As one of the most liberally used and versatile shots in all of cinema, high-angle shots — simply taken when a camera points down — can be barely perceptible or eye-catching, ineffective or sublime, tight or wide. Sometimes, high angle shots just look cool and are devoid of narrative purpose. Other times, as a new StudioBinder video essay illustrates, the most impactful high-angle shots may perform three primary functions: provide valuable world-building context, elicit visceral responses, or reveal information about a character’s inner turmoil or vulnerability.
Watch the eloquent and insightful video below.
A high-angle shot’s first function — deepening a film’s narrative — is ubiquitously evoked in big-budget fantasy or sci-films, from Black Panther to The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. Usually produced with a crane or drone sweeping over a vast landscape or large crowd, these high-angle shots rely on visual storytelling to efficiently establish context for subsequent scenes. From above, we simply see more of the film’s spectacle and onscreen world, what does it look like, who occupies it, what can be found there?
Secondly, a high-angle shot can provoke a visceral thrill within a viewer. Whether rendered via an “overhead shot” or a “straight down shot,” these anxiety-inducing shots inject feelings of vertigo and palpable tension.
By design, most high-angle shots, even if they’re subtle and tightly-framed, result in a character appearing small or weak in relation to their surroundings. A high-angle shot can, therefore, illuminate a character’s vulnerability and, in turn, generate our empathy for them. These character-driven shots often combine elements of the aforementioned narrative and visceral high-angle shots. In other words, character-driven shots visually contextualize the character in a weak, vulnerable, or powerless position in the narrative. They can also be so arresting or emotionally overwhelming, we can’t help but connect with their upheaval or fear for their safety.
The StudioBinder video essay also notes how Alfred Hitchcock often depended on character-driven high-angle shots to heighten a scene’s narrative and emotion. The revered filmmaker positioned the camera above characters to signal their imminent descent into dangerous or fatal situations. Indeed, the infamous “shower scene” in Psycho, wherein Janet Leigh’s Marion gets murdered by an anonymous attacker, uses a high-angle shot and frames Marion in the lower right corner moments before her shocking death. Literally naked and baring herself to the audience, Marion is already at her peak vulnerability, which becomes all the more amplified by her powerless position in this shot. The shower curtain obscures the unidentified figure, yet he visually overpowers Marion, thereby further indicating her helplessness. We want Marion to escape, but we know it’s too late. In all of high angle shots in cinema, it’s difficult to think of one that screams “DANGER” as unnervingly and viscerally as the one employed here.
Notably, high-angle shots dominate Andrzej Żuławski’s unfinished, enigmatic sci-fi opus, On the Silver Globe. With crane shots gliding over landscapes, battlefields, and beaches, Żuławski’s high-angle shots often enhance a scene’s narrative, though several shots enrich both the narrative and the characters’ trials and tribulations. In one shot, the camera lingers on Marek and his surrounding Moon People followers. Equipped with spears and other weapons, the men prepare for combat against their mortal enemies, the Sherns, telepathic bird-creatures.
The high-angle narratively establishes the upcoming battle between the Moon People and the Sherns, but the shot also condemns and looks down on Marek and his followers’ penchant for violence and human exceptionalism. The Moon People worship Marek as the divine savior of their planet, yet Marek knows he cannot save them, as suggested by his relatively disempowered position in the frame. Marek may stand slightly above the Moon People — both literally in the frame and metaphorically as their supposed messiah — but the Moon People, as a unit, cast a more formidable, looming presence in the shoot. As a result, the high-angle shot invokes the futility of Marek’s enabling of the Moon People’s pagan corruptibility, as well as his own imminent downfall.
The cathartic ending of Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas also demonstrates how high angles can support a narrative and prompt an empathy for characters. As Hunter (Hunter Carson) reunites with his mom, Jane (Nastassja Kinski), in a hotel Travis (the truly incomparable Harry Dean Stanton) waits outside on a rooftop of a nearby garage. Drenched in hazy green lighting, the high-angle shot looks down as Travis approaches his car and drives away from his family.
The shot emphasizes Travis’s frank aloneness and vulnerability; there is not another car or person in sight. Narratively, the high-angle shot communicates Travis’s willingness to physically isolate himself from the family he loves. Travis recognizes how his toxicity has impacted Hunter and Jane and decides to let them live happily without the baggage — and abiding remnants — of his self-destructive, abusive past. The high-angle shot conveys Travis’s noble emotional maturity; even though we despise seeing him so alone, we admire his choice to continue his life as the solitary nomad we saw at the beginning of the film.
While tons of high angle shots certainly look great, many of them uphold legitimate character-driven and narrative purpose. As we have seen with Psycho, On the Silver Globe, and Paris, Texas, high-angle shots remain one of the most flexible, meaningful, and towering cinematic techniques a filmmaker can employ.