Camera angles in American Beauty

American Beauty is one those rare movies you can watch again and again and still find something new every time you watch it. Not a single word, sound, body movement, edit or camera setup is wasted opportunity to tell a story of a man going through a life change. There is intent, purpose and deeper meaning behind everything.

In this article, we’ll look at camera angles that help to portray the change of Lester Burnham, who, from a gigantic loser, becomes a man in control over his life.

Camera Angles

Camera angles do basically two things – they show someone’s:

  • power (and/or)
  • status

Now, let’s look what these angles generally do on the emotional and psychological level (the following three picture are print screens from Clash of the Titans 2 trailer):

High angle

 Clash of the Titans 2 (2012)
Clash of the Titans 2 (2012)

High angle shot reduces the height of a character; this makes the character seem smaller and inferior. It seems like the character is belittled, looked down upon, helpless and insignificant.

Low angle

 Clash of the Titans 2 (2012)
Clash of the Titans 2 (2012)

Characters viewed from low angle seem to be superior, dominant, bigger, powerful or ominous. Low camera angle gives them a symbol of authority and respect.

High and low angles work also on the emotional level – the audience tends to (most of the time) identify with the inferior character, that is, the one viewed from high angle.

 Clash of the Titans 2 (2012)
Clash of the Titans 2 (2012)

However, it is important to mention, that this works only when the camera is placed around the eye level. You could place the camera on the ceiling to get high angle (or on the floor to get a low angle), but this would be perceived as a creative camera placement, rather than portrayal of someone’s status or power.

American Beauty – examples

So let’s start from the beginning, I’ll show you pairs of opposite pictures and hopefully, you’ll be able to tell, who dominates the story at that point:

Lester starts to be in control over his life…

American Beauty (1999)
American Beauty (1999)

…and guess what happened… 🙂

American Beauty (1999)
American Beauty (1999)

This change is also nicely portrayed and documented in body language of Lester Burnham – thanks to amazing performance by Kevin Spacey!

Camera as a victim in Irréversible

Irréversible, a movie by Gaspar Noé, was the first film at Cannes Film Festival, to be screened after midnight. Now, that gives you an idea, that there is something unsettling about this movie.

There is one of the most brutal and violent scene I’ve ever seen, not only in terms of the content, but also in the way the violence is portrayed.

The scene starts, when Alex (played by Monica Bellucci) leaves a party and walks home – alone. She goes through the underground walkway, where she runs into a brutal ravisher named La Tenia.

Alex is than threatened with knife, brutally raped, beaten and humiliated. The whole scene takes 13 minutes (with no edits), from which 9 minutes is the raping itself. The scene is really difficult to watch, you’ll feel uneasy, angry, desperate and you’ll feel all sorts of other emotions, which are hard to describe by words.

One of the reasons, why the scene has such strong emotional impact, is the placement of the camera.

Irréversible (2002)
Irréversible (2002)

If you look at the picture above, you can see, that Alex is stuck, lying on the ground and unable to move. Here we can draw some similarities with the camera position:

The whole scene is captured from one angle, the camera is not moving, there is no tilting, no panning, no movement at all. The camera is very low, it is basically sitting on the ground, also stuck at a dead position, helping thus convey (at least partially), how she feels.

I also thought about other camera positions, how it would change the meaning of the scene. Here is what I came up with:

  • Hand-held – Imagine, that the scene would be captured from above and that the camera could freely move. In that case, the camera would share the point of view of the ravisher, identifying thus with him.
  • Distanced – If the camera was far away, emotionally, we wouldn’t be as much involved. This camera position could be somebody else’s point of view, who sees everything from distance, who acts there only as an observer. (And there is actually somebody else for a while, who sees everything, but runs away and does absolutely nothing to help her.)
  • Two and more cameras – Other option would be to cover the scene from many different angles, which would give us some opportunities in the editing process – to stylize the whole scene, create different meanings or create total chaos.

I’m sure, that there are other possible camera positions with new meanings. If you have any, I’d be pleased to read them in the comments below!