The Camera in Film: Camera Angles

This article is a collection of all types of camera angles that are used in cinema, as an attempt to introduce the reader to camera angles. If you want to learn more about camera angles and cinematography, a great source is Gustavo Mercado’s book The filmmaker’s Eye: Learning (and breaking) the rules of cinematic composition (2010). A few examples from that book are used in this post.

There are six basic angles in films: the bird’s-eye, high, eye – level, low, worm’s-eye and canted (or Dutch) angle. Each of them has a specific purpose and is interpreted differently according to the elements of mise-en-scène. But most importantly, the different angles are used to evoke to the audience a specific range of feelings depending on the themes and characters of the story.

The bird’s-eye-view is considered to be the most confusing and disorienting angle since it requires the shooting of a scene from directly overhead. Because of the fact that people in real life seldom view events from this perspective, the subject which is photographed in such shots might seem unrecognisable and the whole shot can be characterised as abstract. This angle is often used for establishing shots at the beginning of a scene as it is really helpful to set the tone and mood of the location in which the story takes place. The bird’s-eye-view shot can be used for practical reasons and in favour of the story. An example of this is Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). Additionally, the shots that are photographed in this angle can acquire a symbolic meaning and serve a purpose according to the mise-en-scène elements and story of the film.

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Blade Runner (1982), directed by Ridley Scott. The establishing shots at the beginning of the film’s scenes set the environment of the story perfectly. The orange and brown colours, the chimneys that breath fire, and the appearance of humidity simulate a filthy and unhealthy environment that instantly transfers the viewer to a futuristic dystopian city.

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Batman Begins (2005) and The Dark Knight (2008), directed by Christopher Nolan. The use of establishing shots in The Dark Knight trilogy is quite extensive. Through the use of establishing shots taken of different existing cities of USA (Chicago, New York, Pittsburgh), the director depicts a modern Gotham City that is authentic and thus, convincing to the audience. The faceless urban buildings and the use of a cool colour palette create a very cold, distant and miserable environment. The establishing shots of skyscrapers, flickering lights and wealthy modern buildings contradict the shots which illustrate other parts of the city; factories, buildings with smokey chimneys and grey neighbourhoods of city’s lower class. One of the films’ themes, is the corruption of the wealthy and the police; this theme is masterfully underlined by the antithesis that exists between different areas of the city.

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The Conversation (1974), directed by Francis Ford Coppola. The film tells the story of a surveillance expert and the moral dilemma he is facing when his recordings reveal a potential murder. The opening shot of the film is a bird’s-eye-view shot of a square full of people. As the shot proceeds, the camera gets closer and closer to the people, revealing the main character of the film, played by Gene Hackman. The opening shot conveys the feeling of surveillance and invasion of privacy; immediately placing the viewer within the story.
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Psycho (1960), directed by Alfred Hitchcock. The use of the bird’s-eye-view shot while Mrs. Bates kills Det. Arbogast prevents the audience from identifying her true identity. The shot also creates the feeling to the viewers that they are merely passive observers of the murder, making the character of Det. Arbogast even more helpless and weak.

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Taxi Driver (1976), directed by Martin Scorsese. After Travis (played by Robert De Niro) invades the prostitutes’ accommodation and kills everybody to save Iris (played by Jodie Foster), he sits on the sofa and remains there, while Iris is sobbing at the corner and finally the police force enters the room. We observe the aftermath of the massacre from above. The high angle, the slow moving camera and the stillness of the police officers makes the moment more dramatic and allows the audience to feel the brutality and violence of this act. The cries of Iris that echo in the room while the rest of the environment is soundless, and the still police officers create a very shocking sight. The time seems to stop; the audience fully grasps the savagery of the act. The viewers are a witness of the human barbarity and ferocity, and there is no escape.

In a high angle shot, the camera is placed above the eye-level of the character, and results in a framing that has the audience looking down on a subject. High angle shots are used to emphasize the subject’s powerlessness and weakness. Since the camera is placed from above, it minimizes the subject making it look small and helpless. High angle shots can also be used to predict the murder or injury of a character underlining his/her vulnerability and making him/her more sympathetic to the audience. The high angle shots can also convey feelings of entrapment, suffocation, suppression and panic. In addition, this angle can be used for practical purposes, for example when an incident is happening outdoors and a character is viewing it from his/her window or balcony.

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The high angle shot of Det. Arbogast moments before his violent murder evoke his vulnerability and state of danger he is in. The shot “predicts” that something harmful will occur to the character.
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“Notorious” (1946), directed by Alfred Hitchcock. The high angle shot of Alexander Sebastian (played by Claude Rains) while he informs his mother of his shocking discovery, that his newlywed wife Alicia (played by Ingrid Bergman), is a spy working against him, evokes panic and suffocation.

In eye-level shots the camera is placed at a height that matches the subject’s eyes. This angle is used in routine expository scenes that lack drama and intensity. This angle does not evoke any particular feelings to the audience but it somehow makes the character equal to the viewer. Traditionally, filmmakers avoid shooting in extreme angles since they can confuse the audience. The directors photograph the characters in eye level shots which are very comfortable to the viewer since this is the way an actual observer might view a scene. Visually, this is the clearest way to view an object because it lacks any embellishments and exaggerations. Of course there have been exceptions to these rules throughout film history.

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The Thin Red Line (1998), directed by Terence Malick. Eye-level shots are used during scenes that bear a lot of dialogue and exposition, such as in this interrogation scene with Pvt. Witt (played by Jim Caviezel) and 1st Sgt. Welsh (played by Sean Penn).
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Apocalypse Now (1979), directed by Francis Ford Coppola. The story follows Captain Willard (played by Martin Sheen) travelling from South Vietnam to Cambodia to assassinate Colonel Kurtz after he was declared mentally unfit and his methods unsound by the US Army. Throughout the film, Colonel Kurtz is characterised as insane by some, and genius by others.  He lives in the jungles in a neutral area of Cambodia, commands his own troops and is treated as a demi-god.  The audience is introduced to Colonel Kurtz (played by Marlon Brando) in an eye-level shot; one of the most powerful shots in the history of cinema. His face is kept in the darkness for the most of the scene. He is monologing and occasionally asks Captain Willard about his secret mission. By the end of the scene, his face becomes fully visible when he belittles Captain Willard and his mission. The height of the camera, the hard lighting, and the brilliant acting of Brando create a very unsettling and disturbing mood; the shot echoes Caravaggio’s chiaroscuro paintings. The height of the camera allows Brando’s eyes to somehow pierce through Captain Willard’s soul and therefore, the audience’s. The character is intimidating and the hard lighting adds to the drama and intensity of the scene.

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Tokyo Story (1953), directed by Yasujiro Ozu. The film tells the story of an old couple that visits their children and grand-children in Tokyo. Ozu always placed the camera just a few feet off the ground to photograph his actors while they were seated down in eye-level shots. He kept the same height of the camera for the most of his shots. He felt that, by using this angle, the viewers would relate to the characters, sympathize with them and feel close to them.

In a low-angle shot, the filmmaker places the camera below eye level and lets the audience look up at a subject. Low angle shots convey the subject’s power, confidence and control; because of the low angle, the size of the character is exaggerated and the subject looks bigger than normal. Due to the dominance of the subject’s figure in the frame, the subject inspires fear, respect and awe. Usually the villains of films are shot in low angle shots to underline their overwhelming supremacy.

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The Dark Knight Rises (2012), directed by Christopher Nolan. Low-angle shots are very common in superhero films. The villains, in this case the character Bane (played by Tom Hardy) is framed in a low-angle shot which evokes fear, awe and emphasize the character’s strength and superiority.
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2001 Space Odyssey (1968), directed by Stanley Kubrick. The monolith is photographed in low-angle shots that induce feelings of awe to the audience, underling the monolith’s importance to humanity’s course of history and evolution.
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Gravity (2013), directed by Alfonso Cuaron. At the end of the film, where Astronaut Ryan Stone (played by Sandra Bullock) has finally returned to Earth after enduring a traumatic experience in space, she is framed in an extreme low-angle shot. The low-angle shot emphasises the character’s strong will to survive, evoking emotions of gratification to the viewers.

In worm’s-eye-view shots, the camera is placed on ground level and allows the audience to view a scene from a very low perspective. From this point of view, the size of a subject is exaggerated and looks enormous to the audience, evoking feelings of power and control. This angle also allows the viewer to observe the environment in which the scene takes place. The worm’s-eye-view is not that common in films, and is mainly used as a subjective shot of a character that lies on the ground.

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Citizen Kane (1941), directed by Orson Welles. Citizen Kane is very famous for the extensive use of low angle shots of the leading character Charles F. Kane (played by Orson Welles). The low-angle shots convey the overwhelming power, confidence and superiority of Kane. This particular shot is an extreme low angle, a below ground level shot which makes the tall figure of Kane enormous, emphasizing his controlling and selfish nature.

Canted shots are composed with a camera tilted laterally with the horizon in a non-straight line and vertical lines run diagonally across the frame. These compositions create spatial imbalance and disorientation. They convey confusion, insanity, psychological instability, drug induced psychosis and dramatic tension. Canted shots are mainly used to showcase a character’s abnormal state of mind, but they can also be used to represent the whole psychology of a group of people that are facing a stressful or unusual situation. Additionally, another use of the canted shot is to convey that an abnormal or unnatural situation is happening, without necessarily reflecting a character’s psychology. The bigger the degree to which the frame is canted (usually up to 45 degrees), the higher the abnormality and instability it reflects.

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Twelve Monkeys (1995), directed by Terry Gilliam. The extensive use of canted shots in the scenes in which the central character of the story, James Cole (played by Bruce Willis), is in the mental institution create an unsettling and disturbing atmosphere, emphasizing the insane and chaotic nature of an environment as such. At the moment when Cole tries to escape, he is framed in Dutch angles to showcase the disorientation he feels due to the drugs he was given by the doctors.

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Do the Right Thing (1989), directed by Spike Lee. The film takes place during the hottest day of the year in a neighbourhood in Brooklyn. The viewers observe the characters trying to endure the heat, which eventually ignites an explosion of violence and aggression by the end of the film. Throughout the film, the use of canted shots convey the instability and suppressed aggression of the characters. Towards the end, there is a broad use of canted shots that photograph the characters’ violent behaviour, leading to a full scale riot and the destruction of the local pizzeria. The frequent use of canted shots illustrates the unnatural and chaotic nature of the characters’ acts.

Bibliography

MERCADO, G., 2010. The filmmaker’s Eye: Learning (and breaking) the rules of cinematic composition. Routledge.

PRAMAGIORRE, M., & WALLIS, T., 2008. Film: A critical introduction. Laurence King.

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