What is a low angle shot in film?

Learn about low-angle shots in film and how they enhance power dynamics and vulnerability. Discover how low-angle shots are used in iconic movies.

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A low-angle shot of a woman with a gray long-sleeved running shirt throwing confetti against a clear blue sky.

Understanding low-angle shots.

World Wrestling Federation crews liked to shoot André the Giant from the lowest possible angle to make him look taller. The pro wrestling legend clocked in at 7 feet 4 inches, but the camera crews were just helping give WWF — and André’s multitude of fans — their money’s worth.

Low-angle shots make a subject appear to be larger, wider, taller, and closer. That’s the same perceptual trick used by filmmakers all the time to make monsters look scarier, heroes (or villains) more powerful, and victims even more vulnerable.

What is a low-angle shot?

A low-angle shot is a film shot taken from a camera angle positioned below the average eye line and pointing up. Low-angle views can be used in conjunction with wide shots, medium shots, close-ups, and most other standard cinematic shots.

These shots are typically taken at about 45 degrees, but they can vary from just a few inches below a subject’s eye line all the way to the ground. A low-angle shot taken from below the knee is called an extreme low-angle shot.

Directors use camera angles, along with film editing, to give a subtle (or not-so-subtle) psychological nudge to the way we view their characters. Low-angle shots can predispose us to see them as weak or strong, dominant or vulnerable.

Low-angle shots convey power.

Most of the time, filmmakers use low-angle views to enhance the top end of a power dynamic — to make the hero, villain, or monster seem taller, bigger, stronger, more powerful, or intimidating.

Things that go bump in the night.

To understand the power of low-angle shots, we can start with King Kong climbing the Empire State Building (1933) or Godzilla stomping through the streets of Tokyo (1954). These science fiction classics made a huge impression on directors like Steven Spielberg, who credited Godzilla as an important model for the cinematography in Jurassic Park and Jaws (the film has also been cited as an inspiration by Martin Scorsese and Tim Burton).

Or we can go back even further to Nosferatu (1922). The low camera angles featured in this German horror masterpiece, and later in The Invisible Man (1933), helped set the visual template for Dracula and Frankenstein (1931), The Wolf Man (1941), Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), The Mummy (1959), and all the other monster movies that would follow.

This template is a direct line to modern horror films, where human monsters like psychopaths and serial killers are nearly always given the low-angle treatment. (Which conveniently does double duty since it has the added benefit of making audiences feel even more vulnerable — see below.)

Heroes and villains.

It’s no accident that our first glimpse of Darth Vader stalking down the corridors of the Death Star in A New Hope is shot sharply from below. As a finishing touch to the overall menace already created by his costume and voice, the low-angle view makes Vader even more dominant and frightening. In fact, this shot is so much a part of his character that it’s consistently maintained through all his appearances in the Star Wars franchise.

Since low angles are all about power relationships, we can expect to see lots of them in action movies full of fight scenes and battles, especially when there are prominent heroes like Gladiator, Braveheart, or Rambo. We’re also accustomed to seeing our superheroes as literally larger than life, whether it’s Superman, Wonder Woman, Black Panther, or the assorted crew of the MCU.

Christopher Nolan upends audience expectations by throwing a joker in the deck — literally — when he gives the superhero treatment to a villain in The Dark Knight. Nolan uses a series of extreme low-angle shots to invest the Joker with an image nearly as powerful as Batman’s. In the scene where his getaway truck flips over, for example, he comes out shooting — not only crazed but seemingly invincible.

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Low-angle shots can also convey vulnerability.

The flip side of power is vulnerability. Low-angle views are surprisingly versatile and equally effective at painting things from the victim’s point of view, effectively putting us in their shoes.

“Sir, yes SIR!”

A different Joker is more vulnerable in Full Metal Jacket, as Pvt. Joker enjoys the full attention of a drill instructor at Marine boot camp. Actor R. Lee Ermey (an actual former U.S. Marine D.I.) won fame for this hyper-realistic portrayal of the abusive Gunnery Sergeant Hartman. He got an additional assist — not that he needed it — from Stanley Kubrick’s crew. The camera sinks lower and lower, shooting up at Hartman as he towers over the unfortunate recruit, and Joker (Matthew Modine) shrinks away.

Vulnerability in films can be highly dramatic, and low camera angles help accentuate the drama. The subject might be a potential victim in great danger, as in every horror film ever. It could be an actual victim, as in every war movie ever. (In all those majestic fight scenes and battles, for every hero or superhero that’s winning, somebody has to lose.) Or it could just be anybody coming out on the wrong end of a power dynamic.

Trading places.

Children could be seen as perpetually powerless. They spend the first part of their lives, after all, looking up at everything. It’s hardly surprising that a movie about them would be full of low-angle views. If anything, the cinematography in kid-centric films like Matilda and Moonrise Kingdom often elevates the adults in the frame to further exaggerate that perspective.

John Hughes turned those conventions on end with Home Alone. Kevin McCallister, accidentally left behind when his family travels to Paris for Christmas vacation, is forced to defend their Chicago home against a pair of dastardly (if somewhat inept) burglars. The film mixes and matches camera angles to keep pace with the ups and downs of their extended duel. Although Kevin and his creative booby-traps finally triumph, there are plenty of low-angle shots where Harry and Marv have him in a tight spot and loom menacingly (if somewhat ineptly) above him.

Camera angles — high or low — don’t necessarily have to lock a character in. Game of Thrones regularly shifted camera angles for its major players, depending on their fortunes in the power hierarchy at any given time. Breaking Bad began with consistently low-angle shots that helped portray Walter White as weak and fatally ill. The shots gradually elevated as the story arc evolved and White transitioned to a strong, powerful character.

And low-angle shots aren’t reserved for characters alone. They can be used effectively with places, too, as establishing shots or to help create a desired tone. Think of the hulking Bates mansion in Psycho, for example. Its frequent depiction in wide low-angle shots made the mansion a character of its own, helping set an ominous undertone for the film even as it established the physical setting. (This creepy vibe worked so well it was reprised in the Bates Motel TV sequel.)

A low-angle shot depicts looking up into a rectangular blue sky between four dark brown building walls with windows.

How low can you go?

Some directors are famous for their low-angle and extreme low-angle shots.

Quentin Tarantino has a virtual patent on the “view from the trunk,” whether it’s hitmen Vincent and Jules reaching into a trunk for their weapons (Pulp Fiction) or somebody actually in the trunk looking up at the protagonists (Reservoir Dogs).

Michael Bay came up with a spin on low-angle shots so unique that it’s named after him. The “Michael Bay 360 Shot,” first seen in Bad Boys, is a slow, circular camera movement from a lower angle that usually coincides with a yikes moment when the characters suddenly realize they’re in too deep.

But it’s likely that Orson Welles will always be the king of low angles. Touch of Evil and The Lady from Shanghai are both notable for these shots, but a different movie single-handedly gives him the crown. Citizen Kane is classified as possibly the greatest American film ever made. It has also been described as “the film with the most shots of a ceiling” due to the enormous number of low-angle views. Throughout the movie, we see Kane shot from below, a portrait of uncontrolled ambition reveling in power.

There’s at least one scene, with Leland after Kane’s defeat in the election, that is shot entirely in low-angle view. Still, even the most extreme low-angle shots weren’t enough to satisfy Welles. He famously cut an actual hole in the studio floorboards so the camera could dive even deeper until he finally got the perspective he was after.

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