When the camera is tilted to the side of its position on the x-axis so that the initially horizontal lines in the frame are now diagonal, that technique is referred to as the Dutch angle. In other words, the camera remains in a fixed position on the horizontal plane but positions at an angle to the vertical to mimic how we see things when we tilt our heads to one side.
In simpler terms, one side of the frame is higher in a Dutch angle shot than the other so that the camera appears to be leaning. The tilt can be anywhere in the region of 0 to 70 degrees and sometimes as extreme as a right-angle tilt. It is surprising to note that the cinematographic tactic is not actually from the Netherlands but rather the nation to its east.
The Dutch Angle shot is a good tool to have as a cinematographer in his or her toolbox of camera shots.
The Dutch angle, contrary to what its name suggests, was made popular by Germany during the country’s expressionist era. Old dialects refer to the country as Deutschland or Deutch in short which is how the angle gets its name.
The ‘e’ vanished with time due to translation issues. Silent films of the German movement back in the day brought their own style and flair to cinema, one of which was the Dutch angle. It brought the dynamism of art to the big screen, putting the essence in motion pictures and evoking emotions.
The unusual alignments were popularized to illustrate madness or someone who went against the grain of human conventions. German films would alternate left and right Dutch angle shots to depict moments of insanity or periods of unease or tension between two characters or groups in a screenplay.
The influence of German expressionism crossed borders in the early years of the 20th century, with some of its innovative techniques making it to the biggest film production stage on the planet. Hollywood directors such as Orson Wells, who uses several Dutch angles in his film Citizen Kane and Alfred Hitchcock became huge fans of the shot.
Hitchcock’s time in German studios at the UFA no doubt inspired his love for the Dutch angle, which he uses quite a lot in several of his early films for various purposes.
1929’s Man with a Movie Camera also gets credit for popularizing the Dutch angle among other revolutionary camera techniques. The Russian director behind it, Dziga Vertov, wanted to make the camera feel as much as a part of film as the characters and set.
At a time when camera movements were almost non-existent, the Soviet auteur toyed with different camera positions, angles, and movements in an experimental documentary with no actors. The camera took center stage conversing with the audience with its placements and motions.
The Dutch tilt/angle, also known as the oblique or canted angle, has made a lot of strides since the previous century. Here’s how modern-day directors are using it to spice up films and communicate a mood or tone, among other purposes.
A regular frame without horizontal slants conveys a certain sense of normalcy. Everything is alright with the world and nothing seems out of place or weird in the frame. The right angles and parallel lines are comfortable and they feel right at home. Dutch tilts, on the other hand, evoke the opposite sensations.
Angles are messed up, lines are slanted and we almost feel like we need to tilt our heads to keep up with the frame. The canted angle shot contravenes the normal order of things and can be used to depict characters who do the same.
Directors can use them subtly or extremely to subconsciously communicate to audiences just how twisted or unconventional certain characters are. A shallow tilt may, for instance, highlight points of inner conflict in characters as they edge towards moral distortion. Deep inclinations meanwhile may outrightly paint a character as evil.
In the 1960s Batman TV series, German angles were a popular tool to illustrate a character’s change in moral direction or principles. While Batman and other upstanding figures were confined to level framing, villains were often shot in a canted angle to emphasize their traits. Crookedness in the frame matched the crookedness of the characters we saw on screen.
Each time new villains were introduced or we were taken into a villain’s lair, the frame would slant quite significantly to show the change of pace. The uneasiness of the tilt mimicked the feelings these villains gave off such as fear, anger, pain, or panic. Because of its popularity in the series, the Dutch angle is sometimes called the Batman angle.
Some cinematographers implore the German angle to compound a plot twist that goes against expectations. A good example is when Ethan Hunt discovers the truth that has evaded him all movie long in 1996’s Mission Impossible.
As his world turns upside down with the realization that he is in fact the target of an assassination, we experience the surge of emotions with him. His head is spinning from his discovery and the Dutch angle not only flips the order of the reality we have known up until this point but also takes us through what Ethan is feeling at the moment.
Even if you watched the movie on mute, the camera inclination at this point lets you know that something has drastically changed. When used sparingly, the Dutch angle makes a more powerful and memorable appearance when it does occur, as in this case.
Like salt, too much of it ruins the flavor. Additionally, this type of shot can tell us more about the state of mind of a character. It can replicate the disorientation people feel when drunk or mirror uncomfortable moments of losing consciousness, falling down, mental delusions, etc.
Slanted angles may also become a graphic code to show the more powerful character in a conversation. When used strategically in heated dialogue scenes in film, audiences can associate the tilts with a winning side of the argument. Do the Right Thing is laden with Dutch angles, perhaps a lot more than Spike Lee intended, but it works to capture the theme, his style, and character relationships.
A recurring purpose of the Dutch title is to settle arguments. Do the Right Thing is basically about an African American going at an Italian Pizzeria owner for not having any black people on the restaurant’s wall of fame. The canted angles add to the tension of the movie’s biggest scene when arguments boil over aside from showing the stronger side of the debate.
Sal, the Pizzeria owner, is a particularly feisty character who doesn’t mince his words. He regularly argues with his customers and isn’t afraid to point out, in no uncertain terms, habits in his restaurant that he doesn’t approve of. The arguments he’s won so far have been level framed until the last encounter with Buggin’ Out and his rowdy friends.
A Dutch angle captures the trio’s entry into the Pizzeria, and the titling heightens the tension of the scene. Sal is framed in counterclockwise tilts while his opponents are framed clockwise and at a more elevated and powerful position.
Sal and Buggin’ Out have been going back and forth throughout the movie leading us to this dramatic finale when things get violent. The inclination of the camera shows us how things are about to change as the argument escalates into a confrontation.
At one point in the movie, Charles Kane decides to put himself in the running for the governor’s office. During his big speech scene, the camera regularly uses subtle close-up Dutch angles to create a more intimate moment between the audience and the politician.
The charismatic Kane is visibly excited about the prospect of the future and his speech is appreciated by an enthusiastic crowd that hangs on to his every word. Intermittent applause transfers the scene’s excitement to viewers, adding meaning to his words and making us believe everything that he is saying when we shouldn’t. Charles Kane is a corrupt politician and while he doesn’t win the election as Gettys brings him down with a scandalous affair, he probably wouldn’t have kept his promises.
The Dutch angles during his speech hint at what kind of a man he is and also tells us that he is probably lying. Kane was not a likable or upstanding character, but the film draws us in with pathos or pity.
His motivation for running the paper is to have more control over his social life and political career. The governor’s office is yet another milestone in his self-serving quest for power. Charles Kane is as greedy and manipulative as they come, telling the people what they want to hear to get himself into office.
He uses his promises simply for political mileage and would probably have convincingly won the election had it not been for his boss’ interference. The canted angles are so subtle that they may have slipped past viewers, much like his dishonesty, but they speak volumes about the character’s principles and whether or not he would have kept his promises.
In contrast to a film’s typically straight shots, a Dutch angle achieves a jarring effect. Terry Gilliam uses the technique for his 1995 sci-fi to illustrate the protagonist’s disorientation in a new, skewed world. After a deadly virus takes humanity to the brink of extinction, James Cole goes back in time to uncover its origins.
He accidentally arrives a few years earlier and, of course, the people there don’t believe a word he’s saying about the future and time travel. A doctor’s diagnosis deems him insane and Cole is incarcerated at a mental facility. The treatment he gets there makes him a little woozy, and the imbalanced framing replicates his mental imbalance.
In the preceding scene, as Dr Railly goes about his assessment of Cole, it plays out with level frames and straight shots. Everything is still within order and Cole hasn’t revealed his unbelievable mission and how he traveled where he is. After he gets sent to the mental hospital, the canted angles usher us into the disoriented world of mental patients.
The series of oblique angles begins after the protagonist walks through the door of the facility. These help the audience understand the situation Cole finds himself in and how unstable the people around him are.
They also give us a peek into his mind after sedation and how everything has changed after. He is a little groggy and surrounded by mentally ill patients and, at this moment, he feels like one of them. The uncomfortable angles capture his state of mind.
When John McClane first encounters Hans Grubber, the big bad of the movie, he doesn’t yet know who he is. At first, when the pair meet, Hans is squatted under the barrel of John’s automatic rifle. The latter has found him sneaking about and feigns innocence with some pretty convincing acting, disguising himself as a worker named Bill Clay.
As the two newfound “allies” share cigarettes, the Dutch tilt builds suspense and gives us the feeling that something is amiss. Perhaps Bill is not who he claims to be. We are suspicious of the detective’s new friend, and he seems to be not too trusting of him as well. Hence, the clever unloaded gun trick in the shot that follows.
It’s also worth noting a couple of other important, little scene details during the Dutch tilt. One of those is how the angle captures the shadow on McClane’s face, which masks his intentions as he hands a pistol to a startled Hans, who can’t believe his luck.
The blocking and lighting magnify Hans’ shadow on the wall, adding to his mystery. When the tables are turned and the power dynamics shift, there’s a 180-degree transformation as John and Hans exchange their positions on the screen.
The entire scene plays out in the German angle, holding immense suspicion that enriches the interaction and keeps us guessing about who’s fooling who.
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