Home Video Hints: What's Your Angle?

Why are camera angles so important? Because the way you look at things – your perceptions about the world around you – influences how you feel about those things. For example, if you’re crouched down in the aisle of your local auto parts store and a beefy, tattooed biker-type approaches you, you might find yourself feeling intimidated, even frightened; looking up at him might give you the impression that he is very big and very dangerous. If you stand up, however, and realize that you’re a full foot-and-a-half taller than the guy, your perception of his threat to you could very well change.

Your goal in the use of camera angles is not only to present images to your viewers but also to influence the perceptions of those images such that they see things your way. The world of camera movements has a relatively finite base repertoire. There are pans, tilts, dollies, trucks and pedestals.

Camera angles have an even shorter list of basics. Suffice it to say that your camera can be angled from side to side, up and down or a combination thereof. Certainly, too, they can work with any of the aforementioned camera movements, providing even more variety.

Placement of the camera plays a major role in the effectiveness of a camera angle. Is the camera placed high or low? Is it to one side, or right in the middle of your subject?


The Neutral Position

To begin playing with camera angles, let’s look at the most basic, neutral camera angle: the non-canted, eye-level shot. This is the kind of camera angle with which you should be most familiar, as you no doubt use it for the majority of your shots. Your camcorder, after all, is held at eye level, and you probably tend to shoot objects that are level with your camcorder.

What does this shot do for the viewer? Generally speaking, not a lot. It shows the viewer what’s going on, but doesn’t imply anything about the emotion of the scene. All things are as you would see them walking down the street, looking straight ahead. It’s your average, vanilla-flavored shot.


On the Side

What if you tilted the camera to the side a bit? Suppose, for example, you angled the camera about thirty degrees either way, so that your horizon line is no longer parallel with the bottom of the frame, but instead runs diagonally through the frame, forming a triangle with respect to the bottom and side of the frame.

If you’re like most people, such a shot will do one thing – make you uncomfortable. You’ve pretty much set the world on its ear, after all. Such a maneuver is actually called a "Dutch tilt", because it was pioneered by Dutch and German filmmakers. Their goal was to make the audience feel as if things were not quite right, adding to the viewer’s feeling of suspense, or even impending doom. You often see tilted shots in commercials and music videos, as well.

You can use the Dutch tilt simply to counteract the effects of the vanilla-flavored eye-level shot, especially if you’ve been shooting that way throughout the rest of your program. There’s nothing wrong with shaking things up just for the sake of shaking things up.

Otherwise, you can insert the Dutch tilt anytime you want your audience to feel "not right" about things. Perhaps you want your viewer to feel dazed and confused, maybe when shooting a concert or other large gathering. It might be, too, that something big is about to happen in your program; perhaps you want to build suspense before everyone jumps out and yells, "Surprise!" when shooting a birthday party. Situations like this are ideal for the Dutch tilt.


How Low Can You Go?

Returning to the vanilla-flavored shot, this time let’s shake things up by lowering the shot – really low – and angling the camcorder upward. This kind of camera angle works to exaggerate the size of objects, or people, in your shot. The result is that your viewer feels small and inferior to the things he is seeing on the screen. It’s a baby’s view of the world, in which everything is bigger and more powerful than the viewer.

You can achieve a very low-angle shot by crouching down and cradling the camcorder near the ground with both hands. You’ll find this position to be remarkably stable, and you should experience little or no jitters in the end product. Frame your shot by looking into your viewfinder, as if it were a tiny television screen; you shouldn’t have to bend yourself to press your eye against the viewfinder.

When would you want to shoot like this? Low angles can make a subject look important, heroic, large or intimidating. Maybe you want to make your 16-year-old quarterback son look like an NFL pro as he strides confidently onto the gridiron for the big game. Perhaps you want your audience to admire your boss. It could be, too, that you think your little two-bedroom ranch style house is a palace, and you want your audience to think so, as well. In each case, a very low camera angle would do the job, making your subject look big, important or glorious.


Up We Go

Moving in the opposite direction, a very high camera angle produces the opposite result. Where the low angle made the viewer feel inferior, the high angle makes him feel like king of the hill. The very high angle takes "looking down on others" quite literally, and as such elicits that feeling of superiority in your viewers.

Remember that we’re going for very high angles here. To achieve those great heights, you can of course stand on a tall object, like a stool or a ladder, and shoot down on your subject. Anything you can get up on is fair game. You might climb a tree, scale your roof or stand on a van. The key is to get up high.


Mix and Match

You can use a combination of high and low camera angles to switch between the perspective of the inferior person and the superior person in your production. Suppose, for example, that you’re shooting your boss giving a presentation. You might choose a very low angle to make your boss look big, mean and imposing. When you switch, then, to a shot of an employee listening quietly to the boss, you may want to imply that she feels intimidated by him. An eye-level shot won’t do that; a high-angle shot will. Thus, you can toggle back and forth between your "employee-eye" view of the boss from way down low and your boss’s Olympian vantage point from way up on top of the heap. This give and take between high and low camera angles collectively works to maximize their individual effects.

Don’t be afraid to combine camera angles with camera moves, as well. Rapid panning in combination with a Dutch tilt, for example, will so disorient the viewer that he/she will probably feel panic rather than your simple run-of-the-mill discomfort.

If you begin your shot at eye level and then move to a high or low camera angle while you are shooting, the result is that your viewer will feel as if he is growing or shrinking with regard to the subject being shot. This can make for some interesting effects, whether you want your viewer to believe he has truly changed size with respect to the subject, or whether you want your audience to simply begin feeling superior or inferior to that which is being shot.

Camera work is all about creativity. Everything you do with your camera communicates something to the viewer, whether you realize it or not.

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