THE TECHNICAL DIMENSION
SPACE IN CINEMA
THE HIGH ROAD AND THE LOW ROAD
3-1. Moment by moment, filmmakers define the visual perspective, or “angle” of the viewer to the subject in space.
Camera angle is defined as the position of the camera and its viewpoint in relation to the subject. Since at every moment the camera is the viewer’s surrogate, this angle creates or defines a relationship between the viewer and the subject, both spatially and emotionally.
In other words, the camera is you the viewer. Your relationship in space and therefore in emotion to a subject is partially dependent on the camera’s view of the subject. If the camera is above a subject, you look down on them; if it is below the subject, you look up at them. And we feel differently about those we look up to than we do about those we look down upon.
Camera angles are divided into three broad categories.
3-2. Category 1 – Eye Level
The camera is placed level with the eyes of the subject. You as the viewer are therefore of equal standing with the subject, whether they be sitting or standing, short tall.
3-3. Category 2 – LOW ANGLE
The camera is placed below the subject looking up at it. Since at every given moment, the viewpoint of the camera is your viewpoint as a viewer, this places the subject above you.
A low angle is thought to strengthen the subject. Anyone above you, that you are looking up at, is superior, or threatening, or dominant, or powerful, or heroic.
Of course this all depends on context. After an hour and a half of following a character who is weaselly, weak and selfish, a low angle will not automatically erase our previous conceptions and somehow redeem or empower the character.
There are other motivations for low angle images. They sometimes allow important compositional elements to occupy the foreground or the background. They may reveal or conceal elements within the environment. By emphasizing a ceiling they may create a sense of enclosure or claustrophobia; by emphasizing an open sky they may suggest freedom and a liberty from the earth and its worldly concerns. Low angles also may act as point of view (POV) shots, images meant to reveal the world as a particular character sees it at a particular moment.
Study the low angle shots that follow. What characterization or story element is implied by the angle? When do the angles seem motivated by character, by action, by story, by point of view, or by composition, in particular the addition of foreground or background elements?
Citizen Kane (1941)
Mid-way through “Citizen Kane” (1941), directed by Orson Welles and photographed by Gregg Toland, Charles Foster Kane, played by Welles, has a confrontation with his oldest friend, Jed Leland, played by Joseph Cotton. Newspaper tycoon and powerful opinion maker Kane, running for governor of New York on a reform ticket, has lost the election due to a sex scandal. Leland, who has campaigned vigorously for Kane’s election, feels betrayed, both personally and politically.
The confrontation involves constant movement, Leland attacking and Kane sometimes retreating, sometimes standing his ground. There are moments, with Leland in attack mode, in which the two friends face off and are framed almost like western gunfighters in the street at high noon.
There are other moments, with Kane making attempts at reconciliation, by charm or by force, when they are framed tightly together, boxed in with one another, forced to confront their differences.
Their confrontation is about more than their personal feelings. It is about broader ideas, the changing face of politics at the beginning of the 20th century, progressivism, political corruption, the rise of organized labor, class struggle, and “the sacred cause of reform.”
Perhaps these larger implications of the confrontation is why it was so vitally important to Welles that the scene be shot in a series of ultra low angles. He had the set built on a platform above the studio floor, and ceilings added where light grids usually hung. And when this wasn’t enough, legend has it that the angle was so imperative to Welles that he had his crew use pile drivers and pick axes to break open the studio’s concrete floor and dig a hole for the camera. The impulsiveness may be apocryphal, but a hole was definitely dug for the camera, as production stills prove.
The low angles exaggerate the characters and the drama; everything is larger than life, and certainly larger than we. They elevate the argument. The scene is about more than just the problems of these two men; it is about the problems of an entire society, viewed in microcosm.
WATCH: CITIZEN KANE (Clip) (https://youtu.be/kzwwr1Rgt2Y)
Later in that same film, an older Kane is confronted by his second wife, Susan. Kane retaliates and looms dominant over Susan, literally engulfing her in his shadow. The use of high and low angles emphasize the dynamics of their relationship.
Throughout “Citizen Kane,” relationships are defined or enhanced through the use of angles, as here with Kane’s domineering guardian, Walter Parks Thatcher.
“Dr. Strangelove (Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb)” (1964)
In “Dr. Strangelove,” directed by Stanley Kubrick, Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper, played by Sterling Hayden, has preemptively and unilaterally launched a nuclear attack on Soviet Russia. His stated motivation – that communist infiltration, in particular water fluoridation, is robbing American males of their virility. As he explains his plan and rationale to his executive officer, played by Peter Sellers, Kubrick films Ripper from a striking low angle, emphasizing not only his oversized ego and rampant madness, but his overtly phallic cigar as well.
WATCH 1-Low Angle Shot (Dr. Strangelove or how i learned to stop worrying and love the bomb) (https://youtu.be/PRpwPnMExdk)
Following is a compilation, or “supercut” of low angle shots employed by Quentin Tarantino in his films. Try to discern the motivations behind the use of the low angle in each of these shots.
WATCH: Tarantino // From Below (https://vimeo.com/37540504)
3-4. Category 3 – High Angle
The camera is placed above the subject looking down at it. Since at every given moment, the viewpoint of the camera is your viewpoint as a viewer, this places you above the subject.
A high angle is thought to weaken the subject. Anyone below you, that you are looking down on, is inferior, or harmless, or submissive, or weak, or timid.
This all of course depends on context. After an hour and a half of following a character who is strong, resourceful and self-sacrificing, a high angle will not automatically erase our previous conceptions and somehow degrade the character.
Just as with low angles, there are other motivations for high angle images. They sometimes allow important compositional elements to occupy the foreground or the background. They may reveal or conceal elements within the environment. By emphasizing the floor or the ground they may create a sense of a character being tethered to the earth and its worldly concerns. They may help preserve the relationships in space of multiple subjects to each other. High angles also may act as point of view (POV) shots, images meant to reveal the world as a particular character sees it at a particular moment.
Study the high angle shots that follow. What characterization or story element is implied by the angle? When do the angles seem motivated by character, by action, by story, by point of view, or by composition, in particular the addition of foreground or background elements?
“42nd Street” and “Footlight Parade” (1933)
Choreographer Busby Berkeley was known for his lavish and extravagantly filmed musical numbers. For “42nd Street” he and director Lloyd Bacon used carefully choreographed dancers as geometric elements in elaborate designs, patterns often only discernible from a high overhead angle.
WATCH: 42nd Street (https://youtu.be/iM_Xjw4m0ro)
For “Footlight Parade,” they moved their geometric patterns into a watery setting.
WATCH: Footlight Parade (1933) – Human Waterfall (https://youtu.be/FRqcZcrgPaU)
“Foreign Correspondent” (1940)
Director Alfred Hitchcock was often inspired to create an entire film based on a visual idea or two he had conceived. The idea for “Foreign Correspondent,” grew from two of these visual inspirations, and from the location of the story – wartime Holland. Hitchcock later told fellow director Francois Truffaut, “We started out with the idea of the windmill sequence and also the scene of the murderer escaping through the bobbing umbrellas. We were in Holland and so we used windmills and rain.” Hitchcock’s staging of a post assassination chase included high angles from which the chase could only be discerned by the bobbing of a sea of umbrellas.
REFERENCE: TCM – “Foreign Correspondent” http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/title/75400/Foreign-Correspondent/articles.html
WATCH: FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT: Assassination (https://youtu.be/Qq4Ha8j37WA)
In “Psycho,” director Alfred Hitchcock stages a key scene on the staircase of a sinister house. We the audience know that the murderer occupies a room on the second floor landing. The private detective prowling through the house does not. The staircase allows for a threatening high angle shot of the detective slowly climbing the stairs, unaware of the fate that awaits him. Hitchcock then cuts abruptly to an extreme and striking overhead shot as the murder commences.
For the high angle above the stairs in the Arbogast murder scene and the shot of Norman carrying “Mother” to the fruit cellar, the camera was placed in a cage hung from rails on the ceiling. http://www.tcm.com/this-month/article/191164%7C0/Behind-the-Camera-Psycho.html
Psycho (10/12) Movie CLIP – Arbogast Meets Mother (1960) HD (https://youtu.be/5bieIiX5KLQ)
READ: High Angle Shots in Hitchcock’s Movies http://www.alfred-hitchcock-films.net/Themes/High-Shots.htm
God’s Eye View (of Bird’s Eye View)
Extreme high angle overhead shots, ones looking straight down, such as the ones seen in the choreography of Busby Berkley and the staircase scenes in “Psycho,” are often referred to as ‘God’s Eye View’ shots. Although some overhead shots represent a character’s POV, the angle often represents an omniscient view and sometimes suggests a higher power, whether that is God or the filmmaker/storyteller.
In the films of Wes Anderson, these angles tend to be character point of views (POVs).
WATCH: From Above: Wes Anderson (https://youtu.be/OeKfUcoUg0g)
3-5. HIGH AND LOW ANGLES
The network sit-com “Scrubs” parodied the standard use of high and low angles to suggest superiority and inferiority in the scene when Nurse Carla Espinoza, played by Judy Reyes, takes out her frustrations on a delivery driver.
WATCH: Use of high and low angle shots in “Scrubs” (https://youtu.be/8V1uE1-wTPs)
As one of our premiere visual stylists, director Alfred Hitchcock takes full advantage of all the visual tools afforded him.
READ: Shot for Shot” Building Tension and Detailing Power Struggles through Shots and Angles in Hitchcock’s PSYCHO https://reelclub.wordpress.com/2013/10/13/shot-for-shot-building-tension-and-detailing-power-struggles-through-shots-and-angles-in-hitchcocks-psycho/
“The Birds” (1963)
In this intense scene from “The Birds,” director Alfred Hitchcock uses a variety of angles to build and sustain the tension of the scene. A family and their visitor are trapped in their home while savage birds attack, trying to get inside.
Low angles emphasize the entrapment of the ceiling, where the birds can be heard attacking.
High angles suggest the threat coming from above and make the characters seem weak and defenseless.
WATCH: The Birds (1963) (https://youtu.be/AzOMTUxJ3lY)
3-6. An Addition – Canted, Oblique, Dutch, Chinese Angles
Canted is defined as “angular deviation from a vertical or horizontal place or surface; an inclination or slope. A slanted or oblique surface. To lean to one side; slant.” Oblique is defined as “having a slanting or sloping direction, course, or position, inclined.” http://www.thefreedictionary.com/Canted; http://www.thefreedictionary.com/oblique
Canted, oblique, Dutch or Chinese angles are all the same – the camera leans to one side in order to throw the image and the world off balance. It creates an immediate compositional tension of equilibrium. There is a subtle example in the scene from “The Birds” above. Notice how the window is tilted as if the wall is falling over toward the subject, appropriate as the threat is from the window.
Although the primary motivation for a canted angle is disorientation, there are other compositional motivations for these images., such as the ability to include elements in the frame that might otherwise not be visible, or to visually emphasize a relationship between characters.
Study the canted angles that follow. What do these angles communicate about the world of the film? What characterization or story element is implied by the angle?
WATCH: The Dutch Angle (https://youtu.be/gRaAguidavY)
“The Third Man” (1949)
“The Third Man” is a mystery/thriller, directed by Carol Reed and set in post World War II Vienna. Over images of bombed out buildings and squalor, the film’s opening narration describes Vienna in this way:
I never knew the old Vienna before the war with its Strauss music, its glamour and easy charm. Constantinople suited me better. I really got to know it in the classic period of the black market. We’d run anything if people wanted it enough and had the money to pay. Of course a situation like that does tempt amateurs but, well, you know, they can’t stay the course like a professional. Now the city is divided into four zones, you know, each occupied by a power: the American, the British, the Russian and the French. But the centre of the city that’s international policed by an international patrol. One member of each of the four powers. Wonderful! What a hope they had! All strangers to the place and none of them could speak the same language. Except a sort of smattering of German. Good fellows on the whole, did their best you know. Vienna doesn’t really look any worse than a lot of other European cities. Bombed about a bit. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0041959/quotes
WATCH: The Third Man – Clip (https://youtu.be/Fja9kwTl_jU)
Director Reed decided to represent the discord and chaos of the city by sprinkling liberal doses of canted angles throughout the film.
WATCH: The Third Man – Clip (https://youtu.be/HP1VPuXEMbg)
Director Martin Scorsese had this to say about “The Third Man.”
Then there’s the city of Vienna itself, split up into four sections, with people living in beautiful baroque apartments, the camera pans and we see half of it in ruins. There’s this extraordinary sense of a world that’s come apart, accentuated by the off-centered cameras, the canted angles. It depicts the emergence from mass psychosis, 60 million people killed in the war, a civilization destroying itself: the camera style expresses that. The images never feel grounded. There’s a story about when William Wyler, the great director, saw the picture and, as a joke, sent Carol Reed a level to keep his camera straight. http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/films/features/martin-scorsese-on-the-third-man-the-best-revelation-in-all-cinema-10340553.html
“Batman” (The TV Series, 1966-1968); “Batman (The Movie, 1966)
For the highly popular TV series and its subsequent movie adaptation, the filmmakers decided to uses canted angles whenever a scene was set in the lair or hideout or headquarters of one of the outsized, outlandish villains. This set those locales apart from the rest of the series and movie, and suggested the unbalanced minds of Batman’s rouge gallery.
WATCH: Batman – Miss Iceland on Ice (Better Quality) (https://youtu.be/ueyaFlo9xPg)
WATCH: Batgirl’s Onscreen Debut from Batman ‘66 (https://youtu.be/vw7EyhINnFw)
WATCH: Batman Kicking Ass (https://youtu.be/IZdmQalBsTA)
“Do The Right Thing” (1989)
In “Do The Right Thing,” as racial conflicts escalate over the course of the hottest day of an already sweltering summer, director Spike Lee and cinematographer Ernest Dickerson use a variety of cinematic techniques to help build tension. In this crucially combative scene, they introduce canted angles to add visual stress as the conflicts erupt in violence.
WATCH: Do the Right Thing (9/10) Movie CLIP – Fight the Power (1989) HD (https://youtu.be/TQ4y7GPeFBY)
When director Kenneth Branagh and Cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos collaborated on the 2011 adaptation of Marvel Comics “Thor,” they liberally used canted angles to create a comic book aesthetic.
For me tilted Dutched angles is the way I remember comic book frames … that’s how I received the dynamism of the composition in the frames, wide angle lenses with lots of depth. That’s why I chose that type of style for this. Director Kenneth Branagh. “Thor” DVD Audio Commentary. The Comic Book Film Adaptation: Exploring Modern Hollywood’s Leading Genre. By Liam Burke https://weminoredinfilm.com/2013/11/16/14-lessons-learned-from-director-kenneth-branaghs-dvdblu-ray-commentary-for-thor/
One unifying thing, which I had to do some persuading to get away with, was canted angles. I moved the camera a little lopsidedly, both up in Asgard and down here, to evoke what I would call a comic book style, where the panels are coming at you, the characters are busting out. Director Kenneth Branagh http://whatculture.com/film/marvel-cinematic-universe-11-little-known-facts-thor-movies?page=11
We also made very liberal use of Dutch angles throughout Thor. The wider camera would be Dutched one way, the close would be Dutched the opposite, and we’d flip that for the reverse shots. It was a kind of interpretation of the comic-book style. Director of Photography Haris Zambarloukos https://www.theasc.com/ac_magazine/June2011/Thor/page1.php
WATCH: Loki Visits Earth || Thor (https://youtu.be/dDBGR6rzn3Q)
An Aside – Orientation
As consumers of visual media and as human beings, we bring certain assumptions to the images we view. Among the most basic is that in viewing an image in a frame we assume the bottom is down and the top is up. It is so strongly ingrained in our perception that it is difficult to force our minds to think otherwise …
… until we see the images correctly oriented.
If we turn the camera upside down, then the world is upside down.
For the credit sequence of the supernatural thriller “Devil” (2010), director John Erick Dowdle turned a helicopter cityscape upside down for a disquieting and disorienting effect, foreshadowing the harrowing events to come.
WATCH: Devil Credits (https://youtu.be/AQTOjTam3Ww)
If the world is created upside down, and we turn the camera upside down, we get a different, apparently gravity-defying effect.
This is the basis for a striking effect from “Inception” (2010). Director Christopher Nolan built a set of a hotel hallway that could rotate vertically.
When the camera rotates in synchronization with the rotating set, it appears that gravity has been negated and that characters can walk on the walls and the ceiling.
WATCH: How were gravity fight scenes in Inception filmed by Christopher Nolan (https://youtu.be/8PhiSSnaUKk)
This was not a new effect when Nolan and his crew employed it. It was an optical illusion as old as cinema itself.
WATCH: Inceptions V6 (https://youtu.be/uz8MejCMjt4)