Scene from "Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (Episode V)" (1980). Image courtesy: 20th Century Fox

In a nutshell

  • A low-angle shot positions the camera below the eyeline and points it upward at the subject
  • This shot makes subjects appear powerful and larger-than-life
  • The feeling a low-angle shot can change based on context, camera placement, and camera movement

There are many types of shots filmmakers have in their arsenal. The low-angle shot is one of those. Filmmakers traditionally use this camera angle to make subjects appear powerful and larger-than-life. However, there are many other ways filmmakers can use this angle.

In this article, we will discuss what the low-angle shot is. We will then dive into the purpose of the low-angle shot in cinema and provide a few examples as well.

Let’s get into it.

The low-angle shot defined

A low-angle shot is a camera angle taken from below the eyeline and pointing upward, providing a unique perspective. This technique can create an emotional effect on the audience and can be effective in all types of filmmaking scenarios, such as narrative storytelling, documentary and vlogging.

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Subtle vs. extreme

The low-angle shot can be either subtle or extreme, depending on the desired effect of the filmmaker. The director’s style also influences this choice. For example, Wes Anderson often uses extremely low-angle shots, such as in “Fantastic Mr. Fox” (2009) or “Moonrise Kingdom” (2012).

“Moonrise Kingdom” (2012)
Scene from “Moonrise Kingdom” (2012). Image courtesy: Focus Features

When a director wants to use a subtle low-angle shot, they will lower the camera just below the eyeline. Filmmakers sometimes use this type of shot to introduce films’ heroes, communicating their importance in the narrative while not making them feel imposing to viewers.

"The Dark Knight" poster
Poster of “The Dark Knight” (2008). Image courtesy: Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

If a director uses an extremely low-angle shot, they will lower the camera far below the eyeline. Depending on how it’s implemented, this angle can make viewers feel in awe or imposed by the subject. In the film poster for “The Dark Knight” (2008), the frame is far below Batman to make him appear powerful.

Likewise, the bus stop scene in “My Neighbor Totoro” (1988) uses a low-angle shot to make Totoro appear big and mysterious. In this sequence, Satsuki looks up at Totoro as she and her sister wait for the bus. This angle puts the viewer at the girls’ eye level. It not only shows how big Totoro is but also adds mystery to the sequence as Satsuki cannot see all of Totoro, and neither can the audience.

Why is the low-angle shot used?

To empower

The primary purpose of low-angle shots is to make the hero, villain, or another character appear powerful or all-knowing. Shooting from a low angle can convey a sense of power. For example, the epic Greek war movie “300” (2006) effectively uses low-angle shots to convey the power of King Leonidas of Sparta. In the scene, King Leonidas leads his army into the Battle of Thermopylae. The sequence uses low-angle shots to visually convey Leonidas’ power, leadership and strength.

Enlargen

Low-angle shots are effective in making objects appear large. The 3D animated movie series “Toy Story” uses low-angle shots to make humans appear massive in comparison to the toys.

"My Neighbor Totoro" clip
Scene from “My Neighbor Totoro” (1988)

To convey vulnerability

Low-angle shots can also convey vulnerability or loneliness, particularly when used as the subject’s point of view. For example, if a filmmaker were to use a first-person shot of a character looking up at towering skyscrapers in New York, the shot could convey the character’s fears and vulnerability in a new setting. Additionally, a low-angle shot can give a sense of scale, making settings appear larger-than-life.

To frighten

Filmmakers often use low-angle shots to convey fright or intimidation. In “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” (2003), director Peter Jackson uses a low-angle shot in the sequences where Frodo battles the giant spider Shelob. The shot is frightening because it emphasizes Frodo’s vulnerability by showing how small he is in comparison to Shelob. This type of low-angle shot is common in fantasy, horror and gangster movies.

Create authority

Filmmakers can use low-angle shots to establish authority. When pointing their cameras upward at subjects, filmmakers can create the illusion that the subject is larger and more imposing, which assigns status and power to those subjects.

Increase or decrease the perceived height

Another way filmmakers use low-angle shots is to play with the perspective of the environment characters are in. For example, if a character is trapped in a box, a low-angle shot can make the box feel claustrophobic. Also, in skateboarding videos, skaters are often filmed doing tricks on their board with a fish-eye lens from a low angle. This gives the impression that a trick is big and gravity-defying.

How are low-angle shots done?

Fordo and Shelob
Scene from “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” (2003). Image courtesy: New Line Cinema

For the low-angle shot to convey a sense of power, the camera must point upward toward the hero’s eyeline or just under it. For a more intense visual position, the camera can be put at a steeper angle facing up to the hero’s eyeline. The low-angle shot can be subtle (just below the eyeline), even at a distance, and still convey a sense of power or heroism. It can also be combined with other camera movements, such as a push-in on a dolly or a reveal, for a dynamic effect. Great directors and filmmakers use low-angle shots in combination with other filmmaking techniques to create more impactful storytelling moments. Low-angle shots can convey a broad range of emotional tones.

Mixing low camera angles with camera movement

To give your low-angle shot more complexity, you can combine it with different camera movements. For instance, if you’re introducing the exterior of a massive building, you can use a low-angle shot to showcase its height and simultaneously pan the camera to add visual interest to the sequence.

Filming scenes from different perspectives and viewpoints can help convey emotional feelings to the viewers without having to say anything. Film grammar tells us that looking up at something from a low-angle shot makes it appear imposing or dominant, but that effect can be altered based on how the filmmaker shoots the shot. For example, a static, low-angle shot will communicate different emotions than a low-angle shot that quickly zooms into a character’s face.

Filmmakers can also purposely subvert the low-angle shot to create a different effect. As Picasso is attributed with saying, “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.” Meanings can change depending on context. How you fit your shots together in a sequence will change how the audience perceives the shots.

What it all comes down to

The low-angle shot is one tool in a filmmaker’s toolkit, along with the storyline, lighting, music, sound effects, setting, editing and other tools that determine what the frame on the screen means to the viewer.

Using low-angle shots to amplify emotions in your story is crucial for maximizing the audience’s connection with the character on screen. Selecting the right shots for the right scenes can help the audience establish a better connection with the story. Low-angle shots are especially useful for conveying power, authority and scale. However, they can show vulnerability and loneliness as well. The trick for the filmmaker is to understand the meaning of the shot and when to use it or not.