How to Frame a Low-Angle Shot Like a Master Cinematographer
Get the lowdown on low-angle shots from master filmmakers like Kubrick and Tarantino!
Top Image: Inglourious Basterds via The Weinstein Company.
Directors like Quentin Tarantino know exactly how and when to use a low-angle shot. A shot like this is used with a very specific purpose in mind, and it’s not just Tarantino using them… they’re used to great effect by plenty of others, like Stanley Kubrick, Alfred Hitchcock, Christopher Nolan, and Paul Thomas Anderson.
Just like the medium shot we covered recently, the low-angle shot is a standard camera angle used to frame characters on screen. This shot can be utilized in between a long shot and a close-up. For this cinematography breakdown, we’ll highlight the best uses of low-angle shots in film history.
The Standard Low-Angle Shot
Low-angle shots frame characters from below the waistline looking upward. This type of shot carries with it a very specific visual language to the audience. The best use of a low-angle shot is to utilize it in enhancing the audience’s perception of your character or characters. This enhancement can be for good or bad, as we’ll discuss.
Image: From The Invisible Man via Universal Pictures.
As seen above, the visual language of a low-angle shot is to convey to the audience that the character is either heroic, strong, or domineering. While most low-angle shots are framed in a medium shot, there are instances of filmmakers using wide or close-ups as well. For this shot from 1933’s The Invisible Man, director James Whale uses the low-angle shot to show Dr. Griffin at the height of his insanity, thus the visual language tells us that he’s a domineering or imposing force.
When capturing a low-angle shot, it’s best to use a wider angle lens. Using a lens like this will help you capture the visual information surrounding the characters in the frame. It also helps to make the character seem bigger than they really are.
Image: From Inglorious Basterds via The Weinstein Company.
Great examples of using a wide-angle lens in a low-angle shot are hidden away in every Quentin Tarantino film. He actually uses the low-angle shot so much that it’s been nicknamed to reflect the way he usually uses it: the “trunk shot.” This name comes from the famous shot in Reservoir Dogs where Mr. White, Mr. Pink and Mr. Blonde open the trunk of the car. Tarantino has been using this shot ever sense. One of the best uses of this type of low-angle shot was in 2009’s Inglourious Basterds.
In this scene, Brad Pitt and Eli Roth are kneeling over an unseen Nazi solider into whose forehead they’ve just carved a swastika. While these two characters can be seen as heroes in the film, Tarantino frames them in a domineering way in this shot, reenforcing their strength to the audience.
Image: From The Avengers via Marvel Studios.
Perhaps no film genre uses the low-angle shot more than superhero films. You could essentially call the low-angle shot the “hero shot” and people would know exactly what you were talking about. While we usually get several individual hero shots during a filme like The Avengers, we also get a medium low-angle shot of the entire ensemble as seen above.
The Low-Angle Wide Shot
Just like the medium shot, low-angles can also be used with wide framing. Many directors have used this technique, but usually in conjunction with some sort of dolly or tracking shot. The meaning behind taking such a wide view is to present the audience with the world around the hero or villain in the shot.
Image: From Psycho via Paramount Pictures.
Alfred Hitchcock used the low-angle shot to highlight the demonstrative presence of the Bates home in the 1960 film Psycho. This works so well in this film that the house is almost a character unto itself.
Image: From The Dark Knight via Warner Bros.
Low-angle shots don’t always have to be stationary. In the 2008 film The Dark Knight, director Christopher Nolan and cinematographer Wally Pfister use the low-angle quite often when showing the Joker. For the sequence when the Joker and Batman face off on the streets of Gotham, Nolan and Pfister chose to keep the camera angle low. Then they tracked toward and past the Joker as Batman drives by. They mirrored this with a low-angle parallax of the Joker turning. This type of shot is incredibly powerful and cinematically amazing to watch.
The Low-Angle Close-Up
Another widely used low-angle framing method is the close-up. Close-ups are used just as they are in the standard medium shot, to give the audience a sense of dramatic tension or to add importance to the character in the frame.
A unique way of using the low-angle close-up was in Stanley Kubrick‘s 1980 film The Shining. During the pantry scene, Jack is beginning to let the hotel and its forces turn him against his family. Sensing this, his wife Wendy locks him in the pantry. In a brilliant move, Kubrick took the camera and sat it on the floor and framed the low-angle shot in such a way that Jack nearly fills the frame while hovering over the audience. His dominate and dangerous nature is completely evident to the audience.
Paul Thomas Anderson used a more conventional approach for this low-angle shot in the 2007’s There Will Be Blood. Trying to get in the good graces of the township, Daniel Plainview attends a church service and goes to the front to confess his sins to the congregation. Anderson uses this low-angle shot to show two dominate forces in the narrative. First we see Daniel, framed low and looking like the overbearing individual he’s been thus far. Additionally, after being convinced to repent of his sins, Daniel rests below the cross behind him as Eli humiliates him in front of the congregation.
Lastly let’s look at another close-up, but this time one with movement. In this scene from the 1985 film The Color Purple, director Steven Spielberg uses the low-angle shot with a parallax to show a transition in the film. Throughout the film, Celie had been the subordinate to her abusive husband. However, when she grows in strength and decides to leave him, she stands tall above him. This was a great choice by Spielberg. It clearly showed the audience that she was the hero of the narrative.
Are there any other directors who use the low-angle shot perfectly? What are your favorite low-angle shots? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.