• Brett Cramer

Pans and Tilts: John McTiernan

John McTiernan's glory days are long behind him (being in jail didn't help). But from 1987 – 1999, he was totally on fire. He's one of the best action filmmakers ever, and worthy of study. There's a lot you can talk about from his famous films, but I'd like to point out some technique in his lesser-known work.

His remake of THE THOMAS CROWNE AFFAIR doesn't contain anything revolutionary, and it's not in the same league as DIE HARD and PREDATOR –– but it does have a great example of how you can leverage simple camera direction for a setpiece:

Pans, tilts, and short dolly moves.

Building a sequence around quick pans and tilts is one of the best ways to connect visual ideas without cutting. It also infuses your scene with dynamic camera movement. Many directors will dismiss this technique altogether –– after all, there's nothing particularly "sexy" about a quick tripod pan. Why not show off with a complicated oner or crane shot?

McTiernan doesn't care about showing off. He'd rather not get in the way of the storytelling. Starting at :50, this scene has over 20 instances of pans, tilts, or short dolly moves:

Try to imagine this scene without pans and tilts. What if he just cut to the next shot instead? It'd be far less effective, and way more disorienting. As it is, he probably could have moved the camera more in this sequence. Every time he does a plain cut, the sequence loses some momentum. But still, this is a great scene.

This is also a good example of how to make your sequences feel fleshed out. When the fire alarm goes off, we don't just get a few shots of doors closing. It feels like McTiernan spent a whole day in that room shooting multiple beats. Having your sequences feel full from a coverage standpoint –– assuming the shots are formally inspired and in harmony with one another –– greatly contributes to the life of your scene.

Another fun example is from McTiernan's THE LAST ACTION HERO. Check out the first shot:

Don't panic if you don't have the budget for a technocrane. You can get a ton of mileage from the basics.


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