Camera Angles: Telling Story Through Viewing Perspective
The use of camera angles in filmmaking is often considered the domain of craft technicians. While true that camera work means decisions about technical factors such as distance and depth of field, those choices also involve how camera angles can help to tell the story of a film or television show. As a result, filmmakers should always consider the impact of camera angle on story meaning and viewer interpretation.
In this discussion of camera angles, we’ll cover the follwoing:
- Eye level angle
- Low angle
- High angle
- Dutch angle (or Dutch tilt)
- Why studying camera angles matters
Eye Level Angle
The most common of camera angles is the one the fewest number of people would likely notice — for good reason. Eye level camera placement mimics how humans view the world, and in many cases, that’s exactly what a filmmaker is striving for. Placing the camera at eye level typically allows for the most naturalistic way of watching a film or television show, enabling viewers to lose themselves in the story without being conscious of the fact that it’s a camera capturing a performance. That being said, eye level camera angles are far from ordinary or boring, as filmmakers must also make the choice of camera shot.
Yes, the decision of camera angle can only be made in conjunction with camera shot, which typically refers to the distance from which the camera is positioned from the action. So before delving further into how other camera angles can affect meaning in a story, it’s important to consider how they work with camera shots.
Long shots, sometimes referred to as establishing shots since they can be used at the beginning of a scene, allow the viewer to take in a significant amount of information in just moments. That’s because with this shot the camera is capturing a wide swath of scenery. Think a sweeping landscape of the Irish countryside or a panoramic view of a sprawling metropolis. In such instances, the impetus for such shots is to convey to the audience where the following scene — or even entire film or television show — is about to take place.
Some latitude is given when it comes to what entails a medium shot, but generally speaking, such a shot is close enough to let viewers observe the physical nuances of a character’s body language, which can help to both carry dialogue and underscore emotion. Because medium shots are often used during scenes of dialogue, the shot is typically framed to allow for at least two characters to be seen in it, usually from the waist up. In such cases, mediums shots may also be referred to as waist shots.
Unlike eye level camera angles, a low angle might intentionally draw the audience’s attention by virtue of its infrequent usage, which may be exactly what the filmmaker intends to drive home their objective behind that particular shot.
An over-the-shoulder shot positions the camera behind a character, often as they are speaking to another character. Because of this arrangement, over-the-shoulder shots typically are also medium shots. But the filmmaker must make a choice of angle as well. While that choice might be eye level, often enough the camera is positioned slightly higher than the characters, veering into a high angle. For these reasons, the over-the-shoulder shot can be used in conjunction with several different kinds of camera angles.
But why use them? It frequently comes down to trying to connect two characters during a conversation. Rather than shooting singles back and forth during that scene, an over-the-shoulder shot can help to create intimacy between the characters.
An over-the-shoulder shot can also be used to create tension. Consider the ubiquitous use of it in horror films, specifically as a character is walking down a dark hallway or stairwell. By placing the camera just behind the shoulder, the audience essentially becomes one with that character, seeing only what they are seeing. And when that antagonist finally emerges from the shadows, it can elicit a much more frightening response from viewers because of their restricted vision.
As its name implies, a close-up provides a more intimate look at whatever is on the other side of the camera. What that subject is can vary depending on what the filmmaker is trying to convey. A close-up might be used to give information, as in a shot of a newspaper headline or a computer screen. When the subject is a character, a close-up may have an entirely different meaning, such as to emphasize emotional state.
Doubling-down on this impulse is the extreme close-up. So instead of a newspaper headline, it might be a single word of the headline. Or instead of a person’s face, it might be a single eye or the lips. Again, this technique is often used to make clear a particular piece of information or elicit an emotional response. Take for instance the extreme close-up of Charles Foster Kane’s lips as he uttered his final words — “Rosebud” — at the opening of the film Citizen Kane.
In fact, Citizen Kane is frequently heralded as a masterpiece not only for its acting and editing, but also its innovation with camera angles. The low angle was one of these innovations, as up to this point, it wasn’t often used in film. But Orson Welles, the Co-writer, Producer and Director of the film, utilized this little-emphasized camera angle to convey both the power and isolation of the film’s central figure, Charles Foster Kane.
As with all camera angles, though, the meaning behind a low angle depends on many factors. What is happening in the shot? What is the character’s current emotional state? What might the filmmaker be trying to convey to the audience about the character that even they don’t know? Also, unlike eye level camera angles, a low angle might intentionally draw the audience’s attention by virtue of its infrequent usage, which may be exactly what the filmmaker intends to drive home their objective behind that particular shot.
In the same way, high camera angles can help to clue in the audience to how a character is feeling. An example of this is the iconic shot of the hobbit, Frodo, in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, as he is laying on his back, the infamous ring moving through the air above him while he reaches for it. Given the viewer’s vantage point of looking down at Frodo as he attempts to capture the ring, the camera angle conveys the helplessness he feels in that moment, as well as the power of the ring — literally — over him.
As with other camera angles, the high angle can be employed from a long, medium or close-up position. But in many cases, it’s used to show scale, and fighting scenes often cut to the high angle long shot for this very purpose to demonstrate the massive size of the conflict. Films and television shows alike, including Braveheart, Gladiator and Game of Thrones, take advantage of high camera angles during their battle scenes.
Consider choosing a film to watch and documenting the camera angles used and reasons why they might have been employed. Were they effective? Could a different angle have been used instead?
Dutch Angle or Dutch Tilt
The Dutch angle, which is at times referred to as the Dutch tilt, is typically thought of as one of the more visually jarring camera angles, which is why its usage should be done with substantial thought. Why can it be jarring? Because when a Dutch angle is employed, conventional vertical and horizontal lines are disregarded. While a high angle or low angle may give a perspective not often seen in everyday life, often the filmmaker will still choose to keep the camera on an axis parallel with the ground. But Dutch camera angles are intentionally askew.
So why would a filmmaker include a Dutch angle in a film? Remember, no camera angle is arbitrary. It always holds a meaning, if even that meaning is to be as unobtrusive as possible. In the case of Dutch camera angles, it’s frequently to convey the emotional instability or uneasiness of a character.
A fantastic example of how a Dutch angle can be used effectively is the first Mission: Impossible film starring Tom Cruise. After his entire IMF team is killed, Cruise’s character, Ethan Hunt, meets with his contact, Kittridge, in a restaurant. But as the scene unfolds, he notices that the other restaurant patrons, as well as the Servers, were also at the scene of his team’s murders. The moment of realization occurs during a shot with a Dutch angle, alerting the audience to Hunt’s frantic emotional state as he tries to piece together not only why he’s being framed for the killings but also how he intends to escape the scene.
Why Studying Camera Angles Matters
The above information on camera angles offers a starting point on how to better discern the way that they can help to tell the story of a film or television show, but it is far from a comprehensive look at just how impactful this facet of filmmaking can be.
In the average film, the individuals who typically decide camera angle — the Director of Photography and Director — might make hundreds, or even thousands, of decisions relating to just this single element. So to get a more comprehensive idea of what that entails, consider choosing a film to watch and documenting the camera angles used and reasons why they might have been employed. Were they effective? Could a different angle have been used instead? Again, much is left to the interpretation of the viewer. But if deemed ineffective, why?
Moreover, the study of camera angles can only strengthen the skillsets of aspiring filmmakers. While acting or production design might be thought of first as the primary components of storytelling, it’s ultimately the camera that captures those elements, and its impact on conveying meaning cannot be underestimated. And while not everyone who goes into filmmaking must be an expert at camera angles, having a basic understanding of their usage will bolster both the quality of the production and the storytelling expertise of the filmmaker.
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