A POV (point of view) shot shows the audience the fictional world from the perspective of a character. It places us in the observer’s shoes, allowing us to see what he or she is seeing from a first-person perspective.
In other words, a POV shot mimics real life, replicating our line of sight in the movie world with the camera substituting our vision.
It can be a tool to present visual metaphors from the perspective of a particular character.
Mostly, filmmakers use a handheld camera to enhance realism by capturing the unsteady eyesight we experience when walking or running.
Sobriquets for the POV shot include the first-person or subjective camera shot.
Usually, the typical POV is preceded by an off-camera shot (different from Off Screen) that creates suspense based on a close-up of a character’s facial reactions. But then again, that depends on the purpose of the scene and the shots that comprise it. In some circles, the POV is not only a straight-through-the-eye shot.
An over-the-shoulder view of the surroundings may also be a POV. A combination of that and facial reactions from closeups can sometimes count as well as a POV angle.
POVs allow filmmakers to play with the boundaries of the 4th wall. Characters staring into the lens (presumably looking at another character) creates a particular discomfort as the attention shifts to the audience. That sets a feeling of being dominated, especially when the camera is at a lower position.
Here’s more on other uses of the POV shot in film:
There is a reason found footage horror films such as The Blair Witch Project are so famous and loved. That’s mostly down to the fact that they make viewers question what’s real and what’s not, which is achieved through POV filming. Of course, the film’s superstitious propaganda, strategically pushed before release, helped, but all in all, POVs are effective in establishing illusions of truths.
This filming technique tends to be more realistic than third-party shooting, harnessing a magnetic ability to plant us into the scene with the actor. We become one with the person holding the camera.
With visions between camera and character merged, viewers are transported into the latter’s perspective and everything seems so real. So much so that cinephiles even sent condolence messages to the families of the cast of The Blair Witch Project.
POV filming has become synonymous with horror as it feels more like a documentary than a movie. It makes viewers more invested in the conversations and better connected to the characters, as opposed to being just a bystander.
When characters are held up in a closet or some other confined space, a POV can replicate that feeling of anxiety or claustrophobia. That is achieved by placing a camera in tight spaces to, for example, show us what a character is seeing from the inside of a car trunk.
With the POVs’ limited range of movement to imitate neck strain, the scene plays out more believably and the tension elevates as we become one with the abducted or trapped character. In The Room, the director establishes a character’s life confinement to a single room with POV shots that squeeze out the space and jail us into a box.
In some cases, that works to elevate panic, and other times, like in the above example, it gives off a measure of helplessness.
In the sci-fi niche, POVs are handy when directors want audiences to feel the extent of a hero’s abilities. James Cameroon’s Terminator was undoubtedly a film way ahead of its time. The special effects were futurist and the general cinematography was top-notch. POVs have become quite commonplace within the franchise, fashioning a doorway into the not-so-talkative mind of a killing machine.
The point of view shots not only allowed us to see what the terminator saw but also understand how he deciphered situations and people. They offered exposition for a sequence of actions, explaining why the character was reacting a certain way.
With blood-red vision, the POV shots also set the tone for the character’s, more often than not, murderous objectives.
Sometimes the terminator’s subjective camera angle served to show us just how impressive the cyborg was with showings of superhuman feats such as calculations processed in the blink of an eye. The POV shots showed us the terminator’s abilities and as well explained the malfunctioning when it arose. POV shots enriched the scenes without dialogue, of which there were many, especially in the first movie.
Without them, we’d have Arnold Schwarzenegger walking about in extended and overwhelming periods of silence. What’s more, the POV viewfinder was perfect for moments of levity. Case in point, the scene where the terminator chooses a response from a list of profanities for an overly curious housekeeper.
Much like the supernatural effect, the POV can also let us in on how a character feels under the influence of drugs. Blurry shots and spinning POVs, for example, often illustrate a character’s perspective when injured, waking up from a comma, sick, or on a substance high.
Viewers, therefore, get a first-person view of fear, delusions, among other effects the director might want us to feel as well. The psychological drama Requiem for a Dream, for example, features lots of POVs that capture the psychedelic effects the drug addicts experience.
We know what the characters are in for every time they light up. The powerful showing of drugs and their effects on the human mind and body couldn’t be better executed without the subjective cameras.
Monster movies like Jaws and Aliens make use of the POV to taunt viewers with a hidden presence closing in on an unsuspecting character. When the perspective shows the audience what the monster is seeing, it also confuses the viewer’s loyalty as well as adding to the suspense of the pending encounter.
What’s more, it also establishes the monster’s position while the victim remains unaware. We know what’s about the happen but the nailing biting wait, and the unsuccessful shouts to urge a character to turn around and spot the threat, builds tension. Alternatively, the POV may also be used to hint that a character is being spied on or trailed by another unseen person.
1927’s Napoleon was among the first films to try out the POV perspective at a time when the industry was opening up to new possibilities. The movie explored a variety of revolutionary cinematography techniques at the time including underwater shooting, fast cutting, and superimposition. It paved the way for the popularity of the POV shot in car chase scenes and other exhilarating film confrontations that followed in the years after.
In Napoleon, the camera is as much a part of the action as the main character is, continually taking his place in high octane situations, giving viewers a taste of the action. Its flowing movements carry the audience into scenes, evoking the senses and playing with the mind.
One particular scene sees a young Napoleon get into a scuffle with a couple of older men. Viewers trade places with the character as we get to see the action from his point of view. Every punch hits the lens and we feel its effect as the camera thrusts back and forth as if the viewer were taking a hit in real life.
Director Abel Gance achieved this by wrapping the camera in special sponge padding that allowed it to absorb the impact with minimal harm to the delicate interior. The actors would then actually punch the camera to get what has become a very famous reference for the first uses of the POV in film, although its exact origin is hard to pinpoint. The camera fights back like the protagonist and clambers about much like a real person.
Quentin Tarantino is credited as the pioneer of the trunk shot, a POV that shows us what a character is seeing from the inside of a car trunk. The auteur director implores it many times across various films, becoming somewhat of a cinematic signature that lets you know who’s behind the camera way before the credits roll up.
His trunk shots have inspired many modern TV shows and movies that have borrowed a leaf from his book. In this scene from Reservoir Dogs, the trunk shot serves to put us in the confinement with the trapped character.
A criminal has abducted a police officer and tied him up in the trunk of his car. He leads his colleagues to the “surprise” and the camera takes the cop’s place first before we get to see what’s in there.
In the brief moment before the revelation, the POV creates suspense with viewers eager to see what the three men are staring down at, laughing. At the same time, the shot replicates how the person in the trunk must’ve been feeling inside the tight space. Darkness gives way to light then we are hit in the lens by three faces looking down on us.
The POV also illustrates the more authoritative figures in the scene, with the helpless cop looking on from a downcast position, literally and figuratively speaking.
For comic book fans who’ve often wondered what it’d be like to have Spider-man’s abilities, we get a taste of that with a series of wonderful POV shots from Sam Raimi’s Spider-man. When Peter Parker toys with his newfound abilities in this scene…
… we take in things from his perspective. He stares at his hand and his newly enhanced vision enables him to see the changes on his body, up to a hair follicle level. Upon climbing the wall, we are then treated to a series of amazing jumps atop some tall buildings. The POVs are breathtaking and a little disorientating, replicating how the character must’ve felt leaping about and looking down from such heights.
When he tries out his web-shooters for the first time, the POV tells us what he’s aiming at and we see up-close how difficult it is to hit the target from that range. He misses the first few times and readjusts his POV vision to finally land a successful hit.
Before that, the montage of POVs allows for some funny moments when he unsuccessfully tries out a couple of shooting gestures. He finally gets it right and hesitantly plunges across the street. The subjective camera replicates the motion, the lens stepping into his shoes as he plummets through the air.
The POVs in the Omaha beach scene of Saving Private Ryan put audiences right in the middle of the gunfire, explosions, and the general chaos of the battle. Subjective cameras show us over-the-shoulder shots of the relentless German machine guns as they fire upon the arriving LCVP boats.
The overpowering noise and rattling of bullets instantly terrify, making us feel as though we were standing right next to the firearm. Most of the POVs are shot from Captain Miller’s perspective as he leads his team into the onslaught. He sees soldiers around him getting shot, losing limbs, and the fragile cowering behind whatever cover they can find.
At one point, he loses his hearing and composure momentarily from the bombings. A soldier bends the rule of the 4th wall as he speaks straight into the camera, bringing us back to order as he asks for leadership from a disoriented Captain Miller.
Close-up shots of Miller’s reactions interlace with the horrors he witnesses from POVs, and his emotions entangle with the audience’s as well. The quivering camerawork echoes the destruction in the scene. We’re right there with him and his team, trudging against the hail of gunfire, dodging the ricochets of explosions, and fearing for our lives.
For a heart-wrenching couple of minutes as the troops make their way across the beach, the camera is a soldier in the war. The terrifying beach scene took a lot of time and resources for director Steven Spielberg to pull off.
An associate producer says they spent more than 12 million on the Omaha Beach scene, employing upwards of two thousand people for the crew and extras.
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