Variations in lens height can be an effective tool for adding subtext to a shot.
As a general rule, dialog and most ordinary “people” shots are done at the eye level of the actors involved. Some film makers attempt to avoid using many straight on eye level shots as they consider them boring. Variations from eye level have filmspace implications, psychological undertones and are useful as a strictly compositional device.
Variations from eye level are not to be done casually, especially with dialog or reaction shots. Keep in mind that deviations from eye level are asking the viewer to participate in the scene in a mode that is very different from normal, so be sure that there is a good reason for it and that it is contributing in a way that helps the scene. This does not apply to establishing shots, in which the viewer is well accustomed to seeing the scene from above.
When the camera is above eye height, we seem to dominate the subject. The subject is reduced in stature and perhaps in importance. Its importance is not, however, diminished if the high angle reveals it to be a massive, extensive structure, for example. This reminds us that high angles looking down on the subject reveal overall layout and scope in the case of landscape, streets or buildings. This is useful if the intent is an establishing or “expository” shot where it is important for the audience to know something about the layout.
The opposite is true for a low angle. When a character is approaching a complex or landscape as seen from a low angle, little is revealed beyond what the character might see himself — we share the character’s surprise or sense of mystery. The two can be used in combination for setting up a shock or suspense effect: if the shots associated with the character are from a low angle, we share his fore boding and apprehension at not knowing.
If these are then combined with high angle shots which reveal what the character does not know, we are aware of whatever surprise or ambush or revelation awaits him: this is the true nature of suspense. As Hitchcock so brilliantly observed — there can be no real suspense unless the audience knows what is going to happen. His famous example is the bomb under the table.
If two characters sit at a table and suddenly a bomb goes off — we have a moment of surprise that is quickly over, a cheap shock at best. If the audience knows that the bomb is under the table and is aware that the timer is clicking steadily towards exploding, then there is true suspense which engages and involves the audience in a way that simple shock never can. If the audience is on the edge of their seats knowing that the time on the clock is growing shorter, then the fact that the two characters seated at the table are nattering on amiably about the weather is both maddening and engaging. The audience is drawn into the scene, frustrated by their inability to warn the people to run for their lives.
The high angle is, of course, impersonal by its very nature. As with subjective and objective camera views on the lateral plane, we can see camera angles that diverge from eye level as increasingly objective, more third person in terms of our literary analogy. This applies especially to higher angles. A very high angle is called a “God’s eye view,” suggesting its omniscient, removed point-of-view: distant, separate from the scene, a world view, philosophical and contemplative. We see all parts of the scene, all interacting forces equally without particularly identifying with any of them. See the example from Fargo (left).
The same is not quite as true for low angles. Although any time we get away from human eye level we are decreasing our subjective identification with the characters, low angles can become more subjective in other ways. Clearly a very low angle can be a dog’s eye view: especially if it is cut in right after a shot of the dog and then the very low angle moves somewhat erratically and in the manner of a dog.
This was used very effectively in the film Wolf, when the character turns into a werewolf. There is a special rig, called “Doggy-cam” specifically designed for these types of shots. The relative subjectiveness of a shot relates to things for which we have a height reference: a very low lens height can be a pig’s view, an eye level POV can be a stalker POV and perhaps a 7 or 8 foot lens height could be a giants or a robots POV, but beyond that we do not have a subject reference and it is no longer subjective, it is perceived by the audience as an objective view and nothing more. With low angles, the subject tends to dominate us. If the subject is a character, that actor will seem more powerful and dominant. Welles used low angles extensively in Citizen Kane (right) to suggest the power and overbearing personality of the central character. Any time the actor being viewed is meant to be menacing or frightening to the character we are associating the POV with, a low angle is usually appropriate. Certainly if it is any sort of villain or monster, an eye level shot will diminish the sense of danger.
Kubrick is a master of choosing the right angle and lens to tell the story powerfully. In the opening shot for this article, the lens height and angle make a clear statement about the state of mind of the character, Dr. Strangelove.
Jason J. Tomaric is an Emmy-winning director and cinematographer in Los Angeles, and produces the online filmmaking resource, FilmSkills.com. FilmSkills uses dozens of instructional videos from hundreds of working film industry experts to enhance students’ learning experience.