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).

Examples of Editing Techniques

Look for examples of time being contracted or expanded in movies and write up your analyses of these on your blog.

I looked at a range of editing techniques used by filmmakers to represent the passage of time.

Transition wipes in ‘Star Wars’ (1977)

George Lucas uses transition wipes throughout ‘Star Wars’ to show the transition of time. He uses a range of wipes that give the film a comic book effect, like turning a page between scenes.


Shot 1 – Long shot of Luke Skywalker climbing aboard landspeeder
Shot 2 – Long shot of land speeder

Lucas uses a straightforward wipe from left to right across the screen to skip from Luke Skywalker climbing into the land speeder and to him racing through the landscape a few moments later. This helps keep up the momentum of the action, moving things quickly along from one scene to the next. The direction of the wipe, from left to right, follows the movement and pace of the land speeder, wiping across the first shot of C-3PO and R2-D2 watching Luke get onto the vehicle.


Shot 1 – Long shot of sandscrawler
Shot 2 – Medium Long Shot of stormtroopers

Lucas uses a clock wipe between two scenes to show the passage of time between night and day. The wipe sweeps clockwise around the scene, revealing the Imperial stormtroopers searching for C-3PO and R2-D2 in the desert. The clock wipe is provides a comic-like transition showing the passage of an extended period of time, from C-3PO and R2-D2 inside the sand crawler to the stormtroopers int he desert.

Foreground wipe in ‘Stranger Things’ (2016)


Shot 1 – Close up of character centre frame, looking at laptop
Shot 2 – Close up of character centre frame, from behind

A more recent use of the transition wipe. In the first shot, we see Eleven looking at the screen of a laptop. The camera tilts down, filling the screen with the back of the laptop. From there, the camera tilts up, revealing the back of a chair in another location in which Eleven is sitting. She is still seated, in close up, though in this shot she is seen from behind.

The technique is used here to transition into a flashback, a different time zone entirely. This is not simply the representation of the passage of linear time. It indicates an important shift in time and place, around a single character, revealing a scene in which we discover a little more about the character’s back story.

Transition cutaway in ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ (1965)


Shot 1 – MS/two shot
Shot 2 – Close up
Shot 3 – MS/two shot

David Lean uses a transition cutaway as a way of showing the passage of time and change of location.

Loud noise cut in ‘Don’t Look Now’ (1973)


Shot 1 – Close up
Shot 2 – Close up



Transition cut in ‘Seven’ (1996)


Shot 1 – ELS
Shot 2 – MS/two shot

An example of a straight cut to show the passage of time within the same setting.

In the first shot, we see detectives Somerset and Mills on a sofa in the precinct hallway. This cuts to the next shot, in which we see the same two characters asleep on the sofa.

The transition indicates the passage of several hours. This is reinforced with the title card indicating we are now into Thursday, the next day of the investigation.

Fade to black in ‘Fitzcarraldo’ (1982)











Towards the end of ‘Fitzcarraldo’, Herzog uses a fade to black to indicate an extended passage of time. Do Aquilino offers to buy Fitzcarraldo’s ship. Fitzcarraldo tells the crew that Aquilino is the new owner of the ship. Fitcarraldo takes the Captain aside and hands him some money and asks him to buy to items, then whispers an instruction in his ear.

It is clear that a significant amount of time has passed between Fitzcarraldo’s conversation withe the Captain and the arrival of the boats from Iquitos. The fade to black at this point in the film also acts as an important structural device within the overall narrative. It marks the end of the main bulk of the story, Fitcarraldo’s failed business venture into the jungle and his attempt to take the ship overland between two tributary rivers. It marks the beginning of the final sequence, in which Fitcarraldo fulfils his dream of bringing opera to the native indians.

Transition dissolves in ‘The Grapes of Wrath’

John Ford uses the dissolve in the opening sequence of ‘The Grapes of Wrath’, in which we see Tom Joad travelling home on foot following his release from jail. The film opens with an extreme long shot (ELS) of Joad walking towards camera along an empty highway, with crossroads in the foreground.

The shot is cut and dissolves into a second shot from the same camera position, this time showing Joad approaching and walking through the crossroads we had seen in the previous shot. The dissolve indicates a short passage of time. The second shot pans with the character as he walks through frame, revealing a roadside restaurant with a truck parked outside.

Transition dissolves in ‘Dr Zhivago’

A wonderfully composed sequence demonstrating an economy of shots. In this sequence there are nine shots, covering a screen time of 3 minutes 18 seconds.

This example shows how you can develop a narrative covering an extended period of time with only a handful of shots.

The sequence, starting in Yuriatin Park and ending in Varykino, contains three transition dissolves:

  1. between shots 1 and 2
  2. between shots 6 and 7
  3. between shots 8 and 9

The first dissolve indicates a fairly short passage of time, between Lara and Yuri leaving the park and arriving in the lane leading up to Lara’s apartment.

Shot 1 – LS of the two characters sitting on a bench in the park. They stand and walk through frame, from right to left.

Dissolve – creates an overlay of white graffiti and a red star painted on a wall

Shot 2 – as the dissolve completes, the two characters enter the frame from the right, creating an MS/two shot. The camera pans with the two characters as they walk along the lane away from the camera, creating a Long Shot of the characters. The camera holds for a few seconds, then tilts up, revealing the window of Lara’s apartment in MS.

Shot 3 – cut to interior of Lara’s apartment.

The first dissolve in this sequence contracts time, cutting out the bulk of their walk from the park to the apartment.

It also creates in interesting graphic quality, hinting at the turmoil of revolution underpinning the story.

In the second dissolve, the passage of time from Lara and Yuri entering in the apartment to waking up the following morning, cutting out the intervening evening and night.

Shot 6 – MS of the two characters, centre frame, kissing

Dissolve – creates an overlay of the rooms of the apartment

Shot 7 – MS of Lara’s apartment. Through an open door in left of frame we can see movement in the bed and the sun rise through the bedroom window. We can also see a vase of daffodils on a table at the right edge of the frame, presaging the field of daffodils two shots later.

One thing I have learned from my analysis of the ‘transition’ as an editing technique is that it needs to be seen within the context of the whole sequence in which it is employed.

The dissolve, for instance, is not simply a cross-fade between two shots. It is much more than a decorative way of joining two images within a film together.

With the opening sequence of ‘The Grapes of Wrath’, the three dissolves are key to portraying the progression of time within the narrative flow. They allow Ford to contract time within the opening of the film, by skipping the irrelevant events and emphasising the important moments of Tom Joad’s journey home on foot: Joad walking along the dust highway; Joad hitching a ride in a truck; the conversation between Joad and the truck driver; and Joad meeting Cory at the roadside.

The three dissolves in the ‘Reunited’ sequence in ‘Dr Zhivago’ perform a similar function, contracting time in order to emphasise the key moments within the scenes at this point in the story: Yuri’s first impressions of Lara’s apartment; and Yuri and Lara in bed the following morning.

I think these three dissolves also perform a secondary graphic function in the way that they link the scenes together: the barren patch of ground across which Yuri and Lara walk, overlaid with graffiti and the red star; the symmetrically framed couple kissing, overlaid with the empty apartment from a different angle; the close up of the couple in bed, overlaid with a field of yellow flowers.

Contracting time, whether through a transition or any other editing technique, is fundamental to moving image storytelling.