Half a video director’s job is picking the right camera angles. But what, exactly is a "right" angle? (No, not 90 degrees, thank you.) Briefly, the right angle at any point in a program delivers an image containing the information that’s important at that moment with the appropriate emphasis and style.
Of course, it rarely happens that only one possible angle is right, like an answer on a math quiz, and all other others are wrong. Selecting, mixing and matching angles requires taste, instinct and personal creativity in short, it’s an art, which, alas, cannot be taught. On the other hand, understanding what angles do and how to use them is a craft, and that we can profitably discuss.
So let’s see how camera angles deliver information, create viewer impact, facilitate editing and enhance actor performance. But first, let’s review the components that collectively make up an angle.
What Makes up an Angle?
A complete description of a camera angle includes the subject size, horizontal and vertical positions, level and lens. (Two other descriptors, population and purpose, are covered in a nearby sidebar.) By understanding these five components, you can manipulate them singly and collectively to frame precisely the image you want.
Subject size is simply how much of the subject is included in the frame. In terms of a standing adult, a long shot, for example, shows the whole body with considerable space around it, a medium shot cuts the subject at the waist, and a closeup includes head, neck and usually a bit of shoulder.
Horizontal position is the orientation of the camera toward the subject. Typical horizontal positions include front, three-quarter, profile, three-quarter rear and rear angles.
Vertical position is the height relationship between camera and subject: bird’s-eye, high, neutral, low and worm’s-eye. (These terms describe the camera’s position, not the subject’s.)
Level is the camera’s tilt or lack of it. Classically, the camera was aligned parallel to the horizon, except when tilted sideways for a special effect. Today, however, off-level (so-called "Dutch") angles are much more common.
Lens is the magnification range in which the lens is set: wide angle for broad coverage in deep perspective, normal for perspective that mimics human vision, or telephoto for high magnification and shallow perspective.
Every single angle you set up has all five of these components. By managing them in each shot, you control the information, impact and style of your program.
Angles Deliver Information
The bread and butter job of every angle is to display information effectively. Doing this means controlling subject size and point of view (POV).
In setting subject size, ask yourself two questions: how clearly should viewers see details of the subject and how much of the subject’s context (surroundings) should be visible? To use a clich of movie westerns, we might start with a long shot of cowboy Will White Hat riding through a rocky landscape, then cut to a medium closeup of Bart Black Hat, hiding in ambush and cocking his rifle.
The first subject is small because we don’t need to show the details of riding a horse, but we do want to get the lay of the land in which the action will take place. The second subject is much larger so that we can reveal exactly what he’s doing with that Winchester 73 (see Figure 1).
In the classic formula, the ambush sequence might open with a neutral-angle full shot of White Hat and his horse Willard, before cutting to the long shot, and that second shot would be a very high angle. The following medium closeup of the villain would be from a matching reverse low angle.
The neutral full shot lets viewers identify White Hat. Then the long shot shows him from the hidden bad guy’s point of view. Black Hat’s closeup wouldn’t have to be from a matching low angle, but the symmetry enforces the spatial relationships. Together, the two POV angles establish the spatial geometry of the scene.
Incidentally, if White Hat was riding toward screen-right, then Black Hat would be aiming screen-left to establish screen directions.
Angles Create Impact
We said Black Hat’s opening shot was a medium closeup (showing head, shoulders and chest). But suppose instead that we cut from the high long shot of White Hat, to an extreme closeup of Black Hat’s beady, evil eyes, cut back to the long shot of White Hat, cut to a tight insert of the rifle lever cocking, then back to unsuspecting White Hat
In stringing these shots together, we’re anticipating the section on editing below, so let’s focus on those individual angles. Note how the big closeups of eyes and rifle lever add punch to the sequence. This is because, in general, the bigger the subject the more intense the image.
Subject size has a great effect on impact, and so does each of the other angle components. Horizontal position matters because it helps determine apparent depth. Front, rear and three-quarter angles shoot the action approaching or retreating from the plane of the screen, to enhance the 3D quality of the image. Profile angles don’t sell a feeling of depth because they show action parallel to the screen.
Vertical position also has an emotional impact. High angles feel more detached, as if observing from outside the action. Low angles feel dynamically engaged as the action surges over them. Neutral height angles feel, well, neutral.
The feelings of depth and engagement are also enhanced by lens choice. Wide-angle lenses exaggerate apparent depth and increase the visceral impact of action sequences like fights. Telephoto lenses pancake the landscape onto the picture plane and lend the formal, distancing composition of an oriental screen painting.
Finally, off-level (Dutch) angles add dynamism because of a truism about graphic composition. Horizontal lines feel static and vertical ones are only slightly less so; but diagonal lines feel dynamic probably because lateral slanting lines add depth and upright ones appear to be falling, or just about to.
Angles Facilitate Editing
In our example, we used White Hat’s long shot three times, so how come we don’t have jump cuts? Because those pieces are buffered by Black Hat’s eyes and the rifle lever. The editor can cut the sequence this way because the director has provided appropriate raw material. In other words, he has directed to edit.
Briefly, invisible edits are made by matching subject action precisely, while changing key image components, typically size, horizontal position and/or vertical position. Though a skillful editor can conceal a cut with just one change, two are generally preferable. The most common change is in image size, followed by horizontal position and vertical position. (Changing only tilt and/or lens is not usually as effective.)
When setting up angle B, you need to imagine the continuity of the edited sequence, recalling the components of angle A, and anticipating the look of angle C, so that B will be distinctively different from its surroundings. (Of course, A and C can be identical, since they’re separated by B.) Our ambush example illustrates this principle in a simple form.
It also illustrates a common set of angles, sometimes called a "glance-object pair." In one shot, Black Hat looks at something off screen (glance); in the next shot, White Hat is shown from Black Hat’s perspective (object). That relationship, created by editing, must be provided by the director.
Glance-object pairs are very common with inserts. Suppose White Hat has a map to the gold mine guarded by Black Hat. In a 3/4 neutral angle, he spreads the map on the saddle pommel (Figure 3A),
CUT TO: a tight closeup of the map from White Hat’s POV (Figure 3B). This closeup is called a "subjective insert" because the viewer looks at the map through White Hat’s eyes.
Angles Enhance Performance
Again, the bigger the subject, the more intense the image. This effect helps the director control actor performances, in several ways.
When actors are not very expressive, you can intensify their apparent feelings by working close to their faces. A pair of eyes filling the width of the frame may show no emotion at all, but viewers will infer that the character’s thinking/feeling intensely about whatever the surrounding shots suggest.
In the same way, amateur hams can be discouraged from scenery chewing by backing away from them. By loosening the camera angle from closeup to medium shot, you can calm a performance down considerably.
Don’t overdo these tricks, however, because you risk skewing the effect of the scene. If (say, in an earlier sequence) White and Black have an intense verbal argument, you’ll want to keep their opposing angles fairly symmetrical. If you shoot Black in closeups and White in medium shots instead, Black will win the argument by camera angle, regardless of the scene content. Sometimes, though, you want to use this device on purpose, in order to "give the scene" to the more important character.
We’re outta time here, but just one more trick before we go. If you shoot plenty of head and tail (before and after the important action) you’ll allow the editor to adjust performances in post production. Example:
BLACK HAT: You’ll never find that gold mine, never!
WHITE HAT: Maybe not.
If White Hat’s closeup has some extra footage before he replies, the editor can time the cut like this:
BLACK HAT: You’ll never find that gold mine, never!
WHITE HAT: (Beat, beat) Maybe not.
Viewers who later see the movie know he has that map and assume from his silent stare that he’s secretly thinking about this hidden advantage, when in actuality, the actor was just standing there, not thinking at all.