally tortures Harvey Keitel’s character, Mr. White, by cutting off his ear with a razor blade, Tarantino pans away to invite the audience to actively participate in what happens next. As Mr. Blonde takes the razor blade to Mr. White, he moves the blade toward the ear as the camera slowly pans away from the action, burning this shot in the viewers’ minds. It makes the scene unforgettably powerful.
The psychological effects pans can create
Now let’s talk about the psychological effect a slow pan can have, specifically in the horror genre. A pan shot can evoke the idea of space and confinement to create an unsettling psychological impact on viewers. For example, if the camera pan moves slowly from right to left in a forest and then the camera arrives at the character’s face. The desired effect here is a sense of anxiety and tension. As a result, the audience becomes fearful of not knowing where the killer will come from, just like the character in the film.
With smooth camera movement during a pan, vast, empty space around a character can induce the feeling of vulnerability. This type of pan is an excellent tool for ramping up tension before the big payoff scene when the killer finally appears. Jordan Peele uses this type of pan shot masterfully in his 2019 horror film, Us. When the tethered family arrives at the film’s vacation house, Peele uses a whip pan from Winston Duke’s character, Gabe, to Lupita Nyong’o’s character, Adelaide, while they discuss how to handle the dangerous situation they’re in. As Adelaide, Gabe and their two children brace for the attack, Peele uses the whip pan effect to perfection. He ramps up the scene’s energy and builds the feeling of tension and fear. He achieves this effect all the while having no actual action taking place yet.
Conveying an emotion
Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad, one of the top-rated TV shows of all time, also uses camera movement with purpose in every scene. The show is a master class in camera movement for emotional effect.
In a scene from the show, where Bryan Cranston’s character, Walter, is on the run from the authorities, Gilligan uses the pan shot to surprise the audience Walter is hiding out. The scene starts with a very slow pan inside Walter’s form home. From there, the camera pans from the house’s empty living room to across the kitchen. Here we see Walter’s wife, Skyler, sitting alone and smoking a cigarette. In this scene, the pan shot builds tension and anxiety because it makes viewers wonder where Walter might be lurking.
The camera then pans into the kitchen, revealing Walter is standing in a corner. He is conspiring with Skyler on how he can escape the authorities hunting him down. The audience is shocked to find out Walter and Skyler are still working together, despite all the chaos Walter has brought to their family. Gilligan’s use of the pan shot helps amplify the scene’s emotion. He takes his audience through various feelings, all through camera movement.
Try it for yourself
Take a look at the scenes mentioned above from masters like Tarantino, Peele and Gilligan. Analyze their work, see how they do it and try incorporating the pan shot into your next film!