Using the Dutch Angle to Bring Tension to a Video Production

The Dutch angle — made famous in the German expressionist movement of the early 20thCentury — is used today in video production to portray uneasiness or tension. It is essentially a camera shot with a tilt on the camera’s roll axis.

The effect involves setting a video camera at an angle on its roll axis so that the shot is composed with vertical lines at an angle to the side of the frame. It can also be accomplished if the horizon line of the shot is not parallel with the bottom of the camera frame. The result feels like tilting one’s head to the side.

The Dutch angle in video, also called the German angle, came from the popularity of German films using it during the silent era of film production. One of its earliest uses was in an American silent film — Edwin S. Porter’s Dream of Rarebit Fiend (1906).

The Dutch angle was also known for oblique angles in surrealist drawings. Surrealism was a cultural movement developed in Europe in the aftermath of World War I in which artists depicted unnerving, illogical scenes that disturbed the unconscious human mind.

The leader of the surrealist movement was artist André Breton. In addition to filmmaking, surrealism affected theatre, photography and writing of the era.

Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds

In Hollywood, Alfred Hitchcock, who began his film career in Germany, used Dutch angles in Suspicion (1941), Strangers on a Train (1951), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) and The Birds (1963). Director Carol Reed used the Dutch angle is his 1949 film, The Third Man. The effect made it to television in the 1960s series, Batman.

Dutch angles are frequently used by directors who have a background in the visual arts to represent madness, disorientation or drug psychosis. The shot has also been used to convey an odd tension that strangers exert on the main character.

As with most specialized effects, it is easy to overuse the Dutch angle. For example, the science-fiction film Battlefield Earth (2000) drew sharp criticism for its frequent use of the Dutch angle. Film critic Roger Ebert wrote “the director, Roger Christian, has learned from better films that directors sometimes tilt their cameras, but he has not learned why.” Ouch!

The Dutch angle rotates the camera around the axis of the lens relative to the horizon or vertical lines in the shot. The shots are usually static, but in a moving Dutch angle shot, the camera can pivot, pan or track along the established diagonal axis of the image.

Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil

Any production made entirely of Dutch angle shots would be difficult to watch. The angle would be disorientating and the effect of the shot would be lost with overuse. The best image makers use the Dutch angle very sparingly.

Identifying the most effective time for a Dutch angle shot is the first step in considering its use. This usually begins when reviewing the script. A good argument for using the shot is when a character senses something is wrong and it foreshadows danger.

After deciding a Dutch angle shot is appropriate, it is good to consider ways to enhance the shot. This could be a tilt as subtle as five degrees or as substantial as 90 degrees. The greater the tilt, the more unsettling the shot has on the audience.

Dutch angles can also involve depth of field. The more shallow the depth of field, the more claustrophobic the audience feels. Camera level is also involved — varying the camera level can make the audience feel more or less connected to the characters. Some directors use different camera levels for each Dutch angle shot.

So why does the Dutch angle create tension? The human brain easily processes standard horizontal-vertical lines — like those in standard camera shots. But comprehending angled lines is much harder. The shifted horizon confuses the brain and makes us feel anxious and uneasy.

The use of the Dutch angle is an excellent way to stir the viewers’ emotions and to add interest to a production. It offers an off-kilter perspective, and makes the audience subconsciously feel visual dissonance.

But, like most other types of camera effects, Dutch angles must be used with intention at the right moment. Otherwise, it can become confusing and not make sense to the audience.

The Dutch Angle is one of the most widely used shots today because it creates an impression that forces viewers to see things from an unusual perspective. Use it wisely and it can add impact to a production.

Writer at Broadcast Beat
Frank Beacham is a New York-based writer, director and producer who works in print, radio, television, film and theatre.

Beacham has served as a staff reporter and editor for United Press International, the Miami Herald, Gannett Newspapers and Post-Newsweek. His articles have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, the Village Voice and The Oxford American.

Beacham’s books, Whitewash: A Southern Journey through Music, Mayhem & Murder and The Whole World Was Watching; My Life Under the Media
Microscope are currently in publication. Two of his stories are currently being developed for television.

In 1985, Beacham teamed with Orson Welles over a six month period to develop a one-man television special. Orson Welles Solo was canceled after Mr. Welles died on the day principal photography was to begin.

In 1999, Frank Beacham was executive producer of Tim Robbins’ Touchstone feature film, Cradle Will Rock. His play, Maverick, about video with Orson Welles, was staged off-Broadway in New York City in 2019.
Frank Beacham
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