What is an eye level shot in film?

This common shot is a go-to for filmmaking and beyond. Learn why.

The eye level shot tends to fly under the radar. It’s not flashy — it never shouts for your attention — but it’s one of the most basic and widely used shots in film, TV, and video production.

What is the eye level shot?

The eye level shot is exactly what it sounds like: the cinematographer positions the camera angle directly at the eye level of the character. The subject is usually captured from the knees to the head, with very little surrounding context. Rather than dramatizing a scene or manipulating the audience’s perspective, this type of shot represents the normal human viewpoint. As a result, it puts the audience right in the middle of the scene.

Because they match our natural perspective, eye level angles are especially useful for initial framing of a shot. (A frame is a single image of film or video. “Framing a shot” involves composing the visual content of a series of frames as seen through the lens. This includes how the actors are blocked, how they move through the scene, the set design, the background scenery — every element that the camera sees.) Initial framing can be thought of as defining the initial setup of a scene, before the action kicks into gear or the drama begins to unfold.

Shooting from a natural viewpoint also makes the most sense for filming many scenes in their entirety. It’s a no-brainer standard setup for lots of boilerplate film and TV scenes. It’s also the shot of choice for any largely static situation, like talking heads on cable news or most YouTube videos.

In fact, we’re literally surrounded by these shots. Virtually every movie and TV show is full of them, but we hardly notice. Most of the time, that’s exactly the point. But eye level shots aren’t just the #2 screwdriver in the cinematographer’s toolbox. They have some special qualities of their own.

The neutral eye.

The eye level perspective is, above all else, a neutral eye. Unlike a low-angle camera shot that literally looks up to its subject — or a high-angle shot meant to take that power away — the eye level shot gives viewers a sense of equality.

This “one of the gang” effect can help audiences engage with a character. In a movie like The Hunger Games, for example, the director could easily have used the standard low-angle treatment to depict Katniss as a larger-than-life superhero. Instead, the abundant use of eye level shots puts us right there with her as she draws the bow, fully prepared to join her rebel army.

(Sometimes directors will go with a compromise approach, throwing shoulder or hip angles into the mix along with true eye level shots, increasing or decreasing a character’s stature just slightly in order to reflect the complex power relationships at play — see most any episode of Game of Thrones.)

Directors use camera angles strategically as a way to exert creative control over the storytelling. They can shape a narrative with high or low angles that subtly direct the audience to feel either superior or inferior to a character, either connected or alienated.

Of course, using a neutral camera angle is a strategic creative choice as well. When a filmmaker presents “reality” in a neutral way, without obviously distorting the perspective, it’s easier for an audience to suspend judgment and wait to see how events will unfold.

And, when the audience is allowed to observe the action objectively and make up their own minds about what’s going on, it gives the director a little extra time to introduce even deeply unsympathetic characters. (For an extreme example, watch the opening scenes of American Psycho.)

But neutrality isn’t only a creative choice — sometimes it’s a necessity. The neutral perspective is essential when the filmmaker really does need to be impartial. That’s why the eye level camera angle is the most common way to shoot straightforward, factual presentations of information (as at a press conference) or to preserve objectivity in an interview situation (as in filming a documentary).

Breaking down the fourth wall.

Neutrality isn’t the only benefit of eye level shots, though. The familiar perspective can also play an important role in dissolving barriers between the viewer and the story.

Encountering a character at eye level, on an equal plane, builds empathy because it creates a connection between the character and the viewer. This helps humanize unsympathetic subjects — even psychos and serial killers stand an outside chance of being understood. (Insert your personal horror favorite here.)

The bond becomes even stronger with “normal” characters, of course. Eye level shots have the effect of pulling us directly into a character’s point of view. We are in their heads, almost literally. This provides an intimate perspective as the action unfolds. Emotions are more immediate and intense when you are face to face with a character, and the action feels like it’s moving even faster when you’re surfing an eye-level adrenaline rush.

And the bonding is only enhanced when the viewer is dropped into a whimsical rom-com like Amélie. We become ever more emotionally vested as we follow the shy Parisian waitress and her quest for love in this film that won wide critical acclaim for its cinematography. When you share the main character’s point of view in such intimate camera shots, you’re right there with Amélie in Montmartre, fully immersed.

The eyes have it.

You would be hard pressed to make a film without at least a few eye level shots. But try cultivating an appreciation for this overlooked staple of cinematography. Notice how often eye level shots appear in the next movie or TV show you watch and think about how they’re being used.

Or consider the example of filmmaker John Krasinski, who spent nine seasons playing Jim on The Office. You might think that over 200 episodes of a TV sitcom, with its recurring character interactions and constrained interior set, would put him off everyday camera angles forever. (Although the mockumentary format made it plausible for just one camera to capture all the action at Dunder Mifflin, and the show did win two Emmys for Single-Camera Picture Editing.)

Instead, when Krasinski got the chance to call his own shots, he chose to make eye levels prominent in both A Quiet Place features.

Clearly, the eyes have it.

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