Whiplash and its Use of Hand-Held Cameras

Some Whiplash and Harry Potter spoilers ahead.

The Hand-Held technique. The technique in which the director chooses to frame a shot in his movie without the usage of a mounted camera. Its very name literally describe its characteristics.

Ideally, the hand-held camera angle can be utilized to provoke numerous different meanings in a single shot. It allows a more fluid and human-like approach to a certain scene and can therefore build a bridge of relation between the events that are taking place on screen and the audience member in the cinema. For example, such a technique was used in Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. In utilizing the hand-held camera angle and arguably revolutionizing its purpose during the invasion of Normandy sequence, Spielberg expertly put the viewer in the experience. We, the camera, advanced upon the beach and we took part in the events that unfolded, resulting in one of the most intense and harrowing battle scenes to ever reach the screens.

On the other hand, using the hand-held camera can provoke a sense of fear or instability when developing a scene. This idea is exemplified in, say, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1. During the scene of Dobby’s death, Harry tells his fellow characters “It’s okay”, when the wavering hand-held camera is telling us: it’s not.

This brings us to Whiplash and something that stood out to me when I saw it for the first time the other night. Though an extremely captivating and tense film, I couldn’t help but notice something very simple, ultimately fundamental and yet still just as effective. Damien Chazelle is a prime example of a director who recognizes the importance of the difference between a steady shot and a hand-held shot, and therefore the appropriate times to switch between the two.

As far as I can remember, the majority of Whiplash is filmed with a mounted, still camera. It’s not until Andrew has his first ‘Not my tempo’ encounter with the hot-tempered Fletcher that we get an exchange of dialogue with a hand-held camera. In having all the scenes prior to this filmed with still-framing, the audience can gain a sense of trust or comfort in the style of the film. The second Fletcher throws the chair at Andrew, Chazelle switches to hand-held camera visually signifying to the audience that this is the action, this is where our protagonist is tested and this is where the tension can really begin to brew. With Chazelle’s direction and Simmons’ acting combined, your palms will begin to sweat with the fear and hatred that will grow inside you for Fletcher’s character.

When this scene finishes, Chazelle eventually takes us back to still-framing. However, the paranoia for Fletchers next tantrum still remains within the audience. Hence, whenever Chazelle reprises the hand-held camera, it can act as an instant visual indicator for whenever things are going to go wrong for our characters. Things won’t feel right, it’ll remind us of Andrew’s first verbal-beating from Fletcher and we’ll begin to feel that tension once again.

However, this is where Chazelle gets even smarter.

At the very end, when Fletcher sabotages Andrew at the JVC festival, Andrew walks off stage and begins to hug his father whilst attempting to retain his rage. Chazelle switches to hand-held. At this point, the audience believe it’s all over. Our protagonist has lost, the (arguably) antagonist has won. We’ve been out-smarted, bested, we’ll never achieve the happy ending we were once expecting. Yet, Andrew turns around and heads back on stage in a last-bid attempt to regain his chance to fame and respect from his instructor. It’s here that the tension of Whiplash reaches its all-time peak, it’s here where we have no idea how this is going to play out because the camera technique is juxtaposing the pattern it once created when provoking this feeling of fear within the audience.

When Andrew sits back down at his drum kit, he regains control, and the hand-held camera is hardly noticed or seen again for the rest of that ending, again, acting as a visual representation for Andrew’s struggle for power and praise and eventually, his success.

Christopher Hambling, Film Features Writer

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  1. Beautiful acknowledgement of the cinematography in “Whiplash.” My favorite movie of 2014, and I was discouraged to see no Oscar nod for its camerawork.

    The still frames and smooth pans were more than good enough to look at, but when the hand-held camerawork came in with the smash-cut editing in the Not My Tempo scene, the movie became a different beast entirely.

    Great work.

  2. I think it has to be used pretty sparingly for it to be effective, and I agree that this is one of those movies. I just adored this one. Great write up.

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