Discover the high angle shot in filmmaking.
Amp up the drama with tips on why, when, and how to use high angle shots.
Even if you’re just a film afficionado (as opposed to an “auteur”), you probably still know that every film (and video) is made up of many different types of shots and for many different reasons — not the least of which is how those shots affect the viewer’s perception. But for specific angles, like the high angle shot, it’s not quite as simple as just pointing the camera at the action unfolding below and expecting the audience to get the method beyond the camera madness. There’s definitely more technique to the art of high angle filmmaking than just to “point and shoot.”
From the personnel and camera equipment you might need to the feelings you want to evoke, let’s explore the high angle shot, what it is, and how you can use it to tell your story in more dramatic (or even comedic) ways.
What is a high angle shot anyway?
At its simplest, a high angle shot is a filming technique where the camera looks down at the subject from above. When you see someone or something from a higher perspective, it makes the subject seem smaller — both literally and metaphorically — which can result in different outcomes for the audience.
Depending on the context of the story you’re telling, the high angle shot can elicit a range of emotions, from vulnerability and fear to tension and danger. High angle shots can also be a film device that supports the plot, drives the story, establishes a scene, and presents a big narrative scale. For example, they can show the size of a crowd, like the sweeping high angle view of the people-packed Roman Coliseum in Ben Hur. Or in the post-apocalyptic Mad Max films, an over-the-shoulder high angle shot that shows how far a character must travel as they face down the dusty, empty expanse of the road ahead.
Filmmakers don’t always use high angle shots in the same way or film for the same kinds of effect — so how do they choose which different shot to use? There are three basic types of high angle scenarios:
The narrative high angle: Often used in battle sequences or to capture a broad, far-reaching view, this high angle shot gives the viewer a lot of visual information. It can establish scale, offer context to a scene, and is often shot in a shallow depth of field. Orson Welles used the narrative high angle in Citizen Kane to show how large the newspaper business was and how powerless one person is when set against it.
The visceral high angle: Directors use this high angle shot to get the viewer to feel something — often what the character is feeling, regardless of the specific emotion. This kind of shot can simulate terror if the character is afraid of falling or is teetering on the edge of falling like in Hitchcock’s Vertigo. At times, directors will shoot scenes from extreme angles to convey a sense of tension. The visceral high angle that James Cameron uses to shoot Rose as she looks up before boarding the ship in Titanic shows she has no say in her life nor any control over it.
The character-driven high angle: If you want to show a character’s vulnerability in relation to either their environment or the characters around them, the character-driven high angle works best. For example, in Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets, Chris Columbus shoots the character of Dobby from a high angle to show both the house elf’s small physical size and how people (in this case, the Malfoy family he serves) look down upon him.
Create a high angle shot list.
High angle shots can take a lot of planning and preparation to film. There’s both equipment and camera direction involved. Create a shot list with detailed notes for yourself or, if it’s a bigger project, for your Director of Photography, and include some of the following specifics:
- Equipment: Should you use cranes, sticks, and camera drones to capture high angles?
- Camera setup: Do you want to shoot in full, foreground, or background focus? What about camera depth of field?
- Location: Can you use what already exists in the environment — looking down from a building’s stairwell or a balcony? On top of a hill filming the subjects below?
Be specific with the notes in your shot list but remember high angle shots don’t always have to follow the narrative, visceral, or character-driven rules. Some high angle shots were designed to confuse the viewer instead of informing them. This is particularly evident in Stanley Kubrick’s groundbreaking film 2001: A Space Odyssey.
High angle shots: How the pros do it.
In fact, Kubrick was known for flipping the filmmaking script in general. For example, he used the high angle shot to actually subvert power (rather than instill it) in The Shining. In the scene where Jack is threatening a terrified Wendy as she backs up the stairs, swiping a bat to keep him away, the camera angle doesn’t align with our expectations. The camera may be capturing Wendy looking “down” at Jack, but he looks bigger and more powerful than she in that moment. At the same time, despite his menacing from below, Kubrick’s high angle shot places Wendy in a superior physical position above him, in fact foreshadowing the power she regains at the end of the film. The shot serves a dual purpose and is another example of his filmmaking genius.
For more examples of high angle shots, consider the classic films of Alfred Hitchcock. He used the technique to great effect in practically all his films. In Psycho, when (spoiler alert) Norman Bates kills investigator Arbogast, Hitchcock uses a high angle shot to show how powerless Arbogast is. And throughout The Lord of the Rings trilogy, we get several high angle views of the movies’ epic battles. Here, seeing the vast armies clashing lets the viewer appreciate the immense scale of the conflict.
But don’t think that high angle shots are always about instilling fear, terror, or tension — they can also show triumph. In Frank Darabont’s masterpiece, Shawshank Redemption, Andy Dufresne, after being bullied by inmates, guards, and the warden throughout the film, is shot from a high angle. As he finally escapes prison, the rain washes over him and he throws his hands up in triumph. Capturing the character from this high angle emphasizes that although he’s small in the world’s eyes, he’s big enough to win his freedom.
Consider the final effect.
Certainly, a high angle in comedy — think Wesley in The Princess Bride frantically climbing up the mountain as his first act nemesis, Inigo Montoya, stares down at him in boredom — will have a different effect and meaning than a high angle in horror. It's all about context. And using them in the right place and in the right time.
So, use high angle shots sparingly to retain their impact. With Adobe Premiere Pro, you can easily trim and arrange your shots so that each camera angle works to its full potential. Discover even more video editing tips that can up your filmmaking game.
Explore everything you can do with Premiere Pro to create stunning films and videos today.