The Legacy of NYPD Blue: A Revolution in Cinematic Technique and Television Realism

In the realm of television drama, few series have had as profound and lasting an impact as NYPD Blue. Airing from 1993 to 2005, this groundbreaking series not only redefined the boundaries of network television but also introduced innovative cinematographic techniques that have since become staples in the industry. One such technique is the “shaky cam” technique, a method of handheld camera work that imbues scenes with a sense of realism and immediacy.

NYPD Blue’s use of this technique was not a mere stylistic choice; it was a deliberate decision that significantly contributed to the series’ unique aesthetic and narrative style. The shaky cam technique, combined with the series’ gritty realism, complex characters, and controversial content, created a viewing experience that was unlike anything seen on network television at the time.

This article aims to delve into the influence of NYPD Blue, with a particular focus on its use of the shaky cam technique. It will explore how the series utilized this technique to enhance its storytelling, how it influenced other television series and films, and how it continues to shape modern television aesthetics. Through a comprehensive analysis, we will gain a deeper understanding of NYPD Blue’s legacy and its pivotal role in the evolution of television drama.

NYPD Blue 1st season theme

The Groundbreaking Nature of NYPD Blue

NYPD Blue was more than just a television series; it was a revolution in the world of network television. Airing from 1993 to 2005, the series boldly pushed the boundaries of what was considered acceptable on mainstream television, challenging established norms and conventions in the process.

The series was known for its gritty realism, a stark contrast to the often sanitized portrayals of police work seen in other dramas of the time. NYPD Blue did not shy away from the harsh realities of law enforcement in New York City, depicting the challenges and moral dilemmas faced by its characters with unflinching honesty. This commitment to realism extended to the series’ portrayal of its characters, who were complex, flawed, and deeply human. They were not paragons of virtue, but real people struggling with personal demons and the pressures of their jobs.

NYPD Blue was also groundbreaking in its willingness to tackle controversial content. It was one of the first network television series to feature regular instances of nudity and strong language, a decision that sparked considerable debate and controversy. Despite the controversy, or perhaps because of it, the series was a critical and commercial success. It won multiple Emmy Awards and consistently achieved high ratings, proving that audiences were ready for more mature and complex television dramas.

Another aspect that set NYPD Blue apart from its contemporaries was its innovative use of the shaky cam technique. This technique, which involves handheld camera work to create a sense of realism and immediacy, was used to great effect in the series. The shaky cam gave NYPD Blue a unique visual presentation that was darker, busier, and more realistic than other police dramas of the time. The handheld camera style gave viewers the feeling of visiting a real New York police precinct, with each frame crammed with suspects in handcuffs, anonymous uniformed officers in blue, and the constant hustle and bustle of police work.

The Legacy of NYPD Blue and the Shaky Cam Technique

Here an example of the Shaky Cam technique in an NYPD Blue scene

The legacy of NYPD Blue is not confined to its twelve-year run on television. Its innovative use of the shaky cam technique, combined with its commitment to realism and complex characters, has left an indelible mark on the television industry. This influence is evident in the numerous television series and films that have adopted the shaky cam technique and the more realistic approach to storytelling pioneered by NYPD Blue.

The shaky cam technique, while not invented by NYPD Blue, was certainly popularized and refined by the series. The technique was developed as a way to give films and television shows a more realistic, documentary-style feel. It involves the use of handheld cameras that move with the action, creating a sense of immediacy and immersion. The result is a viewing experience that feels more like being in the middle of the action rather than observing from a distance.

The creators of NYPD Blue, Steven Bochco and David Milch, recognized the potential of the shaky cam technique and used it to great effect in the series. They understood that the shaky cam could be more than just a stylistic choice; it could be a powerful storytelling tool. By using the shaky cam technique, they were able to create a sense of realism and immediacy that set NYPD Blue apart from other police dramas of the time.

The restless camera was the creation of Leslie Dektor, a South African who has lived in the US since the 1980s. Dektor learned his craft at the knee of his mother, a documentarian, and honed this craft as a still photographer working in the fashion business. He invented the restless camera while making ads for Levi’s and AT&T. The guys on NYPD Blue gave Dektor full credit.

Dektor’s innovation is now a fixture of television. It’s used across a range of shows: Homicide, Friday Night Lights, Battlestar Galactica, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Arrested Development, Reno 911!, and The Shield. Dektor created a camera that is helping create this culture.

Dektor told that he wasn’t trying to create a “technique.” He said he was “trying to find the moment. I wanted to get to the moment almost a beat too late. I wanted to give an importance to the moment.” The idea is “discovery.” Dektor wants the camera to find the moment, to occupy the moment, to “retrieve the moment from its banality.”

In conclusion, the legacy of NYPD Blue and the shaky cam technique is evident in the landscape of modern television. The series’ innovative use of the shaky cam technique and its commitment to realism and complex characters have had a lasting impact on the television industry, influencing countless other series and films. The influence of NYPD Blue and the shaky cam technique continues to be felt today, demonstrating the enduring legacy of this groundbreaking series.

NYPD Blue – final episode, the making of Sipowicz


  1. Beware of the Shake: How Excessive Handheld Can Ruin a Shot
  2. Leslie Dektor, inventing a camera inventing a culture
  3. Shaky Camera – Wikipedia
  4. NYPD Blue 25 Anniversary
  5. The Groundbreaking NYPD Blue
  6. NYPD Blue 20th Anniversary

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Mauro Pedretti

Mauro Pedretti

Passionate about telling stories that inspire and entertain.
I live in London.

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