If you’ve ever watched a movie and found yourself drawn into the story because of the visuals, you’ve probably wondered how they got that shot. There are countless examples in film history of cinematography that have made a film truly unforgettable, from the early days of motion picture cameras to the early days of CGI.
So what makes a good move? Let’s talk about a particularly unique and effective technique, the Dutch angle, or inclined angle shot.
What is the Dutch angle?
Once you learn the basics of movie making, you can start having more fun and breaking the rules. One way to do this is to tilt the camera on its x-axis (so, horizontally across the frame). This is called a Dutch angle or a Dutch tilt. Sometimes it is also called inclined angle or oblique angle.
Go figure the Dutch angle isn’t actually Dutch…it’s German! It grew out of the German Expressionist movement in the 1920s and was first used in films like Dziga Vertov’s 1929 documentary Man With A Movie Camera. Just as German Expressionist visual art used extreme angles to create unease and turmoil, the Dutch angle in cinematography did the same.
Who used the Dutch angle and who uses it today?
Other early pioneers of the Dutch angle were Orson Welles in 1941’s Citizen Kane and Alfred Hitchcock in many of his films from the 1940s and beyond, such as The Man Who Knew Too Much and Strangers on a Train.
In recent years, Quentin Tarantino has used the Dutch angle extensively in films like Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. Tim Burton used a canted angle technique in Edward Scissorhands, and Terry Gilliam used it in Brazil and fear and loathing in Las Vegas. Darron Aronofsky used it in Requiem For A Dream to emphasize the effect of drugs on his characters.
Once CGI was invented, directors could create a Dutch angle in post-production and even Pixar used it in films like Wall-E and the Toy Story series. Once you know what to look for, chances are you’ll see it everywhere
How do you use the Dutch angle?
Now that you’ve seen all those other directors tilt the camera, you probably want to do the same. However, if you’re used to more traditional camera techniques, it can be difficult to know when to use a more extreme angle or framing. It can be particularly difficult not to overdo it, as it could then lose its impact on the viewer.
But, it depends on the movie; Inception mostly uses Dutch angles in entire scenes to make it feel like we’re stuck in a dream. So how do you do a Dutch angle and what should you consider when setting it up?
Just like with any other plan, first think about the point you are trying to make using this particular plan. “Sounds cool” is a perfectly valid response, but ask yourself if it helps tell the story or set a certain mood.
Second, how far away is the camera and how high is it? A Dutch angle doesn’t have to be a wide shot or a full shot of your character; it can also be a close-up. It doesn’t even have to be the character; it can be a close-up cutaway of an important object in the scene or a wider shot of a place.
Finally, consider the lens you plan to use. Do you want a lens that will give you a large or deep depth of field, with a wider angle so everything is in focus? Or do you want a longer lens to give you shallow depth of field and blur the background?
To create a Dutch angle with the camera on a tripod, make sure you have a tripod where you can release head tension and easily adjust tilt and pan. Next, loosen your camera’s tripod head so that the camera can tilt left to right on the x-axis or the horizontal axis of your frame. You can also raise or lower one side of your tripod to set the camera at a tilted angle.
It doesn’t have to be on a tripod; if you’re handheld or on a cart or Steadicam, it’s the same move. Likewise, if you’re filming on your iPhone, you might have a specialized camera mount with a tilt feature.
When should you use the Dutch angle?
Of course, as a director or cinematographer, it’s up to you when the time is right for a Dutch angle shot. However, it always depends on where it takes place in the story, the mood you’re trying to establish, or the character you’re trying to portray. For example, you might want a tilted angle for a POV shot as if the audience is looking at the scene from a certain character’s perspective.
It’s also important to consider your location and surroundings. Since the Dutch angle is based on the horizontal axis of your frame, consider natural vertical lines in your shot, such as buildings or a sign.
Why You Should Use the Dutch Angle Sparingly
The only reason Dutch angles are so memorable in your favorite movies is usually because they’re so rare, with a few exceptions. They usually happen between more conventional camera angles in a scene, so you’re completely caught off guard.
Every shot leading up to your Dutch angle should be considered, as you set the stage for quite a dramatic change in mood and pace.
Likewise, if you use a Dutch angle too often, the large tilt of the camera that leads to the extreme close-up of your final scene won’t have as much of an impact, since viewers have already seen it.
Set the mood with a Dutch angle
Dutch angles usually make audiences anxious, even if it’s a little ironic like with the villains in 1960s Batman cartoons or a Wes Anderson movie like Moonrise Kingdom.
Therefore, you should use the Dutch angle sparingly to set the mood and make a statement, so that it stands out from other more conventional camera shots in your film. However, don’t let convention keep you from exploring film and discovering your own style when you try the Dutch angle for yourself.
As the famous cinematographer Conrad Hall once said, “Cinematography is endless in its possibilities.” With a simple tilt of the camera, you can dramatically change the audience’s feelings about your film and truly capture their attention.