There are so many ways you can build a character in a movie besides dialog. Dialog moves the subject along the timeline, sometimes going back in time to reveal that back-story but its still dialog. This is a means of verbally letting your audience know who your character is, but there is more than just verbal dialog to enlighten your audience and give them a more enriching experience.
A movie director never just shoots a scene straight on without first getting to know the details of who a persons character is and why he or she is in this scene at this time. A director studies the why of a character, as well as who he is, and builds upon that knowledge through the use camera angles and perspective.
Shooting a character from a low angle, with the camera looking up at them can make them appear bigger-than-life, confident, important or even a bully. A character who is supposed to be bigger than other characters around him is usually shot from a lower angle as in The Lord of the Rings. Gandalf was much taller than the rest of the characters and this angle gives him not just an exaggerated height but also a more powerful perspective. Director Peter Jackson played on the height difference between hobbit and wizard not just for height accuracy but to create an obvious perspective difference between the leader and followers.
Shooting a character from slightly above eye level with the camera pointing down can give them the innocent look of a child, make them appear harmless or subordinate to another character in the scene. This is the angle often used to show the David and Goliath stand-off between the good guy and bad. Using The Lord of the Rings as an example again, Frodo was often shown with the shot slightly above him – the innocent little hobbit carrying the weight of Middle Earth on his small shoulders. But when he wrestled internally with doing the right thing by destroying the Ring of Power his perspective changes and as he decides he's going to keep the Ring – "It's Mine!", the perspective is shot from below and he becomes almost evil in his stance.
When you're building a character that is struggling with life's obstacles, you might think of employing these tactics to illustrate to the audience your characters station in life. Shooting a point of view, or POV, with the lens slightly above the camera should imply the subject is subordinate and less-than important. The subject looks up a bit and it can also imply a lower station if he is in conversation with someone who was shot at a slightly lower angle these are perfect boss/worker angles.
You can start your shots with the camera at an angle that is slightly higher than eye level, and slowly, throughout the movie as your characters station changes and he grows in strength and will-power, you begin to change the perspective and camera angle on him, painting a picture of a new person; a self-assured character. You can move the shots from the camera looking slightly down to a neutral shot at eye level, and eventually, to the angle shooting up at your subject – he is now in control of the situation and can handle the heat.
Fooling the Audience
A cameras shot angle, or perspective can enhance a scene in many interesting ways and angles can sometimes fool your audience. Take the scene when were first introduced to Johnny Depp's character, Captain Jack Sparrow, in Pirates of the Caribbean The Curse of the Black Pearl. In his first scene, Sparrow is shot slightly below chin level, with his eyes straight on the horizon which gives him a look of importance, power and confidence. This sets the tone for Sparrows character in the entire movie, which is why this perspective works, but the camera shot also belies the truth to Jacks current situation: the shot implies that the pirate captain is flying in the breeze on a huge magnificent pirate ship, except in the very next shot we see Captain Sparrow jump from the mast to a tiny water-logged sinking boat.
However, this lower-than his chin perspective is what sells the scene: Captain Jack Sparrow, despite being mutinied, marooned and without friends is still confident in his manner and actions. He believes in himself and his abilities to get ahead. Director Gore Verbinski uses that personality trait of an incredibly self-assured person to subtly tell the audience that this is a force to be reckoned with by shooting many of the scenes with Depp from below the eye angle.
Do your Homework
When you watch movies, analyze them not just for the scene lengths, storylines and editing, but for the subtle ways directors trigger feelings for the characters by the composition and angle they are shot with. Like music to trigger an emotional reaction, different perspectives can play on an audience to evoke how they should accept a character's presence in the movie.
Here are a few stories to read up on that explain perspective and angles – happy shooting!
Jennifer O'Rourke is Videomaker's managing editor