In a nutshell
- The high-angle shot is an overhead shot that looks down at the subject.
- Types of high-angle shots include narrative, visceral and character-driven.
- A high-angle shot can establish a location and communicate many emotions, such as unease, anxiety, thrill, tension, fear, disorientation and/or danger.
When making a film — a short piece or an epic feature — it’s logical to use a variety of shots to make it more interesting. But knowing when to use a certain shot to better tell your story or elicit a specific emotion better serves your needs than randomly peppering your film with different angles. In this article, we will examine the high-angle shot and when and why you might use it.
The high-angle shot defined
The high-angle shot has many names: bird’s eye view, overhead shot, god’s view, top-down and above shot. Though each has different executions and effects, all have one thing in common: The camera angles down at the subject.
There are three widely-recognized motivations — or types — of high-angle shots. These are the narrative, the visceral and the character-driven.
Let’s break them down.
You’ve seen the narrative high-shot countless times. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find a film that doesn’t use it at least once. This shot establishes the layout of a landscape or the size of a crowd. This high-angle shot provides a wider view of a space or setting.
“The Lord of the Rings” trilogy (2001 – 2003) uses this technique. In “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers” (2002), the film uses a high shot to show an army of trees (known as Ents) attacking Saruman’s fortress of Isengard. The film uses another high-angle shot to show orcs, Uruk-hai and the Men of Dunland laying siege to the stronghold of Hornburg.
In “The Matrix” (1999), rebel leader Morpheus explains the Matrix to Neo. The camera starts at eye level while the two walk down the sidewalk of a crowded city street. When Neo is distracted by a woman in a red dress, Morpheus freezes the scene in what we learn is a simulation. Following the freeze, the camera cuts to a narrative high-angle shot. This shot shows a street crowded with people dressed in black and white business attire, starkly contrasting the woman’s red dress.
The narrative high-angle doesn’t only reveal the scale of a location or mass of people. It’s also popular with programs like cooking shows. Here a camera is placed directly above the prepared food. This gives the viewer a birds-eye view of all the ingredients and cooking utensils.
This is another high-angle shot we know you’ve seen and most likely felt. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines visceral as “felt in or as if in the internal organs of the body … not intellectual.” Filmmakers use the visceral high-angle shot to draw the viewer into the action. This makes them feel as if they have vertigo, a sense of unease, anxiety, thrill, tension, fear, disorientation and/or a feeling of danger.
Alfred Hitchcock is well-known for his use of the visceral high-angle shot. To experience his use of the technique, look no further than the aptly named “Vertigo” (1958). Hitchcock and his cameraman, Irmin Roberts, invented what we now call the vertigo shot, the Hitchcock shot or the dolly zoom.
This effect is achieved by moving the camera forward or backward from its subject while zooming in the opposite direction at the same time. This creates the illusion that everything around the subject is moving while the subject remains motionless. The effect later appears in “Raging Bull” (1980), “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial” (1982) and “Goodfellas” (1990) — just to name a few.
As often as the dolly zoom has been used, it’s not the only example of a visceral shot. Let’s return to “The Matrix.” Early in the film, before Neo knows anything about the Matrix, Morpheus instructs him to climb out of a skyscraper’s window onto some scaffolding. While on a ledge, Neo looks down twice. The viewer sees what Neo sees: giving them a sense of extreme danger and fear of heights.
We share this feeling of uneasiness and anxiety from Neo’s point of view, bringing us intimately into the story. The visceral high-angle shot creates an emotional connection for the viewer. It makes us feel like we are part of the scene.
A high-angle shot that looks down on a character often gives the impression that the character is small. By physically making the character look smaller in the shot, they appear weaker, more vulnerable, pathetic, diminished, submissive, depressed or helpless.
To pull this off, the camera only needs to be ever-so-slightly above the character’s eyes. This technique, to make a character seem puny, less powerful or of lower status, shows up in film more than the two previously mentioned high-angle shots. In its most subtle use, it’s barely detectable.
Or it can be more obvious. Toward the end of Spike Lee’s “Do The Right Thing” (1989), Radio Raheem enters Sal’s Famous Pizzeria. The shot frames Radio Raheem from a low angle to show his power.
Meanwhile, Lee shoots Sal from a high angle to show his vulnerability. Their verbal spat turns into a physical confrontation that spills out into the street. The camera then cranes up to show the crowd and the Bedford–Stuyvesant block in Brooklyn. Thus, the character-driven and the narrative high angle appear in the same scene.
Another example has become a trope in film and animation: the skyward scream. A character looks to the sky, sometimes falls to their knees and yells something such as, “Nooooooooo!” Meanwhile, the camera rises to the heavens, sometimes spinning slightly. One of the most famous examples involves Andy Dufresne in Frank Darabont’s very popular “The Shawshank Redemption” (1994). Andy escapes from prison through a tunnel filled with human waste. Once free, he rips off his shirt, raises his arms to the sky and as raindrops fall on him, the camera rises to the sky.
This technique also appears in Elia Kazan’s “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1951), in the famous Stella scene. In Gore Verbinski’s “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” (2006), octopus-faced Davy Jones looks to the sky and yells, “Damn you, Jack Sparrow!” after he realizes Sparrow has stolen Davy Jones’ heart.
Achieving the high-angle shot can be as simple as raising your camera on a tripod above a character’s eye level. It can be as complicated as using a helicopter — although the latter is often accomplished these days with an affordable drone. Jib arms or cranes are other options. Or, if budgets are tight, the top of a staircase, a second-floor landing, a balcony or a rooftop will do the trick. Safety first, of course — but get creative on how to get your camera above the action.
The high-angle shot adds variety to the shots that make up your film. Using the high-angle shot to strengthen your story or amplify the drama will not only improve the look and feel of your creation but can be the difference between a good story and a great one.