In the artistic process of filmmaking, the camera not only helps to capture images but also elicits an emotional reaction. Thereby, shot division in a film becomes an important strategy to invest the viewer and earn their empathy. A dutch angle, also popular as Dutch tilt, canted angle, or oblique angle is a type of camera shot where the camera is tilted to one side. This creates an off-kilter, or askew, look that can be used to add visual interest or convey a sense of unease. The shot psychologically impacts the mind of the viewer putting him in the shoes of the protagonist or the world portrayed on the screen.
The reason why such angles are effective is because when a particular shot is framed off-axis it organically creates a sense of unease, thereby, deliberately creating a feeling of disorientation. The dutch angle gets its name from the German word for “diagonal,” which is “schuss.” This refers to the fact that when you tilt the camera, the frame becomes diagonal.
History of Dutch Angle
When any creative step is incorporated within any art form it is sure to generate interest and awe amongst viewers and critics alike. Dutch angles were stylistic devices that did not have their origins in Hollywood. It was the German filmmakers of the 1920s who had popularized dutch angles. They refused to play to the gallery like the American filmmakers and took their inspiration from paintings to create a stylistic framing.
Art movements like expressionism played a key role in creating an impression in the minds of German filmmakers. Robert Wiene is considered a pioneer in popularizing the ‘Dutch Angle’ in his horror saga The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). The set construction heavily inspired from the expressionist movement created a sense of eeriness within the entire mise-en-scène of the film.
Over the years, the use of dutch angle in cinema has undergone a paradigm shift. The 90s witnessed an excess use of this stylistic device in films, commercials as well as music videos.
When to Use The Dutch Angle
Since Dutch angle is an unusual way to frame, it has a specific use to enhance the cinematic idiom of a scene. Here are some uses or occasions, when you use a dutch angle to push the language of cinema forward.
1. The primary purpose of a dutch angle is to emphasize that something is imbalanced within the universe of the film. So, be absolutely sure that the camera is tilted to provide an effect that synchronizes with the narrative. The camera should act as a medium to convey a feeling that something is off or awry. So, shift the camera off its axis so as to ruffle and disorient the viewer as much as the character in the frame.
2. Dutch angle can also be used as a stylistic device to express a state of mind. It can be used to bring abstraction, subjectivity, mystery, disorientation within a scene. The final action sequence of Nolan’s Inception (2010) is one of the best examples of a Dutch angle.
The world is spiraling out of the grasp of the characters of the film. In the clip below, cinematographer Wally Pfister tilts the camera in a way so as to disorient the viewer. This is a classic example because it synchronizes with the theme of the film.
3. Dutch angle can also be used as a formal device for experimenting with the visual language of the film. Films like Battlefield Earth (2000) and Thor (2011) have been criticized for their excessive use of the Dutch angle. But that should not deter filmmakers from experimenting. At the same time they should be careful to integrate such kind of framing to create an impressionist effect, not merely stylistic strategy.
8 Examples of Dutch Angle in Film
When it comes to creating an eerie or disorienting effect, few cinematic techniques are as effective as the Dutch angle. The history of cinematography is filled with several inventive ways filmmakers have experimented with the Dutch angle to enhance their storytelling. While the Dutch angle can be overused or misused, when employed judiciously, it can add a real sense of unease or menace to a scene. Here are eight examples of Dutch angle in film that show just how impactful this simple technique can be.
1. Man With A Movie Camera (1929)
Categorized by critics as part documentary and part cinematic art, Dziga Vertov’s experimental silent documentary is one of the early innovative attempts that redefined the art of filmmaking. Vertov has utilized his camera in capturing daily life in Russia in a way that has helped develop a cinematic idiom. There are instances where he has stylistically framed certains shots in dutch angle to create a sense of poetry with the visual grammar of the documentary. Such key creative decisions add an aching romanticism pushing the envelope of creative visualization within the narrative design. The film is available on YouTube.
2. The Third Man (1949)
This is undoubtedly one of the finest film noir in the history of early Hollywood cinema. Directed by Carol Reed, the narrative of the film circles around the protagonist, whose investigation of a friend’s death unravels double-dealing in post-World War II Vienna. Shot in black and white, the film makes judicious use of camera accompanied by silhouette lighting to bring a feeling of doom and eeriness. This clip is an example of how a dutch angle can generate a feeling of off balance in the life of the protagonist with the viewer empathizing with the situation.
3. 12 Monkeys (1995)
Terry Gilliam’s dystopian and futuristic tale adapted from Chris Markers’ short film La Jetée (1962) is a film where the Dutch angle has been used to emphasize the distorted, confusing world inhabited by the character. In this clip as Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt) speaks to James Cole (Bruce Willis) the camera tilts to symbolically reflect the mental state of the characters. We, as viewers, can empathize with both the insanity and immediacy of the situation. Here the dutch angle is part of the visual design that enhances the narrative set inside a mental hospital.
4. Mission Impossible (1996)
Brian De Palma, one of the auteurs of Hollywood crime and psychological thrillers, has also displayed his cinematic flair in one of the most popular spy franchises ever made by Hollywood. In this particular clip, as Ethan Hawke (Tom Cruise) meets with Eugene Kittridge (Henry Czerny) in a restaurant and discovers that he has been betrayed, he takes a desperate step. Here the use of Dutch angle adds to the tension of the scene. The viewers are always anticipating what is going to happen next, allowing for an active participation. Even the way in which the various shots are edited adds drama to the scene.
5. A Serious Man (2009)
The Coen brothers have always been experimental as well as daring in their cinematic approach through the use of cameras to add meaning to their shots and scenes. A Serious Man is no exception. In this sequence from the film, set within a Jewish community, also as Goy’s teeth scene, the use of dutch angle enhances confusion and fear. As Dr Sussman, a respected dentist within the community, discovers that something in Hebrew letters is engraved on the inside of one of his patients, he is in a state of shock and awe. So, we can see that tilting the frame creates the much needed anxiety to the scene.
7. Rang De Basanti (2006)
In Rakesh Om Prakash Mehra’s magnum opus when Sue McKinley (Alice Patten) discovers that Lakshman Pandey (Atul Kulkarni) is willing to play the role of Indian freedom fighter Ram Prasad Bismil, cinematographer Binod Pradhan tilts the frame. This plays an important role in the narrative. So far, we had the impression that Lakshman is a troublemaker. Until now, he did not respect Sue’s project. Now, we see a major shift in Lakshman’s attitude and the dutch angle justifies his change of heart. The viewers can also now see through the character; he is not a villain but a victim of the situation.
8. Slumdog Millionaire (2008)
British filmmaker Danny Boyle is one of those filmmakers who has mastered the use of Dutch angles. In this clip from his Academy award winning film, the use of dutch angle brings a kind of tension to the scene. Jamal Malik (Dev Patel) meets his estranged brother Salim Malik (Madhur Mittal) after a long period of time. Jamal’s pent up rage for Salim explodes in this scene. Anthony Dod Mantle’s camera tilts a number of times to emphasize the tension and adds dramatic effect to the scene. This adds a kind of kinetic energy to the mise-en-scène, putting viewers into the shoes of the helpless characters.
Tips To Use The Dutch Angle
Creative choice in filmmaking is the filmmakers’ ability to produce something that is both original and valuable. It is their capacity to produce ideas through composition of shots which are essentially new or novel and previously unknown to the viewers. In order to use dutch angle in an innovative manner one should be able to view things in new ways or from a different perspective. Here are some things to keep in mind when using the dutch angle shot:
1. Tilt degree
The rule of thumb is greater the tilt more unsettling the shot feels. But cinematographers should keep in their mind that the tilt of the camera should be kept between 5 degrees or 90 degrees. If this parameter is not maintained, the framing will not create the desired result.
2. Depth of field
Secondly, if the depth of field is shallower, it will generate a feel of claustrophobia in the viewer. That’s because when objects in the background are kept at soft focus, viewers’ attention will remain fixed on the character in foreground. In such cases, the use of a telephoto lens will be of immense help.
3. Camera level
Thirdly, if the camera level varied it has the possibilities to stay connected to the characters. In order to achieve it the horizontal axis should not run parallel to the bottom of the frame. This will create an imbalance or abnormality within the frame. In such cases, the use of a wide lens will be of immense help.
4. Use it sparingly
The Dutch angle can be effective in small doses, but if every scene in your film is tilted, it will become tiresome for audiences quickly.
5. Use a tripod
Tilting the camera can make it difficult to keep the frame stable, so using a tripod will help you avoid accidentally creating a shaky shot.
6. Be aware of your subject matter
The Dutch angle can be particularly effective when used with subjects that are already unsettling, such as horror movie villains or creepy locations. If you’re not careful, though, it can also make light-hearted scenes look unintentionally hilarious. When used properly, the Dutch angle can be a great way to add some visual interest to your film.
7. Be aware of vertical lines
When the camera is tilted, vertical lines in the frame will appear skewed. This can be used to create an unsettling effect, but if not done carefully it can also look like a mistake.
With the change in the vocabulary of cinema dutch angles are no longer confined to highlight tension and distortion or underscoring the dystopian confusion within the story. Today it has been utilized by filmmakers in various ways to make their point and facilitate the process of visually telling their tale. The popularity of dutch angle can also be seen among amateur mobile photographers clicking selfies with a stick. But filmmakers will have to be careful in choosing when to use the dutch angle. Its overuse can look like a gimmick, nullifying its unlimited potential. Use it sparingly and be aware of its potential pitfalls.
FTII alumnus and freelance writer. My articles have appeared in Scroll.in, The Hindu, Livemint.com, The Quint, The Tribune, Upperstall, among other publications.