Cinematography: Composition and framing

The use of the frame is pivotal to a good film. A frame cannot simply be a representation of what’s in front of you. It must have three-dimensionality. It’s got to mean much more than what is shown on screen.

When composing and framing a shot, ask yourself:

  • How can I make this image more poetic?
  • How can I say more about the emotional state of that character in this film?

For example, in the film ‘An Education’ there’s a scene in which a girl is being driven by an older man. She finds him very exciting. He stops the car, gets out and goes across the road and sees a black family. She’s observing all of this.


This could have been shot very conventionally. But instead, it is shot in a more poetic and simple way. The scene is really about her and what she’s reflecting on, who this man is and what he is doing. The scene cuts from outside the car and a view of the street to her in the car looking at the scene. The car window is closed. So, it’s just a reflection of the black family with the man reflected in the glass. She is just behind it, thinking about it, creating a superimposition.

It’s just a question of using the focus puller to create the poetry of the shot – looking one way, looking the other way, and back again. It’s all done in one image – simple, concise, effective.

It can happen through the choice of locations.

The trick is in finding ways of creating scenes that imply more than the scene itself.

You can over edit a scene – where you are telling the audience what you are thinking about, as opposed to leaving it and letting the viewer decide which part of the shot they want to look at – are they looking at the background? The foreground? What exactly is the character's emotion and who they are with?


List of references

John de Borman (2015) ‘Composing and Framing – Cinematography Masterclass’ CookeOpticsTV on 20 November 2018)

The quadrant system of composing a frame

What makes a film visually interesting? It’s not just the story or the actors, it’s in the frames themselves.

In his article ‘The quadrant system: a simple composition technique explained’, Justin Hayes (2015) refers to the film Drive (2011) and the way in which almost every shot has a compositional balance – between left and right, top and bottom – a quadrant.


At first this might seem restrictive. But it allows a director to take a conventional shot and do unconventional things.



In this scene, the driver enters in the top left quadrant. We assume the next shot will have another person in the top right quadrant. But instead, she is in the bottom right quadrant.

When the camera moves closer, we get two shots in which the characters are short sided with tons of space behind them.


By emphasising different quadrants, you can create shots that are both tightly composed and weirdly unpredictable.

Play around with quadrants – they are an old, simple tool. All you need are top, bottom, left and right – and the good sense in how to put them all together.


List of references

Heyes, Justin (2015) SLR Lounge on 16 November 2018)

Subjective and objective character perspective

Cinematic techniques can be executed in a way that gives the audience something more than simply the information presented in front of them.

We react viscerally to the screen.

The camera functions like the human eye – it sees, and it presents what is put in front of it to the spectator on the other side of the lens.

So, why is it that the lens the filmmaker uses, the angle we see the shot from, and the rapidity of the edits, affect us in emotionally captivating ways some of the time, but other times it leaves us disengaged or unactivated?

In his video essay, Travis Lee Radcliffe says:

  • A lot of credit has to be given to what the camera sees – the performances of the actors, the power of the story and script all have an enormous impact on how we are affected.
  • How the camera sees plays a decisive role to those materials.
  • A big part of the effectiveness of the way these tools are deployed is the strategic use of objective and subjective perspectives.

This can be a confusing concept to filmmakers when first introduced to it.

  • An objective perspective is the use of cinema’s visual language just to convey information, as if from an outside point-of-view, with very little emotional emphasis of any character’s perspective.
  • A subjective perspective uses the visual language of the scene to convey an emotional impact that grounds the scene in the mental or emotional ‘perspective’ of a particular character.

But what does this mean in practice?

The filmmaker has several creative decisions at their disposal:

  • Angles – the angles you’ve written the scene from
  • Lensing – the millimetre of lenses you use
  • Camera movement – the use or absence of camera movement
  • Editing – how the scene is cut together

Every decision could be screened through the question of whether or not you are injecting a subjective perspective or grounding the scene in an objective point of view.

Whose perspective is it?


The camera begins with a Close Up (CU) on a young woman asleep in bed. It then pans left across the room, revealing another woman sitting smoking a cigarette in a Wide Shot (WS). The camera follows the second character as she stands, walks to the window and opens the curtains. The camera cuts back to the first character in bed as she sits up (CU). Then cuts to the same character looking through a window in the follow scene (CU).


Fig.1 ‘Carol’

The use of the camera, the position, the lenses, and the framing, they all contribute in both subtle and not so subtle ways to the emotional vantage point within the scene.

Fig.2 ‘There Will Be Blood’

From an objective perspective, we observe the action from a distance. The camera may remain separate from the headspace of any of the participants in the scene. This tool can be used creatively to create dynamic, impactful storytelling.


Fig.3 ‘A Nos Amours’

Scenes can begin in an objective perspective. A Medium Shot (MS) of two characters, Suzanne and her father. The camera expresses an emotional distance and puts us as the audience in an observational place. Then a beat happens. The camera frames Suzanne in an over-the-shoulder Close Up (CU). Followed by a reverse angle on her father. The scene has radically changed. We experience the emotions of the scene much more vividly and through the perspective of Suzanne.

The subjective perspective is not a POV shot. These are two completely different things.

  • A POV shot shows explicitly what the character sees.
  • What is unique about the POV shot is that while it manages to convey information that is useful and impactful, it is actually quite alienating on its own.
  • Not quite subjective or objective.
  • When we are in a POV shot for a long period time, we find that we have no real insight into the mental or emotional perspective of the character whose eyes we are supposed to be seeing through.
  • The loss of seeing the emotions of the character on screen through the visual language of the camera and the editing somehow distances us from the experience.
  • Seeing through the eyes of a character in a POV shot is alienating. Films that use the POV throughout never manage to provide the audience with the same level of engagement with the characters that traditional cinema has sustained.

The POV shot is useful for conveying emotions. But primarily where it is used in short intervals and juxtaposed with a good objective perspective shot.

For example, in Vertigo, the POV shots function to give you information about what the character would be seeing.

No matter what the scene is, there is a dimension of objective and subjective perspective always at play.

While character perspective is a valid tool and is one way of analysing how the visual choices are working in any given scene, there are always other ways of looking at the same tools and choices that are available to the filmmaker.

Many filmmakers choose to think purely in terms of visually exciting imagery and design their story to facilitate a kind of visual spectacle.

Some filmmakers focus totally on the performances of the actors. The camera work and visual language is there only to facilitate the performance and does little to create perspective on the part of the characters in the scene.

These choices are just as valid as a tool to create emotional perspective.

Each filmmaker in each film establish their own rules for how visual language should work on the audience.

Think of a film as an interior dialect within the larger language of film grammar.

The role of the filmmaker is to determine how those rules will work and how they will interact with the story they are trying to tell.

In an Ozu movie, the visual language will always obey strict rules – the camera will refuse to move, it will remain close to the ground, frames will always seek balance and harmony, a 50mm lens will often be employed. We might call these frames objective and observational. The impact of the moments when Ozu breaks his own rules and moves his camera are all the more intensely felt because of the austerity upon which he has built his cinema on.

If your goal is to reach your audience on an emotional level, you have to think carefully about the tools you have at your disposal and what those tools do beyond creating a frame.

These choices have a psychology to them. And when combined together in unique ways, they have an impact that rises above individual merit.


List of references

Ratcliff, T. 2017 ‘What is character perspective?’ On: Vimeo At: (Accessed on 29 October 2018).

Hero (2002) Dir. Zhang Yimou

A martial arts epic set in ancient China, Hero (2004) tells and re-tells one story three times. Two versions of which are false and one is true.

  • A nameless warrior is being honoured for defeating three of the King’s most dangerous enemies, the assassins Long Sky, Broken Sword and Flying Snow.
  • As Nameless recounts his battles with the assassins, the King begins to question the truth of some of the details of the warrior’s tales, interjecting his own take on the suspect version of events. The framing tale which opens and closes the film is dominated by shades of black.
  • Within this opening frame, Nameless recounts his encounter with the assassin Long Sky. Where the two characters meet in battle, the scene cuts to black and white.
  • The first story in red, is told by Nameless, who recounts how he defeated Falling Snow. He tells how Falling Snow had cheated her lover Broken Sword with their friend Long Sky, and how, after Sky’s death, Broken Sword has slept with his servant Moon out of jealousy. Broken Sword is then killed by Falling Snow, also out of jealousy.
  • The red theme continues into the fight sequence between Flying Snow and Moon. This is a visually stunning scene, which reaches its climax when Falling Snow dodges Moon’s sword, which goes on to embed itself into a nearby tree trunk, which starts bleeding. At which point the entire landscape transforms from autumnal orange to blood red, as though the very land itself was bleeding to death. The change of atmosphere within this scene is from life to death.
  • As a consequence of killing Broken Sword, Falling Snow is too emotional to fight properly and is killed in battle by Nameless in front of the King’s army.
  • The second story in blue, the love story, is told by the King, who suggests Falling Snow died willingly after wounding Broken Sword to prevent him from stopping her sacrifice herself.
  • The third story in white tells how Falling Snow was willing to sacrifice herself, but that her death faked. It also tells how Broken Sword opposed Falling Snow and Nameless’s plan to kill the King.
  • The flashback in green presents the failed attempt by Broken Sword and Falling Snow to assassinate the King.

In a New York Times article, Christopher Doyle, the cinematographer on Hero, said the choice of colours was aesthetic, not symbolic, and that the coloration itself becomes the movie’s theme: ‘Part of the beauty of the film is that it is one story coloured by different perceptions […] I think that’s the point. Every story is coloured by personal perception’ (Mackey, 2005).


List of references

Mackey, R. (2015) ‘Cracking the Color Code of Hero.’ In: The New York Times [online] At: (Accessed on 29 June 2017)

Hero (2004) Directed by Zhang Yimou. [DVD] China: Miramax.

Light and Colour

Cinematographer Darius Khondji makes some very inventive use of light and colour in the films ‘Seven’ (1995), ‘The City of Lost Children’ (1994) and ‘Delicatessen’ (1991).

Seven (1995)

In ‘Seven’, a dark psychological thriller about two detectives, Detective Lieutenant William Somerset and Detective David Mills, on the trail of a vicious serial killer, the lighting matches the dark, moody, threatening mood of the film.

The opening sequence begins with a shot of Somerset in his kitchen. The shot contains mixed light, daylight through the kitchen window and florescent light either side of the window. This helps set the context, early morning.

The scene cuts to Somerset in his bedroom, again with mixed light, this time mixing daylight from the window with artificial light from a lamp beside the bed.


In an example of the logical change of light within a scene, the camera pans right, following Somerset as he reaches across and switches off the lamp on the beside table. The source, a table lamp, is shown in shot.

City library. The sequence of shots within this scene represent the abstract state of the dark world into which Somerset has entered, the dark inner world of the mind of a serial killer. A fitting setting for this point in the film, the book stacks and empty tables of an empty library. A storehouse of knowledge.

As Somerset attempts to penetrate the dark recesses of the serial killer’s mind, decode what the killer is doing and why.


Wide Shots – following Somerset as he enters the empty library reading room, searches the book stacks, and sits alone at a desk reading. The solitary searcher.

Close Up – offers a more intimate shot of Somerset as he reads his way through a stack of books, drawing us into the moment, a moment in which he is immersed in thought. The shot also makes use of shallow focus, placing the character within tiny pools of white and green light. The light becoming part of an abstract design framing the character.

A third scene,set in the chief of detective’s office, is again a dimly lit scene set during daytime. The blinds on the main window behind the Chief’s desk are down and partially closed.  The office is ‘lit’ by several small lamps.

The different shots within the scene maintain the logic of light levels, direction of light and colour balance within the space.


What I found particularly interesting about the lighting in ‘Seven’ is Khondji’s use of multiple small lights on walls and tables throughout the film. This scene is an example of this, with four different lamps visible within the scene.  These four lights are also arranged to give the impression they are providing the key light for the three characters in the room. For example, the lamp on the desk provides key light for the Chief and the lamp stand provides key light for Mills sitting opposite the desk. The use of multiple small lights within scenes such as this helps to give the film is stylistic look.

The City of Lost Children (1994)

‘The City of Lost Children’ contains numerous examples of continuity and logic of light.


The children point their torches at One as he opens the door and enters the room. Cuts to a Close-up of One shielding his eyes from the light.


Beam of light from the lighthouse is cast across the harbour. Cuts to a Close-up of character smoking in his chair, closing his eyes as the light falls on his face.

There is also a playful sequence of light changes in the sequence in which an engineer fuses a street light outside the nightclub, setting off a chain-reaction across the city.


Here we see the light bulbs fuse and explode in the engineer’s face. This is followed by a domino effect of different lights going out in various locations across the city. In each case, the source is shown in shot before it goes out.

An interesting use of colour and light which contributes to the look of ‘The City of Lost Children’ is found in the sequences in the city’s streets at night, particularly in the scenes of One and Miette running through the alleyways. The result is very film noir, with its high contrast and deep shadows, similar to that found in film noir classics such as ‘The Third Man’ and ‘Odd Man Out’.


Delicatessen (1991)

The continuity of light in opening sequence of ‘Delicatessen’. The light and colour establishes the mood of the film as a whole, with its dark, shadowy, burnt orange, post-apocalyptic setting. Beginning with establishing the shop in its semi-derelict neighbourhood. The only light source is that coming from within the shop itself.


Camera approaches the butcher’s shop. The light inside the shop casts a pool of light onto the street outside.

The logic of light levels and direction of light is maintained throughout the sequence, as the camera moves in closer to the shop front and enters the through the door, revealing the butcher sharpening his knife.

‘Delicatessen’ also contains examples of shots representing the emotional state of a character.


The light in the scenes featuring Clapet represent a dark, sinister character. Lit from below his face, he appears sinister and threatening. By contrast, the light in the early scenes featuring Louison are bright and evenly lit, representing a character who is innocent of the world into which he has stepped. The lighting in both cases matches the contrasting nature of the two characters.

Another example of continuity and logic can be found in the workshop scene. Visual continuity within the scene in the workshop is maintained through the logic of light levels and direction of light as we cut from shot to shot.


In the shot of Roger at the drill, light appears to be coming from the left of the frame, illuminating the right side of his face. In the following shot of Robert Kube, testing toys at the table behind Roger, the light appears to be coming from the right of the frame, illuminating the left side of his face.

The logic of the light direction in these two shots is apparent in the following wide shot of the interior of the workshop, in which we see the large window, the source of the light within the scene.

An example of the light source being shown in shot.


In the closing scene, Louison is seen climbing onto the rooftop of the apartment block during a thunder storm. In tho shot we see the lightening flash as the character climbs the ladder and steps onto the roof.


The City of Lost Children (1994) Directed by Marc Caro & Jean-Pierre Jeunet [DVD] France: Canal+

Delicatessen (1991) Directed by Marc Caro & Jean-Pierre Jeunet [DVD] France: Miramax

Seven (1995) Directed by David Fincher [DVD] USA: New Line Cinema

Composition: The Rule of Thirds

Some examples of frames composed according to the rule of thirds, composition balanced between shots, the rule of thirds being broken, tension created by upsetting the balance and other distinct meanings suggested through visual balance.

I printed out screenshots, drew grids lines on the images and made notes on how the rules of composition and balance have been applied in the following films:

  • Breathless (1960)
  • Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972)
  • The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2014)
  • Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2011)
  • Amelie (2001)
  • Manhattan (1979)
  • 12 Years A Slave (2014)

Logbook 2, pages 23-24


Logbook 2, pages 25-26


Logbook 2, pages 27-28


Logbook 2, pages 29-30


Logbook 2, pages 35-36


Logbook 2, pages 39-40


Logbook 2, pages 41-42


This was a fascinating exercise.  What was particularly revealing was how the apparently simple idea of dividing the frame into a grid can have such a profound effect upon the way in which I looked at the various shots. We take moving images so much for granted and are unaware of the principles underlying what we are looking at. But when viewed as canvases, divided into sections, their hidden beauty suddenly becomes evident.

Placing the shots from ‘Breathless’ alongside the shots from ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’ and ‘Manhattan’, for instance, was quite revealing. The differences in composition became so much more apparent when seen collectively than when looking at them in isolation.

This task has shown me that watching and re-watching films is a task that pays dividends in revealing how cinematographers go about composing their shots, and that looking at the way in which cinematographers use the rules of composition within their work is a vital part of my work as moving image practitioner.

Composition and balance help infuse an image with beauty. For me, this is an important element in making a moving image. However, I have often felt that the ‘beauty’ of a shot has eluded me. This exercise has gone some way in helping me solve that problem in my own practice. It has also shown me that most shots within a film are composed according to the rule of thirds, while others vary slightly from the rules, or break quite strikingly from the rules for more pronounced effects.

One particularly interesting example was composition balanced between shots. Maintaining the continuity of composition between shots in a dialogue scene is key to drawing the viewer into the scene and can add considerably to the intimacy of such scenes.

Coming from a documentary background, where there is often little or no time to consider the composition or balance of a shot before capturing footage of an event, I feel much more informed in how cinematographers compose their images so that significant objects, divisions and units of space correspond to the grid lines identified by the rule of thirds.

Composition and balance are important tools in the cinematographer’s toolbox. I shall be using what I have learnt here to plan new learning experiences, by incorporating the analysis of composition and balance into the planning of future moving images and by making study films with specific goals in mind for exploring specific techniques. For example, by making study films that practice basic techniques of composition and balance; by making study films that attempt to break the rules; and by attempting to replicate shots that inspire or intrigue me in the work of other practitioners.

The Long Take

'The only great problem in cinema seems to me, more and more with each film, when and why to start a shot and when and why to end it.’ Jean-Luc Goddard (Bordwell 2017, p.211).

What guides a director in deciding how long to let a shot last?

Functions of the Long Take

In the films of Jean Renoir, Kenji Mizoguchi, Orson Welles, Carl Dreyer, Miklos Jancso, Hou Hsiao-hsien and Bela Tarr – shots may last for several minutes. One shot in Andy Warhol’s My Hustler lasts for 30 minutes.

‘It would be impossible to appreciate the artistry of these films without considering what the long take contributes to form and style’ (Bordwell 2017, p.211).

A long take – a protracted shot; an alternative to a series of shots.

Directors can choose between presenting a scene in long takes or a series of shots.

Most films are rendered in a mix of edited scenes and long takes – ‘This allows the filmmaker to bring out specific values in particular scenes, or to associate certain aspects of the narrative or non narrative form with the different stylistic options’ (Bordwell, p.211).

Hunger (2008) dir. Steve McQueen – Most of the scenes, including violent confrontations between prisoners and guards, consist of several shots. A vivid instance of the long take occurs halfway through the film, when the plot starts to focus on Bobby Sands and we begin to understand his motives and plans. The key scene begins with a shot lasting 18 minutes, a balanced view of Sands and an old friend who visits him. There is no camera movement in the shot. The effect is to rivet the viewer on the character’s dialogue during the turning point in the action.

Editing can have great force in a long-take movie – ‘after a seven- or eight-minute shot, an elliptical cut can prove quite disorientating’ (Bordwell, p.211).

Elephant (2003) dir. Gus van Sant – traces events around a high school shooting rampage; presents most scenes in long takes following students through the hallways; plot does not present events in chronological order; narration flashes back to show other school days, the boy’s lives at home and their preparations for the killings – ‘When a cut interrupts a long take, the audience must reflect for a moment to determine how the new shot fits into story chronology. The effect of the editing is usually harsh, because the cuts tend to break the smooth rhythm of the sustained traveling shots’ (p. 211).

Digital technology has made full length films consisting of one long take possible.

Russian Ark (2002) dir. Aleksander Sokurov – an experimental historical drama consisting of a single shot nearly 90 minutes long, as the camera follows over 2,000 actors in period costume through St. Petersburg’s Winter Palace; takes us through several eras of Russian history, culminating in an immense ballroom dance and a crowd drifting off into the wintry night.

Birdman; Or, The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance (2014) dir. Alejandro G. Inarritu – software blends shots undetectably; presents an apparently continuous shot that lasts the full length of the 100 minute film.

The Long Take and the Mobile Frame

The static long take in Hunger is unusual – most long takes rely on camera movement – ‘Panning, tracking, craning, zooming can be used to present continually changing vantage points that are comparable in some ways to the shifts of view supplied by editing’ (Bordwell, p.212).

Frame mobility breaks the long-take into smaller units.

Sister’s of Gion (1936) dir. Kenji Mizoguchi – one long take shows a young woman luring a businessman into becoming her patron; there is no cutting; the camera and figure movements demarcate important stages of the scene’s action.

Long takes tend to be framed in long or medium shots rather than close-ups – the viewer has more opportunity to scan the shot for particular points of interest.

Steven Spielberg – ‘I’d love to see directors start trusting the audience to be the film editor with their eyes, the way you are sometimes with a stage play, where the audience selects who they would choose to look at while a scene is being played’ (Bordwell, p.213).

Another important feature of the long take – the shot reveals a complete internal logic – a beginning, middle and end.

‘The long take can have its own formal pattern, its own development, its own trajectory and shape. Suspense may develop; we start to ask how the shot will continue and when it will end’ (Bordwell, p.213).

Touch of Evil (1958) dir. Orson Welles – example of how the long take can constitute a formal pattern in its own right in the opening sequence; offers an alternative to building the sequence out of many shots; stresses the cut that finally comes, occurring at the sound of the explosion of the car; we expect the bomb shown at the beginning will explode at some time and we wait for that explosion through the long take; the shot establishes the geography of the scene, the border between Mexico and the US; the camera movement weaves together two lines of narrative cause and effect that intersect at the border station; Vargas and Susan are drawn into the action involving the bombing; our expectation is fulfilled when the shot coincides with the offscreen explosion of the bomb; the shot has guided our attention by taking us through a suspenseful development.

The long take can present a complex pattern of events moving toward a goal in a single chunk of time.


List of references

Bordwell, D. (2017) Film Art New York: McGraw Hill

The One-Take Shot

Cinematographer Emma Kragen describes six types of long take:

  • The establishing long take – immerses the viewer in a film’s environment and introduces a lot of different characters and their interactions to one another; for example, in ‘Boogie Nights’ you get a feel of what it’s like in the 1980s, in restaurant scene in ‘Goodfellas’ you get a feel of what it’s like to be a part of the mob.
  • The tracking long take – a character driven tracking shot; based on either how the character affects the environment or how the environment affects the character.
  • The exposition long take – used a lot in TV (e.g. ‘The West Wing’); used out of practicality in that it keeps a scene on its feet; serves partially as a transition scene; and partially as a way of getting a lot of exposition across.
  • The action long take – propels the action of the scene, while still making you stay with the actors; focuses on increasing the visceral nature of on screen action; makes the viewer sit with the drama of the moment (e.g. ‘The Revenant’).
  • The stationary long take – e.g. Hunger (2008); Woody Allen uses it a lot – for example in ‘Manhattan’ (1979) there’s a scene where the characters are moving in and out of frame and sometimes you can’t even see them, and he uses sound as another method of telling the story (we hear dialogue even though we can’t see the character whose taking).
  • The ‘fake’ long take – e.g. ‘Birdman’ (2014) uses extensive hidden cuts to appear like a single take film; the methods used – you can either under expose to create a cut point – e.g. use a black frame or a white frame as the end of one shot and beginning of the next shot; you can do the same with colour – a colour grade match cut; you can also use whip pans – you don’t notice a cut when it’s in the middle of a pan; can also use composites to create a graphic match that isn’t actually there.

List of references

Renee, V. (2016) ‘Here are six different kinds of long takes you can use in your film’ At: (Accessed on 10 June 2017)

Camera Angles: Creating atmosphere & meaning

Camera angles are an important component of storytelling within the moving image. They are used primarily to create atmosphere and alter the meaning of a scene or shot.

The choice of camera angle can affect a scene or shot in five ways:

  • Viewpoint – by indicating a specific POV
  • Relationship – by changing the viewer’s relationship with the character
  • Status – by indicating the status of the character
  • Suspense – by creating suspense, tension or expectation
  • Mood – by creating a particular feeling or mood

For example, in these two shots from Witness (1985), the camera angle is integral to  the storytelling.


In the first image, a high angle shot looking down from a statue in the ceiling of Grand Central Station, uses the height of the building to show the character as a small, insignificant figure. In this way, the viewer sees the young Amish boy Joseph Lapp as a fish-out-of-water in the unfamiliar surroundings of the city. It also infuses the scene with an edge of hostility. Foreshadowing what is to come.

In the second image, taken from later in the film, a low angle shot of a car slowly edging into view on the crest of a hill is used to help give a sense of foreboding. Although no characters are visible in the shot, we know that whoever is inside the car is a threat to John Buck and the Amish family.


Low Angle


Images: Die Hard (1989), Shutter Island (2010), Terminator (1984)

Framed below the subject’s eye line, the Low Angle shot is used to create a sense of threat from within the scene, possibly from the character within the shot.


High Angle


Images: North By Northwest (1959), Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (2010), The Shawshank Redemption (1995)

Framed above the subject’s eye line, the High Angle shot is used to create a sense of weakness, in which the character within the shot seems less significant or powerful, or in which there is an implied threat from a greater force.


Canted Frame


Images: The Third Man (1949), Twelve Monkeys (1995), 2001 A Space Odyssey (1968)

Used for dramatic effect, the Canted Frame (or Dutch Tilt) is used to help create a sense of unease, disorientation, intoxication or madness within a scene or shot. Canted Frames range from slight tilts (5°) to extreme tilts (90°).


Overhead Shot

Images: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2012)

The Overhead Shot can be used to make the subject harder to identify or empathise with, and to emphasise emotional distance within the scene.


The camera angle is an important element within the design of a shot. It can draw the viewer’s eye into the frame in a particular way, giving subliminal clues about a character’s status, building suspense within a scene or creating a sense of expectation. It also helps to manipulate the viewer’s emotions as they watch the moving image by influencing the mood or atmosphere within the scene. A slight tilt upwards, downwards or sideways can greatly influence the way in which the story is told.

However, camera angle does not work in isolation from everything else within the frame. One thing I’ve discovered from this exercise is that camera angle and lighting are very closely tied together in the creation of atmosphere and meaning within a scene.


Die Hard (1989) Directed by John McTiernan

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2012) Directed by Michel Gondry

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (2010) Directed by David Yates

North by Northwest (1959) Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

The Shawshank Redemption (1995) Directed by Frank Darabont

Shutter Island (2010) Directed by Martin Scorsese

The Terminator (1984) Directed by James Cameron

The Third Man (1949) Directed by Carol Reed

Twelve Monkeys (1995) Directed by Terry Gilliam

Witness (1985) Directed by David Lean

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) Directed by Stanley Kubrik

Reading: Cinematography Robby Muller (2013), Van Deursen & De Vries

Linda Van Deursen & Marietta De Vries (2013) Cinematography Robby Muller. Zurich: JRP Ringier

I discovered Deursen & De Vries’ book Cinematography Robby Muller while browsing through Ashley Lauryssen’s Open College of the Arts study blog. Robby Muller was a Dutch cinematographer, whose inventive use of lighting and approach to composition were consistent elements within films by directors such as Wim Wenders and Jim Jarmusch. As a fan of both these filmmakers, II felt compelled to locate a copy of the book and find out more about this cinematographic auteur.

Organised thematically, the book collects together hundreds of shots from fourteen films Muller worked on during his career with directors such as Wim Wenders, Jim Jarmusch, Peter Bogdanovich and Lars von Trier.

Rather than analysing and discussing the techniques Muller used within individual films, the authors present a series of film stills, organised around several key themes found in Muller’s cinematic practice; such as filming road movies; filming in natural light; filming at different times of the day; filming lens flare. Most of the stills are accompanied by captions, in which some of the directors and technicians Muller worked with offer a brief comment on the images, providing a pithy insight into the way in which he worked.

The book contains stills from fourteen films on which Robby Muller worked as cinematographer, of which only Paris, Texas (dir.  Wim Wenders) and Down By Law (dir.  Jim Jarmusch) are familiar to me.

Alice in den Stadten (1974)
Falsche Bewegung(1975)
Im Lauf Der Zeit(1976)
Der Amerikanische Freund (1977)
Die Linkshandige Frau (1978)
Saint Jack (1979)
Repo Man (1984)
Paris, Texas (1984)
Down By Law (1986)
Barfly (1987)
Mystery Train (1989)
Dead Man (1995)
Breaking the Waves (1996)
Dancer in the Dark (2000)

What struck me about the film stills contained in the book, is the way in which Muller uses light to convey a mood. His ability to use both natural and artificial light in a way that appears so natural to the location. This is summarised nicely in the caption to the stills from Saint Jack (1979), in which Theo Bierkens, the best boy on the film, says ‘He [Muller] always looked carefully at what a location had to offer and enhanced that. Not in a dogmatic way, but more intuitive’ (Duersen & Vries, p.89).

Together, these film stills are a wonderful resource on the creative practice of a cinematographer who is passionate about light, how it works and how it falls within a scene. It’s the kind of book I can browse through, look at a single shot or a series of shots, and see exactly what Muller saw when his eye was to the viewfinder. It’s a book I shall be returning to again for advice and inspiration when lighting my own moving images.


Van Deursen, L., & De Vries, M. (2013) Cinematography Robby Muller. Zurich: JRP Ringier