Learn the hows and whys of high-angle shots from master filmmakers like Hitchcock and the Coen Brothers!
Top Image: Moonrise Kingdom via Focus Features
The high-angle shot is a tried-and-true standard cinematography technique. This shot can be utilized in various framing modes, from close-up to long. Its visual language can have a few different connotations, but it usually conveys a sense of powerlessness and subjection.
With all of this in mind, let’s learn how to utilize and frame a high-angle shot for film by looking at some of the best examples in cinematic history.
Standard High-Angle Shot
A standard high-angle shot will frame a character from around the waist up (while the camera looks down), which is the direct opposite of the low-angle shot. Just like the low-angle shot, the high-angle shot brings with it a specific visual language to cue the audience. Many times, this technique is used alongside the low-angle shot in a unique shot reverse, which enhances the perception of the character for the audience.
The Wrong Man via Warner Bros
In the shot above (from Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man), the camera is positioned just above the characters. Through this high-angle shot, Hitchcock is conveying a feeling of tension and vicariousness. You’ll find that many standard cinematic shots utilize medium framing, but the high-angle shot primarily utilizes a much wider angle.
Shawshank Redemption via Castle Rock Entertainment
A great example of this wider angle can be seen in this iconic shot from Frank Darabont’s The Shawshank Redemption. Darabont and cinematographer Roger Deakins convey a sense of relief and freedom for the character. By using a camera on a crane, they were able to dolly the shot up, revealing more and more of the landscape around Andy.
Psycho via Paramount Pictures
It could be argued that no one used the high-angle shot more than Alfred Hitchcock. His use of this shot can be seen in several of his films, with one of the most famous examples being the Arbogast meets Mother scene from Psycho.
In this scene, Hitchcock actually employs two types of high-angle shots. The first being the shot above, where Arbogast walks up the stairs. Here, Hitchcock uses a high-angle shot alongside a reverse tracking shot. Using this technique adds to the visual tension; it pulls the character of Arbogast in and expands the visibility of the surroundings.
Wide High-Angle Shot
The second high-angle shot that Hitchcock utilized is the wide shot seen below. The use of wide framing is pretty standard with capturing a high angle. The visual language we got from the first high-angle shot was one of powerlessness. Then, in the shot below (where the camera rests directly above), the visual language clearly portrays Arbogast’s vulnerability — which leads to his death.
Psycho via Paramount Pictures
The wide high-angle shot is also perfect for capturing reactions, as seen in the image below from The Avengers. Director Joss Whedon and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey used the high-angle shot to capture Thor and Captain America’s reaction to the Chitauri invaders.
The Avengers via Marvel Studios
An even more effective use of the wide high-angle shot is one that includes justified movement, as seen in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2. Director David Yates and cinematographer Eduardo Serra frame a high-angle shot but then track in with Voldemort as he approaches Harry. This gives the audience a sense of Voldemort’s power as he stands over Harry. This is then used to contrast the low-angle shot of Harry grabbing hold of Voldemort’s neck and pushing both himself and his arch nemesis over the edge.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 via Warner Bros.
Movement can do a lot for you, especially when you connect two types of shots using that movement. Master cinematographer Roger Deakins used a high-angle shot to perfection in O Brother, Where Art Thou? by the Coen Brothers. Deakins starts things off by framing George Clooney in a standard medium shot. Then, as his character prays and looks toward the heavens for intervention, the camera jibs upward into a high-angle shot that stops just wide enough to see the noose in the upper frame.
Watch the clip below to see how utilizing a mixture of movement and high angle can generate effective visual language and enhance a scene’s emotional tone.
Video via Movieclips
High-Angle Stack and POV
So far we’ve looked at standard medium-to-wide high-angle shots, some with movement and some without. Now let’s look at two other classic uses of the high angle. These versions are more about blocking and composition than anything else. First up, let’s look at a POV high-angle shot. Alfred Hitchcock used this type of shot in 1942’s Saboteur, but used it to perfection in 1958’s Vertigo.
In the image below, we see Jimmy Stewart’s character, Scottie Ferguson, hanging from the side of a building as a hand reaches down. By placing the camera at essentially the same distance as the man trying to rescue Ferguson, Hitchcock is allowing the audience to see the danger the hero is in. Again, this is an effective use of visual language in order to enhance the narrative and to help the audience feel just how tense the situation really is.
Vertigo via Paramount Pictures.
In the following scene from Citizen Kane, Jim Gettys looks down upon his rival, Charles Foster Kane, during a political rally. Director Orson Welles and cinematographer Gregg Toland have stacked the action. It starts with Gettys looking over Charles Kane from a position of power. Kane can barely be seen talking on the distant stage.
Citizen Kane via RKO Pictures.
Like any of the standard cinematic shots, the high-angle shot should only be seen as a tool and not a crutch. It should be used as visual language to help enhance the narrative and never to take away from it. Using a high-angle shot is just one of many tools filmmakers can use to enhance the storytelling experience.
What are your favorite examples of high-angle shots? We’d love to see them in the comments below.