The Pan Shot: Preserving Spatial Integrity

Panning—the lateral movement of the camera on an imaginary vertical axis (left)—alters the framing of the object in the image, and it may entail changes in distance and angle. If the pan is slow, it may emphasize the vastness of the space being imaged; if it’s quick, it may underscore the fact that two or more objects (or characters or groups of characters) occupy related spaces. In the two images shown here, a pan shot from Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Ordet (The Word, Denmark, 1954) keeps two figures in the frame as they move across a room. In effect, we see two different spaces—two different aspects of the same room—within a single shot, which emphasizes the fact that they’re literally contiguous. (By contrast, two spaces imaged in separate shots could in reality exist in two locations anywhere in the world.) We tend to regard space whose integrity is preserved as “realistic,” although it’s ironic that pan shots are not naturalistic: when the human eye “pans” a scene, it doesn’t do so smoothly, but rather skips the intervals between objects of interest. In the American cinema, the practice of “reframing” images—usually to keep the action centered—had become fairly common by the mid- to late 1910s.

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