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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Rebel Without a Cause was directed by Nicholas Ray and was released in 1955, starring James Dean, Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo. The film is considered one of the best films ever released and is praised for the directing of Nicholas Ray and the acting of the main actors securing three Academy Award Nominations including Best Actor in a Supporting Role for Sal Mineo and best actress in a Supporting Role for Natalie Wood. However, the performance by James Dean was as extraordinary as the performances by Mineo and Wood since it was perfectly balanced, esoteric and subtle adding realism to the character.
This was the first film that dealt with the life of teenagers, expressed their agonies and emotions presenting the dilemmas and problems they were facing throughout their school years. After the release of this film, more and more films were released each year that presented the life of teenagers creating a new genre of films; the teen films, a few examples are American Graffiti (1973) directed by George Lucas and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) directed by John Hughes. It was also the first film to show the wild and aggressive side of teenagers stepping away from the conventional, suppressed and forged image of teenagers that was depicted in films hitherto the release of Rebel Without a Cause.
The popularity of the film increased greatly due to the premature death of James Dean just a few weeks before its release. The character of Jim Stark with his iconic red jacket became an immortal symbol of the rebellious nature of teenagers against their parents. Teenagers felt that their issues were finally addressed in a film and found a hero in the image of Jim Stark.
The teenagers of Rebel Without a Cause
The film looks at a day of the life of Jim Stark, a teenager living in the United States in a middle class family; his parents and grandmother. Jimmy is masterfully played by James Dean as the child living in a family with a domineering mother, strict grandmother and a submissive father. From the first scene of the film where Jim is taken to a police station because he was arrested wandering the streets drunk shows his suppressed anger against the female figures of his family as well as, his disappointment due to the meek nature of his father.
The most famous scene in the film is when Jim Stark talks about his dilemma to his parents; whether he should go to the police to testify about an accident that occurred at his presence and caused the life of one of the school bullies. His parents advice him to conceal this fact and not testify to the police but Jim feels this action is not honourable. Jim asks his father to stand up with him against his mother and support his opinion but he is father is reluctant and hesitates to do so. Jim attacks his father in a desperate act of anger and disappointment. At the end of the scene he storms out of the house in tears feeling that once more he was not understood by his parents.
The character of Jim Stark is probably the most relatable figure of the film. It is very easy for teenagers to relate and sympathize with this character since he is a reflection of them. Many teenagers during their adolescence realize that their parents are not the kind of people they thought they were. They perceive their parents’ weaknesses and faults and get very disappointed and wish to rebel to escape from their families because they fear that they might end up being like them when they grow up. In the case of Jim Stark he sees the weak nature of his father and considers it as pathetic and sad, and loses his respect towards him. He cannot stand his mother since he considers her responsible for emasculating his father and tries to somehow avenge him by rebelling against her. He feels that the autarchic nature of his mother is an obstacle in their attempts of communicating with each other and feels lost since he cannot talk to his parents for advice and guidance. Jim Stark feels angry, trapped, suppressed and lonely since he cannot communicate with his family and has no friends.
Judy is the second teenager of the trio of the main characters of the film and was outstandingly performed by Natalie Wood. The actress was able to create an angry character that feels rejected by her father.
We first encounter the character of Judy in the same police station where Jim was taken at the beginning of the film. Judy explains to the police officer that her father was angry with her and tried violently to smear off her lipstick since he thought that it is inappropriate for her because of her young age. Judy complains that her father does not treat her like he used to, he became less affectionate and it seems that this is because of her growing up and entering into womanhood. Her father does not feel comfortable with his daughter’s sexuality and does not know how to treat her properly, resulting in having arguments with her.
In one scene Judy asks from her father to be affectionate and treat her like he treats her much younger brother but the scene ends up in them having a loud quarrel and finally her father slapping her when she tried to kiss him. After this scene Judy leaves her home in tears. The rejection she gets by her father evolves into feelings of resentment and disappointment, resulting in her wanting to rebel against her family. A form of rebellion is her participating in bullying Jim at school and afterwards in a race with stolen cars.
After the death of Buzz, who was the boyfriend of Judy and the leader of their gang of bullies, she becomes attached to Jim and sees a potential husband in him. Her sudden feelings of romance and affection towards Jim underline her desperate need of filling up the void inside her that was caused by her father’s behaviour with another male figure.
John “Plato” Crawford
The character of Plato, played by Sal Mineo is a very complex personality and an accurate representation of teenagers who come from broken homes and dysfunctional families. His father left his home years ago and supports him only financially but there is no apparent communication between them. As for his mother, according to his nanny “she is always away” and during the period of time the film takes place she is in Chicago on holidays. Therefore, his only guardian is his nanny who seems genuinely worried about him since she believes the state of his family sparks Plato’s violent behaviour. At the beginning of the film Plato and his nanny are waiting at the police station to talk to one of the officers since Plato shot a few puppies. The manners, behavior and reactions of Plato show how much trauma his parents had caused him and the fact that his mother refuses to send him to a psychologist exacerbates his situation.
Throughout the film it is shown how Plato’s unstable state of mind is deteriorating. At the police station is presented as a heart broken, angry and rejected individual who feels neglected by his parents since they forgot his birthday. As the film proceeds, his personality becomes more complex. He meets Jim and feels dazzled by him, he even follows him at his home in order to see where he lives. His performance indicates that he is a homosexual (it is known that during filming James Dean told Sal Mineo to look at Jim in a way that someone would look at his lover) and feels attracted to Jim. However, when the film was made, homosexuality was not socially accepted, so, in the story, Plato’s attraction to Jim was justified as a son – father relationship.
When Judy asked Plato about his relationship to Jim, Plato lied and made up a fantastical relationship which comes off as a bit disturbed and unsettling. He tells lies throughout the film, especially about his family and in one scene he admits it as he forgot what lies he had already told.
After Buzz’s accidental death the bullies search for Jim to prevent him from going to the police to talk about it. The bullies harassed Plato to get his address book in order to find Jim’s address. After this incident Plato discovers a letter by his father. Feeling happy and excited opens the letter and realizes that is just a check for child support. The nonexistence of a letter fuels his anger and storms out of the house after he had taken his mother’s gun.
Plato, Jim and Judy meet coincidentally at the abandoned mansion Plato had shown Jim earlier in the film to avoid the bullies. There, Plato opens up to them, and talks about his family issues indicating that he wants Jim and Judy to become his new family. This notion is enhanced by Judy singing a lullaby to Plato and he falls asleep. After Plato falls asleep Jim and Judy leave him to explore the rest of the mansion. Finally, the bullies find Plato alone sleeping and attack him. Plato escapes and becomes paranoid thinking that Jim and Judy leaving him alone. His past and abandonment issues fuels his paranoia and in a panic shoots at one of the bullies injuring him and fires at the policemen who arrive on the scene. As the film progresses it feels that Plato’s mind is very feeble and that he can have an emotional outburst at any time and react violently and aggressively.
Social and Political Commentary
The film has been praised for the performances of the actors but also the original material that it choose to focus on. Up until this point the modern American family has been portrayed in films as the model family that is accepted by social conventions. Such a family is characterised by stability, order and usually the family members are religious, a fact that enhances their sense of honesty and fairness. In Hollywood it was not desirable to show real family issues and conflicts but show a family that should be an example to real families. However, this model family is only a facade and immediately collapses revealing that its content is rotten and decayed. The constant portray of this kind of embellished family creates a notion of suppression and control, since all the members of the family should succumb to this perfect image and become model family members suppressing their issues, conflicts and concerns. In the case of the Rebel Without A Cause it showed the stories of three teenagers that come from problematic families which each faces other issues destroying the idea of the model American Family.
In the film there where a few subtle incidents that indicate suppression and control. Firstly, the scene with the flag in the yard of the school. All teenagers are chatting and seem cheerful and happy when suddenly a cannon fire is heard; then everybody stays quiet and still while the flag is hoisted up. It certainly shows that this is a sensible and respectable act but it does feel forced and obtrusive to the teenagers’ normal behaviour. The silence of their chatter seems very uncomfortable and unnatural.
Another incident is in same scene where students go through the school’s main entrance but they avoid stepping on the school insignia which is engraved on the ground. Jim steps on it by mistake being his first day in his new school and another student immediately reacts upon this and tells him that his act is disrespectful. Jim apologises and the other student understood his mistake for being so abrupt and helped him to find his classroom. This incident acts as a metaphor. The environment of the school is considered to be the “first” society a person comes across, and if he acts accordingly then it is supposed that not only he had accepted the social conventions but also that he is accepted by the society. Therefore in this case, this event acts as a metaphor of a person acting against the social rules. Furthermore, the incident does evoke a sense of control and suppression towards the students; not stepping on the school insignia seems like an easy rule but it can also be considered as an image of a person rejecting the social norm; and this is frown up and should be immediately dealt with, like the student did with Jim.
Moreover, another point that is worth mentioning is the “atomic age”. In the scene in which Judy is having dinner with her family her little brother is playing with a toy gun and shouts “the atomic age”. It is well known that after the fall of the atomic bombs in 1945 in Hiroshima and Nagasaki the whole world became horrified of the atomic technology and its destructive abilities. There were documentaries made and even the children at school were taught about nuclear power and drills were practised in case a nuclear bomb falls. The children that were born after the end of the Second World War were raised under the “shadow of the mushroom cloud”, they were raised in fear and uncertainty, and this definitely had some effect on them. This reference in the films adds a sense of instability, which is antithetic to the solidity of at the typical American family. Their fear might act as an extra motive for the teenagers to be angry and rebel against their parents, hence the society.
The Two Sides of Rebel Without a Cause
I have watched the film more than one time. The first time I have watched it I was a teenager and the second time I was an adult finishing up my MA on film production. It is probably one of the only films I watched that felt a totally different film the second time I watched it. It seems to me that the film is not only addressing the problems of misunderstood teenagers but also the issues their parents are facing raising such children.
When I watched it as a teenager I completely related with the teenagers of the film and especially with the character of James Stark. The angry and the rebellious nature of the character illustrated not only me but all teenagers. The performance felt realistic and the conversations with his parents and specifically his father, bear all the appropriate attitudes and reactions of a real dysfunctional family. The insecurities and agonies, his feelings of entrapment and suppression make the character more human adding more realism to his performance and thus, making it very easy to relate with the character. Consequently, when a teenager watches the film he/she feels retaliated and satisfied that he/her was finally understood.
In my opinion, the strongest scene in the film is the scene in which Jim asks his father some advice on the issue of one’s honour. Jim was not sure if he should show up to the “chickie” run (two kids race in stolen cars towards the edge of a cliff, and whoever jumps first out of the car before it falls into the bottom of the cliff is a coward). In this scene Jim’s father tries to tell Jim that this matter might look important to him now but when he grows up and looks back at it he will realise that is a very weak problem. On the other hand, Jim tells him that he cannot understand him, and feeling completely lost and unguided asks him to give him answers immediately. His father tries to reason with him and decides to make a list of the pros and cons of the matter, but Jim impatient and disappointed storms out of the house because his father never gave him a clear answer.
This is a very interesting scene. The first time I watched the film I was totally on the side of Jim. I thought that his father was not strong enough to help and he could not give him answers because he did not understand the importance of the matter. But when I re -watched the film as an adult I was on the side of the father. It is amazing to see both perspectives of father and son to be portrayed so masterfully and to actually make the audience realise how a teenager can change and evolve into an adult which is what Jim is doing by the end of the film. After the traumatic experience he went through due to Plato’s death at the end of the film, it feels like he has grown up and entered adulthood.
Poslední trik pana Schwarcewalldea a pana Edgara (The Last Trick of Mr Schwarzwald and Mr Edgar) was written and directed by Jan Švankmajer and was released in 1964. The Last Trick of Mr Schwarzwald and Mr Edgar was the first film of Švankmajer and even though he was not a member of the Surrealists’ Group then the film does have some surreal values to it.
The film is characterised intensely by theatricality; Švankmajer was greatly influenced by Emil Radok’s work since he worked on his film Doktor Faust (Doctor Faust, 1958). Emil Radok was the co-creator of Laterna Magika, the first multimedia theatre of the world which is still operational. The creators of Laterna Magika focused on telling stories by combining live performance and multimedia projection, mixing film with theatre. The Last Trick of Mr Schwarzwald and Mr Edgar takes place on a theatre stage where two performers do their tricks while the audience which is never seen is clapping. The two actors are filmed from the same perspective throughout the film as the viewer of the film takes the place of the audience of the theatre.
Themes in The Last Trick of Mr Schwarzwald and Mr Edgar
In his first film The Last Trick of Mr Schwarzwald and Mr Edgar, the concept of the man as a mechanical system is greatly conveyed. This theme was greatly developed and used in Švankmajer’s later film Don Šajn (Don Juan, 1970) in which the actors were dressed as huge theatre puppets. In The Last Trick of Mr Schwarzwald and Mr Edgar the actors exist as puppets and mechanical beings; the imagery of cogs, gears and machinery enhance the idea of the mechanical man.
Since the beginning of the movement of Surrealism, Surrealists have been studying the theme of a man as a machine and treated mannequins and humanoids as surrealist objects. Many Surrealists experimented by constructing humanoid figures; they altered and transformed the human body into an assemblage of human flesh and objects. Even though, Švankmajer was not proclaimed a Surrealist until 1970 the use of this theme does show his inclination into Surrealism; perhaps his ideas derived from the work of painter Arcimboldo. Arcimboldo is often considered as the first Surrealist painter, although he created his artwork hundreds of years before the creation of the Surrealist movement.
Throughout the film there are close up shots of a beetle crawling on the heads of the main characters, however at the end of the film the beetle is dead. The use of the beetle against the made up heads of the characters comes as an antithesis, enhancing the difference between life and machine. The use of the beetle removes any humanity from the characters emphasizing their mechanical nature. At the end of the film the beetle is shown dead underlining the fragility of life as well as, the destructive mania of the characters.
Decay, self-destruction, and disintegration are very common themes in Švankmajer’s films; items, natural elements and characters in his films decompose spontaneously or destroy one another through acts of violence and aggression. These themes imply one of the basic characteristics of human nature, the tendency people have for self-destruction and the termination of others.
Throughout The last trick of Mr Schwarzwald and Mr Edgar the two characters antagonise each other competing who will perform the best trick. At the end of each trick they congratulate each other by shaking their hands like two polite gentlemen. Since the “puppets” lack facial expressions, all of their feelings are expressed through body language and hand gestures. As the film continues, their tension, ambition and jealousy grow. Their hatred and hostility is obvious through the intense shaking of their hands. Their tricks become more complex and impressive. By the end of the film their feelings evolve into violence. While they are shaking their hands at the end of the last trick of Mr. Edgar, Mr. Schwarzwald pulls Mr. Edgar’s arm so hard that it is torn off his body. Then they viciously attack each other, removing each other’s limbs. At the end of the film only their two arms remain solid; they shake their hands politely enhancing the sense of irony. The “polite” hand shake becomes very ironic and funny since it is so antithetic to their true nature and intention: to destroy one another. Their handshake becomes a diachronic symbol representing the actions of people everyday everywhere on this planet; people are acting differently than they are originally thinking and intending to do covering their true intentions and plans.
Breaking the rules in The Last Trick of Mr Schwarzwald and Mr Edgar
Jan Švankmajer as a Surrealist filmmaker does not follow the conventional rules of filmmaking. Like Luis Buñuel before him, narrative in Švankmajer’s film is indifferent and unique. As it is mentioned in the beginning of this article Švankmajer became familiar with Surrealism years after the creation of this film. However, The Last Trick of Mr Schwarzwald and Mr Edgar is a good example of how Švankmajer breaks the filmmaking rules.
During the title credits at the beginning of the film, Švankmajer reveals his two actors before they put on their costumes, breaking the fourth wall. Breaking the fourth wall is prohibited in filmmaking since it distracts the viewer and throws him out of the illusion of the film, making him return to his reality. However, in this film it works as an ironic twist since it becomes a paradox, showing the actors putting on their costumes and later they are revealed as puppets. By putting on their masks they become symbols representing every person. This action has a greater impact on the viewer that is watching the film. Instead of attaching the actors’ faces to the characters, by using costumes they are detached resulting in the characters becoming faceless symbols thus, the characters become immortal symbols.
He breaks the rules regarding the traditional structure of storytelling (three act structure) and creates his own way of presenting an idea; his films do not present stories but ideas and themes. In this case the film is divided into parts; each part is a trick by one of the characters. The film gradually evolves showing the stress and antagonism of the characters growing.
One of the most important tools Švankmajer is using to tell a story and express his ideas is editing. The editing in his films varies since in each film is used differently. The pace of the editing in The Last Trick of Mr Schwarzwald and Mr Edgar is used in such a way to express the characters’ feelings. The fast editing at the end of the film and the rapid juxtaposition of the violent imagery in which the characters attack each other, enhances their aggressive behaviour, creating feelings of anxiety and panic to the viewer. The intense close ups of textures of frayed clothes and the amputation of the limbs of the characters expose the cruelty, aggression and violence of the characters. The textures become symbols of jealousy and their mania of destroying each other that eventually lead to their self-destruction.
LIST OF REFERENCES
Arcimboldo, G. (1590 -1). Vortumnus (Vertumno). Oil painting.
Bertrand, S. and Leclerc, M. (2001). Les Chimeres des Švankmajer. [DVD]. France: 24 Images.
Dali, S. (1936). The Anthropomorphic Cabinet. Oil on wood.
Descharnes, R. and Neret, G. (2016). DALI: The Paintings. London: Taschen.
Griffiths, K., Quay, S. and Quay, T. (1984). The Cabinet of Jan Švankmajer: Prague’s Alchemist of Film. [DVD] BFI.
Hames, P. (ed.) (2008). The cinema of Jan Švankmajer. 2nd edn. London: Wallflower press.
Seligmann, K. (1946). Initiation.
Svankmajer, J. (1964). The Last Trick Mr. Schwarzwald and Mr. Edgar. [DVD]. Czechoslovakia: Krátký Film (Prague)
Švankmajer, J. (2001). Interview by Ales Kisil. Czech TV Interview. Czech Television. [Television]