Cinematography

Using Canted Shots to Convey Tension

Canted shots are composed with a camera tilted laterally, so that the horizon is not level and vertical lines run diagonally across the frame. The resulting compositions can create spatial imbalance or disorientation which can convey a sense of dramatic tension, psychological instability, confusion, madness, or drug-induced psychosis.

The usefullness of canted film shots

In addition to conveying a character’s altered state of mind, canted shots can also amplify the tension of a dramatic moment, especially when something unsettling or abnormal is taking place in a scene, as seen in this example from John McTiernan’s Die Hard (1988). After a group of mercenaries takes over a high rise building, New York cop John McClane (Bruce Willis) manages to systematically thwart their plans to steal millions from a vault. In this key scene, McClane stumbles upon Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman), the mastermind behind the mercenaries, who pretends to be one of the hostages to gain his trust. The entire scene is shot using slightly canted angles, adding tension to their exchange and signaling that something unsettling is taking place. As the scene continues, it is revealed that McClane suspected Gruber’s true identity all along, and only pretended to trust him to pump him for information.

Why it Works:

  • Using a wide angle lens extends distances along the z axis of the frame (note the apparent wide space between the two characters even though they are only at arm’s length of each other), and also adds some distortion to the frame that complements the awkwardness suggested by the skew of the angle.
  • The lighting from below used on Gruber gives him a sinister, menacing look that is amplified by the inclusion of the large looming shadow behind him.
  • The camera to subject distance and large aperture combination resulted in a slightly shallow depth of field, keeping only Gruber, the focal point of this composition, in sharp focus.
  • The excessive amount of headroom given to Gruber is motivated by the need to include the distorted shadow of his head on the wall behind him (itself canted against the angle of the canted shot),a visual cue that hints at his duplicitous nature.
  • Including McClane in the foreground adds depth and leads the viewer’s gaze to Gruber in the middle ground, the focal point of the composition in this over the shoulder shot.
  • The relatively wide framing (somewhere between a medium shot and a medium close up) allowed the inclusion of several vertical lines from the mise en scène, making the slight inclination of this canted shot very apparent.

Excerpted from The Filmmaker’s Eye by Gustavo Mercado© 2010 Elsevier Inc. All rights Reserved

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