How filmmakers manipulate our emotions using camera angles and movement

There are many things that make a good film: A great story. Brilliant acting. Fantastic lighting.

But one thing many people forget to pay attention to, especially those new to filmmaking, is camera movements and angles.

In particular, how camera movements and angles make the audience feel.

Can we do that? Turns out, yes! You can change the feeling of a scene by changing the camera angle or the way it moves.

Now before we jump in, if you don’t know much about camera movements and angles, read the 15 essential camera shots and movements and then come back here.

Ready? Let’s look at the most common camera movements and angles used in movie scenes, and what how these movements and angles manipulate our emotions.

Pan and tilt

These are two of the most common camera movements that you will want to get acquainted with. You can use a tripod to achieve these.

These two camera movements are often used to reveal aspects of a scene such as the landscape or a character or a living room that just got trashed by a mob of thieves.

The effect of the pan and tilt is most often to guide our eyes and attention towards a certain aspect of the scene. Because it’s often revelatory in nature, it tends to build a certain kind of anticipation in us as we subconsciously ask ourselves “What’s about to happen?”

Another common way these two movements are used is to follow characters moving through as scene. This can also be achieved by tracking, which we’ll talk more about later.

Following our characters through a scene can have two effects:

  1. It can make us feel like we’re part of the scene, especially if there are multiple characters having an important dialogue.
  2. It can give us a fly on the wall, voyeuristic feeling, like we’re sort of eavesdropping on the scene. This is especially true if the camera is placed in a way that there are some foreground elements between us and the character. This makes us feel like we’re hiding and watching something we shouldn’t be watching.

The first is more organic, we shouldn’t feel the camera move. The second is more mechanical. Imagine how a CCTV camera moves, following a subject.

The speed of the pan or tilt of camera also has an effect on how we feel about a scene.

A slow tilt up from a characters face towards the sky for example can give us a sense of relief, especially when done after an intense scene that has been resolved.

Conversely, a quick pan left or right (commonly known as a whip-pan) can give us a sense of urgency or excitement, kind of like when we’re hear a loud noise in real life and quickly snap our gaze towards the direction of the noise.

Exclusive Bonus: Download my free guide (with examples) on how to find the best camera angles for dialogue scenes when your mind goes blank.

Tracking, Dolly, and Crane shots

These are, in a nutshell, shots where you physically move the camera through the scene.

Tracking shots normally move the camera side to side following the movement of characters through a scene. Dolly shots move the camera front and back, while crane shots move the camera up and down.

Now you might be tempted to think the pan and tilt do the same thing as the track and crane, but in reality they have two very different effects on the picture. The difference can be subtle, or great.

Tracking shots are most often used when following a specific action in a scene, say a chef walking through his restaurant to the kitchen then out onto the street, or a drug dealer running through a building as he tries to hide from the cops. This makes us feel like we’re a part of the scene and are active participants in the story together with the actors.

We can’t use a pan here because we want to maintain the same shot size. With a pan the camera stays in the same place, so the character becomes larger as he/she approaches camera and then smaller again as he/she leaves us.

With a tracking shot, you can maintain the same shot size as you laterally follow the character.

Dolly shots typically move us toward or away from a character, most commonly when they are stationary during a dialogue scene. Occasionally dolly shots can also move around a character.

A lot of the time this draws in closer to what the dialogue is about, and very often pulls us into the emotional state of the character. For example, a slow dolly into a distraught woman staring at the floor while she talks about her late husband’s abusive nature will pull us into her emotional state and make us more empathetic to her plight than if the camera was locked off in a long shot.

Crane shots are often used to help us understand the setting better. Its best coupled with great production design to tell a story. For example, if the camera is craned upwards right after a car crash, the shocking impact of the scene is greatly magnified as more the the crash is brought into frame.

On the other hand, we could start with the camera up high above the same crash site and have the camera crane down onto a paramedic fresh out of college looking in disbelief at the horror of the scene, which in turn will tune us in to what they may be feeling at that point.

A lot of the time, the camera operator (the person in charge of moving the camera) will use multiple moves at the same time. You can dolly, track, crane, pan and tilt all in one shot.

Here’s an example of me designing a single shot which contains multiple movements all within the same long shot:

Tracking, dolly and crane shots can be achieved with different tools from gimbals and drones to professional dollies or sliders to cranes and jibs, and even some DIY versions like wheelchairs and roller blades. Your choice of equipment will largely depend on your budget, but you should also consider the story when making your choice.

For example, using a gimbal to track a foot chase scene could be an option. However the result would be smooth footage in what is otherwise supposed to be an intense scene.

Depending on the story, it might be a good idea to ditch the gimbal and go handheld with the camera instead. The added shake to the camera will help to magnify the intensity of the scene and thus heighten the audience’s sense of excitement and danger. Or, it might be too much shake, in which case a gimbal or a Steadicam might be used.

Each of these tools gives a different feel to the scene. They are like paint brushes. The one you use is a matter of taste as much as function.

In addition to the tools you use, the speed of the camera movement will have a massive impact on the feeling of the scene. Slowly tracking a character through a woodland on a sunny day will give us the feeling that the character is exploring the environment, thus give us a sense of wonder and curiosity.

On the other hand tracking the same character running through the same woodland at twilight can give us a sense of trepidation as we feel that the character is being chased by someone or something and is trying to survive.

The Zoom

The zoom is an effect produced by a zoom lens. The frame itself is “moved” by adjusting the focal length of the lens through the duration of the shot.

Take note that the zoom is different from the dolly shot in that the dolly physically moves the camera towards or away from the character, which changes the perspective.

With a zoom, the perspective doesn’t change. It’s as if you were standing in the same place but just with a pair of binoculars.

A zoom magnifies what’s in focus, most commonly the character, without changing the perspective of what’s in the frame. It does, however, compress the background, which serves to pull your eyes even closer into the subject.

A zoom used in a scene can have different effects on the audience.

On one hand it can magnify the size of the character in the scene, making them seem more powerful or ominous, depending of course on how the character has been scripted. On the other hand, the compression effect of the zoom and make it feel like the world is closing in on them, making us feel trapped and claustrophobic.

The zoom can also draw us into the feelings of a character by focusing in on their expression and isolating it from the scene. Naturally this has to be cleverly cut to match the previous action of the story, but it generally does a fantastic job of helping us empathize with the character at that moment in the story.

If you speed up a zoom (what’s called a snap zoom), you can quickly change the perspective of the frame and convey a different emotion. Many times this can be used for comedic effect, or simply to add some drama to a scene. It can also serve to heighten a feeling of shock or surprise, especially when you zoom from say a medium shot to a close-up with the actors eyes simultaneously widening in surprise.

A quick note. In some cases you can digitally zoom into a subject during post production to achieve these effects. However, this is usually only effective if you’re doing a slow zoom and for a short amount of time. You lose resolution and quality with digital zooms.

Static shot

What if the camera doesn’t need to move at all?

Sometimes the action in a scene is all that you need to tell the story, and adding any movement to it would be absolutely superfluous.

By keeping your camera locked off, you can guide the audience’s attention to focus on the specific action (or lack thereof if the script calls for it) as the story unfolds. This can help to intensify the feeling the audience is experiencing as their attention is drawn deeper into the action.

A simple long shot steady on a teenage girl curled up in bed sobbing can intensify a feeling of sadness or depression, or a steady medium close-up shot of a chef’s hands rapidly chopping up vibrant ingredients for a gourmet meal can increase the feeling of anticipation and excitement for the final meal that’s about to be served up.

You’ll find a lot of comedies using simple steady shots so the actors and do their thing. Adding movements here might get in the way of the laugh – and that would be disastrous.

Now let’s take a look at how angles contribute to manipulating feelings.

High and Low angles

These two angles probably have the most obvious effect on a film, as they are most commonly use to convey power vs inferiority.

Typically, in a scene, the character that is dominant or more powerful in a scene will be shot from a low angle, while characters that are in a position of inferiority are shot from a higher angle.

The effect of shooting at a higher or lower angle is to force the viewer to literally look up at the dominant character and look down at the inferior character.

Shooting up at a character makes them appear bigger, taller, and stronger, which psychologically makes them feel more dominant. Think back to when you were a child and you always looked up at your parents. You somehow always felt like they were larger than life and therefore superior to you. The same effect happens when you shoot up at a character.

Shooting down at a character has the exact opposite effect by making the character seem smaller and more diminutive, thus making them seem more inferior. Think of all the scenes you’ve watched where someone is being beaten up on the ground. The camera is almost always pointing down at them, making them seem much weaker in the moment.

An interesting way that these angles can be used is to switch their use between the characters. For example, imagine a scene where one mob boss is talking to another about territorial rights. Both bosses are sitting at a table, but the Boss A is shot at a slightly higher angle than Boss B.

However, at some point during the dialogue, the Boss B stands up and literally looks down at the Boss A, and the camera angles shift accordingly. This switch in angles between the two characters conveys a massive power shift in that moment that would then influence the rest of the story.

POV

POV, which in full stands for “Point of View”, places the camera in a way that shows us what the character in the scene is seeing.

The effect this has on us as the audience is we experience the scene from the perspective of that character, as we watch things unfold “right before his eyes”, so to speak.

This will cause us to empathize with the character and draw us deeper into the scene, thus heightening whatever emotion is in the scene, be it excitement or dread or calm.

Another less common POV to consider is that of secondary characters reacting to the main character in the scene. Sometimes the reaction of other characters in the scene is what we want the audience to experience, as it serves to heighten the importance of the main character in the scene. By seeing what the supporting characters are seeing, we get more insight into the nature of the main character.

You can watch this video analysis I did of the Joker’s Pencil trick to see this effect in action:

The Dutch angle

The dutch angle is a very stylistic choice where the camera is intentionally placed at an off-kilter angle during a scene. The horizon isn’t level, and is off by at least 30-degrees or more.

It gives a very obvious feeling that something in the scene is just off, giving us the audience a feeling of discomfort.

It’s very commonly used in thriller and horror scenes to show that something abnormal is about to happen (or is happening).

Another way it can be used is to bring us into the mental state of the character in that moment, particularly if the character is disoriented in one way or another. For example, imagine a character who’s high on some illegal drug and is now experiencing the terrible disorienting effects of that drug. We can use the dutch angle to skew the horizon of the scene such that either his point of view is skewed, or the character himself appears to be falling towards one direction in the frame.

The dutch angle can be used to varying degrees to achieve different effects. A very slight but noticeable tilt can make us feel like a scene should be normal, but something is just not quite right. On the flip side, a strong dutch angle makes it obvious that something is very very wrong, which can make us hold our breaths in dread as we watch the scene unfold.

Eye-level

Just like a static shot, sometimes shooting a scene at eye-level is the most basic but most important thing you can do to enhance emotions in a scene.

This is especially true when you need to convey feelings of calm or normalcy in a scene, such as during casual dialogue scenes or during the first act of a film.

Keeping the camera at eye-level can have especially have great impact when it’s followed immediately by any of the previous  angles and movements we’ve looked at, as it creates a jarring contrast that heightens our emotions all the more.

The simplicity of the eye-level shot is that it keeps everything looking normal, which you can definitely use to your advantage. A lot handheld cinematography gives us a sense of being there, like a documentary, and it is literally at eye level.

Tips

A few things to note keep in mind as you apply these ideas in your next film:

  1. Look for creative ways to combine them to achieve the specific emotion you need. They don’t have to be used in strict isolation.
  2. Pay attention to what’s in the frame. You foreground, middle ground and background matter as you move your camera and frame your image.
  3. Pay attention to lighting and sound. Great camera movements alone won’t evoke all the emotions you want to convey. How you combine them with light and sound also has a great impact on the emotion of a scene.
  4. Utilize speed. As we’ve seen previously, the speed of your camera movement has different effects on the emotions you evoke in the audience.
  5. And finally, make sure any camera movement of angle is motivated. Pay attention to the story, and use that as a guide to how the camera should behave. By being intentional in your camera angle and movement choices, you stand a much better chance of evoking the emotions you’re looking for in an audience.

That’s it for this quick look at how to manipulate emotions with camera angles and movements.

If you have any questions, let me know in the comments below.

Exclusive Bonus: Download my free guide (with examples) on how to find the best camera angles for dialogue scenes when your mind goes blank.

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